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In Her Fifth Book, A Kansas City Poet Finds Humor In Stories Both Real And Imagined

Poet Patricia Cleary Miller (bottom) in Cairo, Egypt, in December 2019. Many of her poems reference places she's traveled.
Patricia Cleary Miller

Rockhurst University professor emeritus Patricia Cleary Miller has just published a collection called "Can You Smell the Rain?" — a book rife with sorrows, but a comedy in the end.

Patricia Cleary Miller’s writing is so immediate and tactile that readers are often surprised to learn that not all of her poems come from personal experience.

“I wrote something about a woman who was the wife of the Soviet commander in Lithuania, and [a reader] said, ‘But you must have been there.’ And I said, ‘No, I read it in the newspaper.’”

In a new book — published in July by BkMk Press — that feeling of being wherever Miller puts you, whether real or imagined, is strong as ever.

Miller says the characters in “Can you Smell the Rain?” are “confused and deluded,” but they’re not her.

One of the new poems refers to an aging woman’s continued interest in physical intimacy. Miller, who speaks of her own age in terms of when she finished certain degrees — the 1950s and the 1970s — says she is in fact seeing someone at the moment. But the woman she writes about in “Black Glass Beads” is based on the grandmother of one of her students.

The octogenarian “had been very much in love with somebody, very romantic,” Miller explains, “and now he’s very old and has dementia, and she’s just yearning for her previous life.” The character's lover is imaginary, while the real-life grandmother yields to her desire to go out, to dance, and to connect.

In each case, fear of what others will think stands in the way of happiness — a fear Miller doesn't bow to in her own life.

“If this were 50 years ago and I, as a widowed lady, had a boyfriend, I think I’d have to sneak around," she says. But I don’t have to sneak around; I have a number of friends who have somebody special in their lives.”

That’s not to say there’s nothing autobiographical in the collection. Another poem, titled “John Harvard Charm Bracelet,” refers to a relationship Miller had when she was a student at Radcliffe College.

“His eyes were green and his lashes curled up, and I was all Paris in rustling lavender taffeta,” she writes.

At Christmas that year, he gave her a charm bracelet. And though their relationship came to nothing, she continued wearing the bracelet, even to subsequent alumni gatherings, where the truth is discovered.

At the meeting, a friend named Ellie asks to see the bracelet. “He gave it to you at Christmas?" she asks in the poem. "He gave me the same one at Easter.”

Sally said he gave her one too. And Frances. And perhaps some other girls.

The refrain of the poem is “I think he kissed me once or twice. Yes, he kissed me once or twice.”

Looking back on it, Miller sees both the humor and the message: “I’m not special. I’m not even number two. I’m not even number three. I think that girl is just trying so hard to have a happy attitude when things are not going very well.”

She says her poems are all built on the old questions of “Who wants what, and why can’t they have it?” The characters reach for what seems right, but a curmudgeon, an accident, or circumstances stand in their way.

The good news, though, Miller says, is that this is a comedy, and at the end of a comedic work, everyone gets what they want and is happy. She appears to both live and write by that theatrical standard.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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