Last week, an old friend from grad school texted to let me know that one of our classmates had just died. Or more accurately, we’d lost him at the tail-end of December, just a few days before the New Year – cause unknown – but were just now hearing about it.
To tell the truth (a near-impossibility in this world of microwaved meals and reality shows), I didn’t know James Thomas Miller well. He started the MFA program at Southern Illinois University a year after I did, and aside from grabbing beers a couple times, I mainly knew him from workshop – including once when he aptly called me out for turning in something that was sickeningly clever and pretentious, and another time after class when he gave me sympathetic chuckle and slap-on-the-shoulder for being very publicly dumped by a girl I was in love with.
I also remember his affection for the blues – including one afterparty where he introduced me to the blistering guitar riffs of R.L. Burnside – but really, that’s about it. We graduated, I moved from Illinois to Indiana to launch a fairly tepid career as an adjunct, and he vanished off my radar – along with his Southern accent, dark curls, and dense but meticulous lyricism.
When I heard we’d lost him, though, one of the first things I did was look up his poetry. As I did so, I recalled something else he’d said once: a joke he made during workshop (uttered in an exaggeratedly starry-eyed voice) about how his long-term career goal was to maybe one day publish a real poem in a real-life poetry journal.
At the time, a good fifteen years ago, I don’t think he was really sending out his stuff. But apparently, at some point, that changed – because among the search results, I found stunning, flinty poems he’d published in Missouri Review, Blackbird, and TriQuarterly. I also found a teaching review from one of James’s students, describing him not only as caring and good-humored but “very eerily perceptive” – probably the highest compliment a writer can hope for.
Whenever we hear about the loss of someone we know, there’s a tendency to engage in all kinds of hyperbole: so-and-so was the greatest writer, the best person, the toughest bastard, etc. I think we do this because on some level, nothing hip-checks you out of complacency like an obituary. We realize that whatever chance we had to talk to this person, to learn from them in real time, is gone forever. So as quick as we can, we empty a few spray cans of flattery and hope that’ll fill in the gaps.
But what’s gone is gone. And the connections I could have made, the bridges I could have built and maintained to remind myself that we aren’t as solitary as we think – well, those aren’t the subjects for eulogies. They’re the business of the living. They’re the phone calls and emails I should have sent years ago, praising a former classmate’s descriptions of cypress-still afternoons / when her neck chromes with sweat, because good writing, like a good guitar riff, should end in silence – then, applause.
Photo: James Thomas Miller, by Taylor Polk