The Strangers Burial Ground

The Strangers Burial Ground, by Jennifer Stewart Miller

Review by Risa Denenberg

I love unanswerable questions, particularly those that beg to address everything in the known and unknown world. So I was captivated immediately by the first couplet in Jennifer Stewart Miller’s The Strangers Burial Ground (Seven Kitchens Press Editor’s Series, 2020):

Lichens can be killed
but do they die?

In The Strangers Burial Ground, Miller investigates how death was understood and memorialized in the past, at a specific time and place, marked by burial customs. Her process became a way to disinter the lives and deaths of people from Chatham, Massachusetts in the 17th and 18th centuries. But take note: within these narrative pages, there is always a shadowing of women’s lives.

In “Notes” at the back of the book, we learn that she viewed (more likely, I would guess, pored over) Vital Records: Town of Chatham, Massachusetts 1696-1850, to gather data. Scattered throughout the book are lists of the buried that tell human stories. For example in “Death Records #1,” the first item states:

[No Name] Wife of Collings Nickerson, 24 years; Measles.

In showing without telling, we are forced to understand that dying young was quite common in those times. We begin to understand that women often have no names. We are shown how the causes of death tell much of the medical language (and spelling) of the time:

Consumption, Dropsy, Lung Fever, Typhus Fever, Disentery, Fitts.

Miller has a fascinating academic background including MFA and JD degrees, and a Certificate in Field Archeology. I’m guessing she must pose unanswerable questions all of the time. However, unlike an attorney or an archeologist, who might focus with a specific lens to view enigmatic subjects, she employs a three-lens view, surrounding her poetry with the gifts of her training. Check out these lines from a poem called “Poetry is Stolen Fruit,” published online at Riddled with Arrows (Summer, 2017):

a summer’s day   must ride on
its own melting.
Like little animals
trapped inside this poor body

composed of one hundred bones
and nine openings 
toads with real gardens in them.

In this poem about poetry, Miller “steals” words of well-known poets, parses the body, and digs in the garden—all in these two stanzas. In The Strangers Burial Ground, I found myself entranced by the subject itself, but also by her way of parsing language, and by the verdant language itself. 

In the first poem in The Strangers Burial Grounds,“Lichens, Chatham Old Burial Ground,” Miller reveals the underpinnings of her quest:  

I try to decipher
my 7th great grandmother’s slate,

but some letters & numbers
are shrouded in lichens.

the crustose types:

with my fingernails, I scrape
& scrape, taking

& leaving DNA—

Miller is literally digging the past, which is also her past. In a poet’s mind, often stands the question of whether or not to use the ampersand. I have never seen this symbol more aptly used than here. The subject itself is drenched in symbolism. Haven’t we all gone to a graveside and felt that our loved one was actually there?

In the eponymous poem, “The Strangers Burial Ground / Death Records, Chatham, MA,” Miller questions why neighbors were viewed as strangers, as the dead were men of the community lost at sea. She finds this inscription, while investigating the odd thinking of the times:

October [1841] 14 Dead bodies picked up
11 of them buried in

The Strangers Burial Ground
3 conveyed to Truro 1

Wearing her investigator’s hat, Miller attempts to circle the question and arrives at a possible answer, steeped in belief systems of this time and place:

The town had plenty of cemeteries

Plots for Congregationalists     Methodists    Baptists
Universalists    Come-Outers   and more.

But who knows what strangers believe—

If, like me, you are curious about the “Come-Outers” I find this description in Wikipedia, which offers a further clarifying portrait of the role of religion in these folks:

Come-outer is a phrase coined in the 1830s which denotes a person who withdraws from an established organization, or one who advocates political reform.

In these pages, Miller resolves to excavate and reconstruct the lives and deaths of women–so often absent in written history. In “The Mother Omission,” we view public death records of children whose mothers appear to be nonexistent. In “Death Records #1,” we find many entries such as this:

The Above 3 children are Mr. Levi Eldridge[‘s]

Miller performs mothers’ invisibility with these words:

being the history

of her

And continues with this startling metaphor:

Surely nothing
is meant by it?

The sun blinds
with no dark intent.

Many lives are marked in these pages. In some poems, Miller speaks in the voice of someone who was not able to leave behind his or her own story. Because the book’s length is short, and the material deep, I’m not going to be a spoiler and give away everything. But I can vouch for her voice’s authenticity when she speaks for the dead.

Miller’s “Notes” are worth studying to see how she viewed the subject from different angles. One of her sources that caught my eye is a book titled, From Slate to Marble: Gravestone Carving Traditions in Eastern Massachusetts 1779-1870, which brings out “the idiosyncrasies of particular stone carvers.”

There is so much overlap of disciplines in this work—stone carving, religion, sociology, feminism, history, law, and art, among others—that is braided skillfully into a book of captivating poetry.

Jennifer Stewart Miller holds an MFA from Bennington College. Her manuscript Thief won the 2020 Grayson Books Poetry Prize, and she is also the author of A Fox Appears: A Biography of a Boy in Haiku (2015).  Recent work has appeared in Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, The Citron Review, RHINO, Sugar House Review, Tar River Poetry, Verse Daily, and elsewhere.

Title: The Strangers Burial Ground
Author: Jennifer Stewart Miller
Publisher: Seven Kitchens Press, selected by Ron Mohring for the Editor’s Series.
Date: May 10, 2020
25 pages [100 copies]
ISBN 978-1-949333-66-4
Cost: $ 9.00

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and curator at The Poetry Café. She has published six collections of poetry, most recently the full length collection, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, which is a finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.

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