After Houses

After Houses: Poetry for the Homeless by Claire Millikin by [Millikin, Claire]THE BOOK: After Houses — Poetry for the Homeless.


THE AUTHOR: Claire Millikin

THE EDITOR: Gabrielle David is the general editor. Tara Betts, the poet, wrote the Introduction to the book.

THE PUBLISHER: 2Leaf Press; 2Leaf Press is an independent press in New York City, founded by Gabrielle David, committed to publishing works of diversity and social justice. It is now part of the umbrella of the University of Chicago Press.

Related imageSUMMARY: After Houses is a book of poems meditating on homelessness. It loosely follows a narrative of a young woman’s journey through homelessness in the United States. But the poems are not straight ‘confessional’ style. Rather they are meditations on symbolic space, ultimately a confrontation with the limits of bourgeois codes of home and family. Here’s the publisher’s description of the book: AFTER HOUSES is an extended meditation on homelessness. In unflinching, raw poetry, poet Claire Millikin explores states of homelessness, and a longing for, even a devotion to, houses—houses as spaces where one could be safe and at ease. The poems move through an American landscape, between the South and the North, between childhood and adulthood, reaching toward a home that’s never reached, but always at one’s fingertips. Throughout this collection, Millikin draws from personal and family history, from classical mythology and architectural theory, to shape a poetry of empathy, in which some of the places where people get lost in America are faced and given place. AFTER HOUSES echo the voices of girls who have not quite survived, but who persist, intact in the way that Rimbaud insists on intactness, in words.

THE BACK STORY: I started writing the poems that became AFTER HOUSES twenty years before it was published. At the time, I was going through a situation of precarious housing. The poems in the book, though, are not all about me. Many of them are about other women I knew in similar situations. Some of the poems were much more recent than twenty years ago. So, of all my books of poetry, AFTER HOUSES has the longest and deepest reach.

WHY THIS TITLE?: AFTER HOUSES is, as Tara Betts puts it in her Introduction to the book, a kind of eschatological title: after houses are gone, what is left? The title indicates that there is something left after you have no house, but that something is what you build in your own mind and from your words. Words are what survive us.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? If someone is interested in the issues and complexities surrounding homelessness, exile, displaced persons, this would be a book for them.


On Amazon, Sylvia de Leon writes, “Riveted by Motels Where We Lived I was lured even further by After Houses into Claire Millikin’s world of survival and secrecy. Millikin’s poetry is mysterious yet her story is pure American. She writes of the vulnerabilities of girlhood, southern roots, hard times, even hunger, and enriches some of her more recent work with the salty flavors of Maine and motherhood. With deep feeling, she is intertwined with those who have lived dirt poor and apparently overcome the unspeakable, though she simultaneously demonstrates command of her craft, and the intellectual influences of her first-class Yale education and UVa academic pursuits. This is a poet deserving of more recognition from the highest levels of our contemporary poetry world.”

Another, anonymous, reader calls the book “Poems of dignity and grace… Her poems beckon you to enter a secret world, one of breaths and whispers, promising to let you in on the secret — maybe. What she does so well is to walk that fine line between the accessible public persona and the inaccessible private persona. This creates a delicious tension where you’re never quite sure who’s talking to you, only that you want to be led deeper into her world. It’s as though you’re in the wardrobe and in Narnia, all at the same time. Her poems ask the question if the personal is always the political, and they let you find your way to your own answer. Highly recommend this collection!”

Wayne Koestenbaum writes, on the jacket cover, “Claire Millikin rites with deep feeling, craft, and delicacy about trauma…I think of her poems as following in the noble, painful, tradition of Mauric Blanchot—language reaching toward silence”

AUTHOR PROFILE: I’m the author, now, of six books of poetry—will list them at the end of these paragraphs—but when AFTER HOUSES was accepted by 2Leaf Press it was my first book (it ultimately was published after Museum of Snow, but that’s just happenstance). So, the book has deep meaning for me. I’m a mother of a teenage son. After he was born, at the end of 2001, I stayed home and took care of him ‘til he started first grade. We are very close, though buffeted by adolescence. I’m a professor who teaches Art History at the University of Virginia. And I’m from Georgia (USA) and my family, on both parents’ sides, has lived there since the early 1700s; it’s a complicated place, a violent place, and has shaped me deeply. I wrote a short essay, “The Impossible Place of Poetry,” for Tiger’s Eye Press (which published my first chapbook, The Gleaners) and am pasting it here as that essay says everything about me as a poet:

Both my parents were born into families that have inhabited the southeastern United States, in particular the state of Georgia (USA), for generations; they were European invaders reaching back to the early 1700s on my father’s side, and slightly earlier on my mother’s side. Such a background means that the history of Georgia is, in many ways, my family history. And the history of the southeastern United States is ugly, violent, and wrong. It includes the displacement of Native Americans, the taking of Native American wives, against their will, the enslavement of kidnapped Africans, the rape of enslaved African American women, and the humiliation and oppression of African Americans through Jim Crow. I was born, of course, after all these events. But they are my background. My parents wanted, ambivalently, to leave Georgia.

We grew up peripatetically, living in Southeast Asia, Holland, England, and barely strung together consecutive schoolyears in America. But whenever we came back to Georgia it was always clear that this is home, this is where extended family live, where ancestors are buried, Georgia and nowhere else. When I grew up I did not feel I could, or should, live in Georgia. I disagreed with the conservative political bent of the state, and so it would have been, and would be now, hard to find a place there. And yet, it is the only place that I am actually from, the only place where I might say, by dint of history, I belong. Does a poet need a place? Ovid, Milosz, Seferis, all wrote from exile; Anna Akhmatova stayed and suffered. I never intended to not be a Southerner.

After Yale, a university for which my childhood ill prepared me, I married young and married a man from a Southern family similar to my own. The name under which I publish poetry is his last name, Millikin; I always say that Millikin is my name from before marriage because I mean it is my name from before I married the man to whom I have been married as an adult, and with whom I have a child. For reasons that even now I am unsure of, my youthful marriage raveled, quickly. By the time I shored up in graduate school in New York City, still in my twenties, the idea of the South had moved away, and I was only trying to survive.

After the death of my mother’s mother when I was twenty-five, all that depth of family provided no place for me, no house where I could stay. As one of my aunts humorously put it, Claire was so smart we had to get rid of her. Of course, I am not in exile from the South. I could go back. And, with the death this year of my eldest maternal uncle, it has started to seem to me that I should go back, that every other place is unreal, that all other places are not of my family, hence not of myself, but only of survival. Even so, survival itself is more tangible than any other longing.

Faulkner suggested that the South made it impossible for Quentin to survive. And Flannery O’Connor implies, in “The Enduring Chill,” that the South is an illness that claims its brilliant young. The poems I write are often placed in Georgia, whether or not that place is mentioned. But if I were to return to Georgia, would those works evaporate? Is it the tension, and grief, of not being able to find a real place that makes the place of poetry so urgent? When my uncle died, the realness of his life seemed to surpass that of most people I know: his farm (that had gone bankrupt, but where he was able to lease some space for a few cows), his cows, his house that he built, the town where he stayed and never left or tried to leave. Compared to the professors with whom I spend most of my time, he was fuller, his world contained itself, did not look out at other people’s worlds. He was an early supporter of desegregation, a man who stood for what was right, where he was.

When my son finished middle school, this year, I decided we, as a family, would celebrate by visiting the islands off the shore of Carolina where, in childhood, my family camped each summer. I had not been back since I was fourteen years old (I left home at age fourteen, came back at age fifteen, left again at seventeen). When we got to the islands, all was terribly built-up, hideously marketed, but once I made it to the ocean it was the same: rough, merciless, the winds forty miles an hour. No one else was on the beach. My son and I, with a combined weight of two-fifty, locked arms and ran, the wind almost lifting us. If Thomas Wolfe says “you can’t go home again” this claim is possibly truer for Southerners: the reason you cannot go home is that home never sheltered you, it was too burdened by the violence of its own past. But you also cannot leave home, the violence of it is embedded in you, shards, painful and also beautiful, not a lost place but a damaged place, wounded by its own refusal to tell the truth.

The only task of poetry is to tell the truth. It is where language moves past assumption and cliché. Maybe you can’t go home again once you’ve told the truth about home. Or, maybe, the knowledge of home’s impossible place is the start of poetry. Links for books by Claire Millikin: State Fair Animals, Unicorn Press 2018

Television, Unicorn Press 2016 Motels Where We Lived, Unicorn Press 2014 Tartessos and Other Cities, 2Leaf Press 2016 After Houses-Poetry for the Homeless, 2Leaf Press 2014 Museum of Snow, Grayson Books 2013

AUTHOR COMMENTS: For sure, the larger issue that this book, AFTER HOUSES-Poetry for the Homeless, ties to is homelessness. It is a blight and a shame in a country as wealthy as ours that we do not look after our most vulnerable. Many of the homeless are mothers with young children. America simply must do better by them.



At the end of childhood, I slept in my car

nights, after summer had finished.

The car became my form:

anyone could see where I’d been,

cribbing the last of mother’s inheritance.

Mother was a professional singer;

I slept outside the door of her voice

drenched evenings, when rain’s

after-images pulled between branches

at the parking lot’s edge.

At dusk, there’s nothing but distance

and the memory of your mother’s voice, hitting the notes.

Turn the radio, she sings still, soft and full

at the edge of night where thin stars touch.

Divot in the grass where a doe kept,

last night, night before last: her form.

Baby blue sky between branches of pale oak,

of winter’s pelage, this song to shadow sleep.

(Claire Millikin, 2Leaf Press/University of Chicago Press, copyright 2014)

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: University of Chicago Press website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, 2Leaf Press website

PRICE: variable—from 4 dollars to 16 dollars depending on whether it’s used or new—2Leaf also sells this book as an ebook.

CONTACT THE AUTHOR: My work email, posted on the UVA departmental website, is:

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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