In the neighbourhood of the spirit:
The Ghost Work of David Miller

Michael Thorp













The house on the mountain, above the temples, had become haunted…


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 3.5)


Even in the flimsy, elevated world of words and the phantom towers of literature, nothing so fragile as poetry exists, nor endures. It has been at odds with common, or ordinary speech for a very long time, and since its divorce from an oral tradition, has become ever more at odds with writing and the printed landscape of the written word. While it has become an increasingly estranged phenomenon, it has also become an increasingly visual medium; the page its canvas and its very ground of being:


through the snow

to this page.


(‘The Story’)


The whiteness of paper and the blackness of ink – this is the essential dialogue of modern and contemporary writing and of contemporary poetry in particular:


a surface

where all this writing is,

beneath the words

a woman scribbles a black line heavily.


(Untitled: ‘we stopped at the sea…’)


And these black and white polarities of printed text – read frequently in terms of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ – have become the physical experience to which modern poetry most relates, as if indeed, it were a matter of life and death; words in a battle with oblivion; each fragile word in a dance with death:


mein Grab ein Gedicht. (My grave a poem.

We stand simultaneously           at the end & the beginning.


(‘Poem for Emmy Hennings’)


Where now in ‘poetics’ can there be home for ‘a poem’? If words themselves are a fabrication which may at best reflect experience which has passed; if art and language may describe only the echo of something once imagined as a joined and living current; if words themselves are but a shadow of themselves; then poetry may find itself even further removed from a language already at odds with the current of human experience, in a place and a form of double exile:


From exile, in

exile: in exile a

lake of music.


(‘Background Music’)


Poetry exiled, and poetry lost:


Lost in a once familiar area,


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.6)


Lost; turned away from what had been familiar.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.11)


With the exception of the self-consciously contemporary and ‘avant-garde’, and those who may have a more tangible physical experience of exile, there are relatively few poets who work with and through such anxiety. Despite the constant (paid) anxiety of academic literary criticism, and its anxiety that they should share in it, most poets continue to make poems and poetry, brick by brick, with words in which they trust and believe (as if it were perfectly natural to do so, and did not involve a collusion with artifice). They do not doubt the materials with which they work, their belief in their workmanship, and the value to others of their construction. They do not doubt their task…

   And for the disbelieving avant-garde, their rejection of conventional illusionists has invariably led them to a position which is no less dogmatic. Worry and doubt, and a dismantling of conventional beliefs (and forms of belief) – which might have led to an opening and an invigorating reconnection between words and human experience – have resulted more usually in closure and further divorce; in a crippling anxiety which has hardened to negation, and which, in turn, functions as belief. Much experimental writing is indistinguishable from nihilism, its exponents content with


the wreckage of empty description


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 3.5)


and as comfortable and ‘at home’ with Nothing as believers at home with Something; the closure of belief remains the main route out of exile, by which the lost may feel themselves found. In the absence of meaning, and of ethics, the art of negation can but play:


enclosed by aesthetics, the ideas and beliefs disappeared into a play of sense perceptions. No inbeing, to your eyes; nothing to address save a set of gestures, moves, analogous to your own.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.6)


What David Miller has persistently revealed to us (often, indeed, as if it were a saving grace) is a kind of writing which exists between such polarities of Belief and Unbelief, between designated ‘realities’ and ‘unrealities’ of one kind or another, and between false hope and false despair:


For loss: these dissonances between the voices


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.14)


And whatever the fragility of words and of poetry, it is foreshadowed in Miller’s writing by the fragile, but enduring presence of human beings, vulnerably exposed and isolated between the ‘realities’ of such closed beliefs – the human becomes ghostly as abstractions solidify. It is writing haunted not only by voices but, emphatically, by faces:


          – your face


your very breath

visible in the cold

commands me abjure

spells dissolve harm


(‘A path a lake the very breath’)


        the obscurity

the face and the face

his spittle in my ear


(Untitled: ‘he spoke of prophecy’s end…’)


No form of rhetoric could be adequate to what needs to be said, one to another. Drawn from her face, as we talked: an edge splendent in the obscurity.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.8)


It is from this ethical position of the ‘ghosted’ human being (who may indeed have a soul) that Miller’s writing has consistently, and vigilantly, challenged all notions of belief which result in closure, separation, divorce and ultimate abandonment of everything that makes us human:


How the ethical gazes out

irrevocable, from iris and pupil


(‘Fire Water’)


and which, in the process, has faced up to and challenged aesthetics and, most particularly, the aesthetics of literature:


Having no wish to be detained by clever fabrications, stories that might distract. A dark courtyard, a lecture on aesthetics.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.3)


The conventions and techniques of verbal construction and deconstruction have been tested equally – with the perspicacity and fluidity of a gas or a liquid (or perhaps simply of breath), penetrating walls and surfaces in such a way as to render their separations useless:


The invisible form

oscillates through the visible,

brief, quick, insistent….


(from ‘Appearance and Event’)


And this has been done not merely out of curiosity, nor in a spirit of hostility, nor indeed with the desire to negate:


His speech – not as rhetoric, but as necessity – was veined with negation; mine with longing.


(‘The London/Hartgrove Notebook’)


but in the spirit of merciful reconciliation:



for believers and unbelievers.


(‘The Story’)


in an effort to remember, rescue and repair; to resurrect and reconstruct:


An architect who works with shards.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.14)


…that we may testify, not contrive.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 2.3)


a writing of true



(‘The path a lake the very breath’)


…that the lost might life inherit….


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 3.3)


Again and again, he informs us within his poetry what he is attempting, citing failed attempts which may nonetheless constitute a genuine approach:


An employment of failings, faults. A broken writing.




It is a writing which defies conventions both of form and formlessness (whether ‘traditional’ or ‘experimental’), but which nonetheless has the presence of poetry, and the texture of faith:


It was my belief that I had a novel to write; I found myself with a handful of fragments. An absence of explanation. I had thought to speak of struggle but spoke of vigilance instead.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.7)


Miller’s poetry – which has usually appeared in various hybrid shapes of prose poem, and sequences of fragmented writing which combine elements that look like ‘poems’ and look like ‘prose’ – is a presence of poetry, which punctuates and permeates solid form. It is often made apparent as much by its absence, and by the silence between words, as by its tangible, visible or audible presence, in ways analogous to music – to which Miller himself has repeatedly drawn our attention:


Despite every misfortune, the music – an elaboration of individual sounds, an unfolding or drawing-out from the interior – arrives.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 2.3)


a balance

informing the series

manifestation and absence


(‘The Music’)


– or a presence smudged between black and white polarities, analogous to drawing (with much use of an eraser):


Again, I draw or paint over the words, leaving some visible, obscuring or cancelling others.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 2.2)


Through what occurs, you search for a face, you work with or against each detail, building up or erasing aspects, images.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 3.9)


Is Miller’s poetry ‘The Ghost of Poetry’ in contemporary writing in English? Certainly its ghostliness (and its awareness of its ghostliness) is what defines its form, in terms of the interrelation of matter and spirit it nonetheless embodies:


This ghostliness may, in fact, be the very

stuff of form


(From: ‘Appearance and Event’)


But it is ghostly and ghosted in many ways, ghosted most of all by its ethical stance and its preparedness to countenance the spiritual as a constituent part of what may be considered human – as it may also be a part of the experience of reading, where the imagined relationship between writer and reader may briefly become actual. Although secular society is now having to adjust itself to the persistence and the reality of religion (at least in terms of its political expression and collision with secular western values), contemporary literary criticism (which, like much modernist and postmodernist poetry, has been grown almost entirely in, by, and for academia) remains doggedly ‘enlightened’ and anti-religious. I suspect that the literary establishment will keep Miller’s writing, and Miller himself, out in the cold for some time yet:


it’s kept in a cupboard, its eyes open in the dark.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.12)


we were

the periphery

seeing through

into nothing

groundless ground




A ghostlife in terms of recognition and acceptance, but perhaps not so much ‘outside’ as at


another part of the center


(From: ‘Appearance and Event’)


In the meantime however, Miller can provide contemporary criticism with much of its favourite material – ghostly phenomena of one sort or another and, in particular, the flora and fauna of ‘primitive religion’ – all of which can be analysed psychologically, at a safe distance, from perspectives Marxian or Freudian, Bakhtinian or Kristevan. He too is fascinated with the supernatural and with superstition, with ritual and magic, with the inversions of carnival, and with the idea of demonic possession:


They must sacrifice their livestock to the tiger as others – in the same spirit – propitiate demons, waiting for release from their ordeal.




It was believed that their accomplishments of singing, drawing and reciting were derived from the spirits who possessed them. The bowls, upside down on the floor, were traps, magic inscriptions on their interiors.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 3.8)


But, I would argue, Miller’s work penetrates through the history of philosophy and religion, belief and superstition, and through psychological interpretation (which may, in itself, be no more than another form of superstition), to arrive, having


renounced all the apprehensions of his understanding


(‘The London/Hartgrove Notebook’)


and in a spirit of open-handed ‘unknowing’, at a genuine understanding of how we are what we are, in relation with others – and with God. Through all the apparent fracture of Miller’s writing, what remains intact is the mystery of relationship, and its sanctity.

   Elsewhere, I have written at some length on the spiritual and indeed religious aspects of David Miller’s work; of its (rigorous) mysticism, and of its affinities with the particular traditions and disciplines of the ‘Via Negativa’, to which Miller himself has frequently referred. This does, I think, have a specific bearing on the shape, content and form of his work, on how it is offered, and on the meaning and purpose of such work – which will, ultimately, resist wholly secular analysis.

   Although deserving of our attention in many ways and on many levels, the greatest significance and achievement of Miller’s poetry is, in my view, that it is consciously a work of faith, and a work about faith and the activity of faith (as distinct at all times from belief) – both for writer and reader; a work of intense organicism which involves an unceasing process of renewal, among unceasing doubt and uncertainty; a work directed towards light, towards love and towards harmony, but by way of paths which may only be revealed by an ethical choice for the faltering illumination afforded by a constant negotiation with uncertainty and unknowing:


For the sake of what one kind of writing fails to disclose, I attempt a writing of a different order; but each occasion’s embedded in uncertainty.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.10)


Place another sheet alongside the first: move across, reflecting upon, engaging with, in places cancelling. An amateur, I write, rewrite – for the sake of what remains invisible in the showing-forth.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.12)


(Dear M.,

            What I would want to say is that one places oneself in the present (there is nowhere else to be), in the spirit of someone attempting to retrieve or recover what has become obscured. And in order to do this – or in the process of doing so – one disrupts or ruptures the flow, the continuity, of time, narrative, history…)




The ‘modern spirit’ may perhaps be characterised by its negotiations with uncertainty, by its sense of displacement and by an existentialism which has increasingly denied the co-existence of God or gods, and of other people; its philosophical speculations removed from the proximity and the texture of their interaction. Miller places his displacement within the fabric of all that co-exists. The difference of the other (each other and ‘The Other’) and of other worlds and other realities, is engaged as active presence, not as a notional concept; and his writing emerges from a place where matter and spirit co-exist:


you and I, we, already exist

in this work, it has no doors.

we already exist in it.




we already exist in this work.

it is not context. there is no containment.


(‘The Story’)


What I am, is in relation, he said; what I become, in a shared inherence.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 2.3)


and where what can be uttered and what remains ineffable intertwine:


a revealing of something that yet remains hidden.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.4)


To look, to lose, to meet or be met, to disappear.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 3.12)


Importantly, within this texture of interpenetration, different kinds of time as well as place co-exist:


Looking through a sequence of gaps, holes.




The narratives are interrelated the thread is pulled through one and then into another. Even if the people live remote from each other; or the events take place in different periods. A multitude, or you and I.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 2.1)


the work’s inner movement

pulls us into the present;

illuminating the possible.




just there where the ghosts dance.




and gives each page of my writing

its entrance and disappearance.


(‘The Story’)


The living and the dead co-exist, as does human time with the eternal or with God’s time. In Miller’s writing, the skin of different time zones is constantly perforated, one by the other, often in a conscious summons to community:


Dear (dead) friends, I am writing to you once more. (…) addressing the absent and the dead.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 1.13)


an envelope addressed to someone in the neighbourhood of the spirit.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 3.10)


And one of the most striking and moving aspects of his writing, is that it is the location of an entire community of ghosts, who populate his texts:


the way that losses come to inform your writing more and more.




– specific losses of departed friends, quite as much as others more abstract. And Miller’s ‘voice’ is as much their voice as his own:


the voice of such

which is a persistent





Although, as I have already suggested, writing about ‘the spiritual’ may still lead to excommunication in one way or another, there is evidence to suggest that it may now be beginning to re-emerge as a topic of interest, even among contemporary poets – while a horror of religion remains. But Miller has done something extraordinary – which is to write spiritually about the spiritual:


Word follows word as each sung note’s placed, shaping the air, and we find ourselves attending to a story – such that the words themselves barely adumbrate.


(‘The London/Hartgrove Notebook’)


– What I am, is in relation, he said; what I become, in a shared inherence.


(‘Spiritual Letters’ 2.3)


Very few writers have attempted to do this in the English language and, in the last two hundred years, it has been a serious concern only to a handful of poets. Even poets considered by others or by themselves as ‘religious’ have, for centuries, steadfastly avoided any attempt to write spiritually, opting for poetic convention instead. Those who have made the attempt (and created entirely new forms of writing in the process) – William Blake, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett – all remain extremely isolated figures.

   Miller’s endeavour will almost inevitably appear today as a work of extreme fragility – and of stubborn endurance also – at the margins of recognition, understanding and acceptance; a ghostwork, which questions and indeed undermines the solidity of prevailing semantic orthodoxies, from a fluid position between them. It is this persistent choice for faith (and the isolation that accompanies it), which so decisively distances Miller from the exponents of formal experiment on the grounds of aesthetics alone and, in terms of his acceptance within any literary establishment, must, at present, consign him to the ether.

   But his achievement is far-reaching. He has opened up and, in many ways, returned poetry to the texture of living experience, to the original sense of the Greek poiesis: to the activity of our making and becoming. Ghostly as it is, I have met no other contemporary poetry as honest, nor that has helped me so much.












The quotations from David Miller’s poetry are taken from: Spiritual Letters I-II and other writings (Reality Street Editions, Hastings, 2004); Spiritual Letters (Series 3) (Stride, Exeter, 2005) and In the shop of nothing (Harbor Mountain Press, Brownsville, Vermont, 2007).