Monday, April 26, 2010

“IF I HAD WHEELS OF LOVE”*

Several days ago, I went to a High Tea given for volunteers who have agreed to sell tickets and merchandise at the various Sewanee Music Festival events where I signed up to help at two concerts. At the tea, I met several people I’ve often seen about town but to whom I had never been formally introduced. One of those people was Sally McCrady Hubbard, an administrator who works with the Festival each year and who has a glorious voice, according to some of the attending volunteers. Sally, a graduate of Sweet Briar and Tulane University, once served as Associate Editor of Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 at Rice University. While talking with her, I was delighted to discover that she had once been in a poetry group with one of my favorite poets, Vassar Miller.

That’s the way of Sewanee–no matter where you go or what organization you join, a connection is made with someone you know or admire. In the case of Vassar Miller, I shared with Sally that I had quoted this poet in several sermons. I had been drawn to Miller‘s work when her collection, IF I HAD WHEELS OR LOVE, was reviewed in an Episcopal periodical several years ago. Her intense religious experiences are fully expressed in poems included in this volume, and her work reaches the brink of mystical writing–she reminds me of the famous Anglican mystic, Evelyn Underhill.

Miller’s life is a witness to miracle. She was born in Houston, Texas and was severely handicapped by cerebral palsy at birth. However, she began writing as a child and was encouraged by her father who brought home from his office a typewriter that she used to record her first poems. Her stepmother, who also taught her to read and write, supported her to attend public schools. Miller was not only courageous, she was tenacious and attended the University of Houston in Houston, Texas, earning her B.S. and M.A. degrees. Later, she taught Creative Writing at a private academy in Houston. Always, even when traveling, she wrote poetry. Her work was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and in addition to her own poetry, she published DESPITE THIS FLESH, an anthology of stories and poetry about the severely disabled.

Miller’s religious beliefs were sometimes tested with pain, but her poetry that describes this pain and suffering is not mawkish. As Sally Hubbard said to me, “she had a voice.” At first reading, her poignant poems resonated with me and, as I said, I quoted from her work in several sermons, the most notable lines derived from “To Jesus On Easter,” which speak of her perceived likeness to Christ: “Yet I can trust you./ You resembling me–/two eyes, two hands, two feet,/five senses and no more–/will cup my being,/ spilling toward nothingness, within your palm./and when the last bridge breaks,/I shall walk on the bright span of your breath.” Witness the faith of the handicapped!

“The Prairie Schooner” touted Miller as the best religious poet alive in America when Southern Methodist University published her collected poems in 1991. If you’re having a bad day and think life has treated you badly, or if you just want a leap in faith, Vassar Miller is more than a “good read.”

*Title of the collected poems of Vassar Miller, with an introduction by George Garrett.
 
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