Several years ago, my dad, artist A. Leon Miler, asked me to write a poem based on his image of a peregrine:
Because I had lost all my confidence in my ability to write poetry (not that I’d ever had any), I wrote numerous small poems about peregrines and never gave him any of them to use with his bird. Since then, I’ve found three of those peregrine poems. They aren’t great pieces of poetry, but they’re interesting. Take a gander–they’re short enough to hold most people’s attention span.
His perch rests on the highest throne,
a raven wounded by the dart,
whose beak tears at the serpent tail.
He turns from flight to death to hell,
but Peregrine, he tears the heart,
then rises to his tower stone.
A counterpoint to Peregrine,
whose height and gravity and flight
will rein the wind in vacant skies,
in deserts etched with falcon eyes,
he draws his story in the night:
the swan and eagle light his screen.
His lights are visible from earth,
where truth is history’s weight to bear.
His wings flash brilliantly, then dim
and fall below horizon’s rim.
Yet, Peregrine, he rules the air
by snatching those who sing his worth.
He snatches song birds from the air,
the bloody peregrine;
he chants his song on top his throne,
the chiding peregrine;
he gathers movement with his eyes
and rides the air between
the sky and earth and stone, tall tower,
such cunning, peregrine.
The fields are orange—the world’s on fire,
And songbirds flee the acres at break-neck.
They search the river in ribbons of sand—
in glimmers of light—they search for water.
With aching and sorrow in silent currents,
Peregrine snatches the songbirds in flight.
The fields are orange, the world’s on fire,
the chollas are blazing with yellow light,
and Peregrine rises to his tower,
chiding his song, his goodness—the liar,
night from day and spirit from song,
scorching the fields until darkness is fire.
It was pouring rain outside the skate rink, and inside, the line was long and the corridor fogged and sweaty with kids wet from rain. Near the skate rentals, the smell was of rubber mats and dirty socks, and the boy behind the counter pulled out wads of dirty laces before plunking the skates on the counter. The benches were broken wooden things, at one time painted red and green, but now peeled mostly down to boards. Kids sat on them, pulling off their Nikes or K-Mart knock-off shoes, and lacing their brown skates with the frayed strands. Then they walked past the smoking closets, peering in surreptitiously to see what they could see of the older kids, who puffed away at forbidden cigarettes while clouds of smoke drifted out the open doors – a curious, sweet spicy smell of cloves mixed with the staleness of Marlboros and Camels.
Across from the closets was the café, and it was like a beacon – bright lights cast over orange booths and red and blue signs hung from the ceiling. Clutter covered the food counter: a popcorn machine filled with yellow corn, a jar of fat green pickles and another jar of red Twizzlers. The kids ordered hotdogs and fries with ketchup until their skin and pores were penetrated by the sour and sweet and greasy smells; they drank icy Cokes, syrupy sweet and sparkling at them with bubbles.
When they finally scooted over the worn, stained carpeting and back onto the rubber mats, they began to glide. Many of the boys wore special black skates, hockey skates they’d saved their allowance money to buy. Some of the girls wore special white skates, princess skates, but not very many. The timid girls split off and rolled down into the kiddie rink, where they pushed themselves off padded walls, tried to spin and turn, until they hit the other padded wall. The brave girls skated out into the big rink, where they ching-chinged their wheels over the glossy skate floor, taking care to avoid the show-off boys who raced around them before lowering themselves to a balance pose on one leg with the other leg straight out in front of them.
All over both rinks, the disco lights played and the music blasted out tired rock songs they’d heard thousands of times because the music selection was old and out of date. Really, no one listened to Lionel Richie anymore. Didn’t they know that? Some kids approached the DJ’s booth to request newer songs, but most wouldn’t dare to go near that high-up throne. The older boys who worked in the booth were cocky. They could do all the skating tricks the young boys could do, only better and, besides, they were the ones who could hoist you from the rink if you caused trouble.
That was the skate building, a worn building in a bad neighborhood with a big orange skate painted on the side that faced Sunset Highway. It sat next to the railroad tracks – and beyond that were blackberry brambles and cottonwood trees – beyond that were fields filled with rain and shadows. Shadows moved slowly; they seemed to roll along the tracks as though they were composed of the bad characters who roamed over the neighborhood. Crimes happened here and were rarely reported. One summer, a family that moved into a seedy rental unearthed the small skeleton of a young girl, and nobody had a clue that a young girl had ever gone missing.
After that, the police were all over the neighborhood that they normally avoided because it was better to leave well enough alone – let those people live as they would, and they needn’t involve themselves. The skeleton seemed to open something up, a new fear, an acknowledgment of the silent violence. The next thing the police knew, a fourteen-year-old girl reported that a local man had raped her. Everybody knew the man, knew he prowled like a lion at night, searching for prey. And though it seems unlikely that a skeleton should be the first to break the silence, that was the case – and the silence was broken forever.
The police began to roam through the neighborhood, to position themselves in the park at night, where rain and shadows met under enormous pine trees that could have hidden anything – monsters of the deep, instead of shady refuges for young children. Young children didn’t play in the park, hadn’t played there ever in the night, of course, but not in the day either, not for years. Rumors of drug deals and illicit sexual favors floated around. Some reported that, before the police began their own prowl, gang members practiced knife-throwing at the trees, where their blades sank deeply into the barky flesh.
And meanwhile, kids skated at the Skate World. Once they had their hands stamped, the bouncers wouldn’t let them come and go. Security was tight at the skate rink. It was the one place where parents felt they could drop their kids for awhile so they could get away by themselves, have a beer, maybe two or three. It was just odd that, all too often, the cocky young boys who worked in the DJ booth would open the back fire-exit door, the one that faced out on the railroad tracks, open it wide to allow in the fresh night air. Or so they claimed. But make no mistake, and never tell your parents, that the skate rink wasn’t the safe haven it was supposed to be.
p.s. Spotted Owl pen and ink by A. Leon Miler
This is an ode to the fish who swim this river, up the ribbons of green, swimming toward an indefinite conclusion. This is an ode to the sign of Pisces, of which we are under, awaiting the water-bearer to return, to ladle the water in the rivers and seas, to pour out his might. This is an ode to the glimpses of color and light hidden in the water, of copper rays and red topaz, faceted as stones worked by a craftsman, who in this case happens to be A. Leon Miler, via the works of God.
This is an ode to my dad, who is my favorite artist for many reasons. If not for the swaying of the lines, the colors, the idiosyncratic ideas, then for the grins on the fishes, which remind me that neither he nor I ever take too much of life seriously–even if it seems as if the hook is in our mouths, and we’ve been baited, pulled free, and thrown back. We keep swimming, unfazed, our fins grazing others, grins on our faces–in the same direction.
I pray that God will bring my dad blessings–because of the years he’s worked diligently–sorting his life and slotting art into second place–because he’s always blessing others first. And, as a matter of fact, if God wants to know (and he already does), my dad brought poetry into my life, all of my early love for T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan. Of course, both my parents must take credit for instilling my Christian faith in me. How they managed, I don’t have a clue, but somehow God managed to work through them to reach past my cynicism, know-it-all-ness, and my general hard shell of inhumanity.
And so those fish–yes, the Pisces in the image above–must be my mom and dad, swimming the river. The slender one is my mom, and the one with a deep grin–that’s my dad. As with most art, this watercolor works on multiple levels: Christians are under the sign of Pisces bringing the Good News to the world, and my parents brought the Good News to me, so they are the fish. But others are fish, too (thank God, not the ones caught for fish-fries).
Someday, along this river, Christ will return as the Water Bearer and gather up his multitude of various and multi-colored swimmers. Do I sound silly to you? Well, I’m not. I’m utterly serious. Yet, I still have this grin on my face. Thanks, Dad.
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village 5
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul cannot resist:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain, 10
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling, 15
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time. 20
For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet, 25
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;
Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease, 30
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction 35
That follows after prayer.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice. 40
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
The painting is my dad’s. He is my favorite artist, after all. Find more of his work here: Wave Point Graphics (a title only an engineer could come up with). Sadly, he hasn’t posted images of his oil paintings as of yet. I ripped this image from his Facebook account.