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Singing the Pieces Back in Place:
The Life and Verse of Wilmer Hastings Mills
(1969–2011)

Winter/Spring 2013 - Vol. 55, Nos. 1 - 2

 

This commentary appears in the Winter–Spring 2013 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


 

Wilmer Hastings Mills died at the age of forty-one on his family’s farm in Zachary, Louisiana, July 25, 2011, after a brief battle with cancer of the liver. He is survived by his wife, Kathryn Oliver Mills, a professor of French at the University of the South, and his two children: Benjamin and Phoebe-Agnès. Mills earned a BA in English from the University of the South (Sewanee, Tennessee) in 1992 and an MA in theology from the School of Theology at Sewanee in 2005.

Born in Baton Rouge on October 1, 1969, Mills grew up on farmland that had been worked by members of the Mills family since the original Spanish Land Grant of the 1790s. Thus, Mills knew the agrarian way of life from direct experience and could do many things besides the writing of verse. At one time or another Mills worked as “a carpenter, furniture maker, sawmill operator, artisan bread baker, white oak basket weaver, farmer, and a white water raft guide.”1 Mills was also a talented watercolorist, guitar player, songwriter, and a superb poetry-writing teacher, serving as Kenan Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Moreover, he single-handedly rebuilt for his family a dilapidated bungalow in Sewanee that the local fire department had planned to burn as part of a fire-response exercise. This house was the subject of a feature story in Southern Living.2 Truly Wilmer Mills was a man of many talents.

Mills published a chapbook of verse, Right as Rain, on Aralia Press in 1999. This was followed by his first full-length collection, Light for the Orphans, which appeared in 2002 on Story Line Press as a winner in the Story Line First Books Series. Mills’s poetry was also published in many of America’s finest quarterlies and journals. These include the Hudson Review, Modern Age, the New Criterion, Poetry, the Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and the Southern Review. Mills’s verse has been praised by some of America’s most distinguished poets, including Donald Justice and Richard Wilbur. At the time of his death, Mills had just completed a second full-length collection, Arriving on Time. He also left behind a number of uncollected and unpublished individual poems as well as other book-length gatherings of his verse. A volume of new and selected poems or a volume of collected poems is to be hoped for in due course as Kathryn Mills begins her work as literary executor.

Fortunately, in several interviews, an autobiographical essay, and a personal letter to the current writer, Wilmer Mills discussed his development as an agrarian and a traditional metrical poet and has put on record a number of important statements about poetics. It should also be noted that Mills was a deeply religious person who was raised as a conservative Presbyterian. His faith and his art were always at one.

* * *

Mills spent much of his childhood in Brazil, where his parents were agricultural missionaries. This experience made a deep impression. Back in Louisiana, Mills was bored in school and so took to writing down poetic images and phrases about rural life on pieces of paper that his mother later found in the pockets of his clothes in the laundry and saved. At the time, Mills did not think of these fragments either as poetry or as suitable subjects for poetry, yet he has stated that they “caused me to assume, at the worst, that there existed other territories of thought, places to which I was called, or even entitled, at best, like a young mallard on his first migration.”3

Mills’s “youthful epiphany”4 as a poet came in April 1985, when his mother, Betsy, took a somewhat reluctant fifteen-year-old to hear Robert Penn Warren read his poetry at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, as the first speaker in the Marie Fletcher Lecture Series in American Literature. Mills recalled “seeing that oak of a man stand up in front of grown people and read poems” and said that

Warren’s poem “Audubon: A Vision” particularly moved me. The painter, John James Audubon, had lived and painted birds only minutes from my family’s land in Louisiana. I had grown up hearing the name and knew that my ancestors would have almost certainly had dealings with him. The last section of Warren’s poem about him made me want to be a poet: “Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood // By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard / The great geese hoot northward. // I could not see them, there being no moon / And the stars sparse. I heard them. // I did not know what was happening in my heart.”

To this Mills added: “The end of the Audubon poem reads, ‘Tell me a story of deep delight,’ and this may be utter silliness but I have taken that as an exhortation as if given to me personally as a charge. It is my motto as a writer. I met Warren that night. He asked me where I was from. When I told him north of Baton Rouge, south of St. Francisville in an area called The Plains he said, ‘there are good people there.’ ”5

Another major influence on Wilmer Mills was Robert Frost. As Mills has stated, “Frost and Warren both had an explosive impact on me, even though I could tell they were not in the same vein, like two oak trees of the same genus but of different species. Warren inspired me to look for the acorn in myself. Frost made it grow.”6 Mills suggests that Warren showed him how to write of rural southern life, while Frost’s stricter meter gave him the best means to do so: “I wanted to write about characters with the uncooked energy of Warren but felt a visceral need to do so in the formal manner of Frost.”7 In his mature verse, Mills adheres generally to regular meter but allows himself variations and a deliberate roughness that recall Warren. As Mills has said, he likes to write formal verse that pulls a little “toward” free verse.8

Just as his mother once kept those wadded up fragments found in his clothes, so Mills later kept a small notebook about him: “I’m a linguistic bower bird. I collect words, bits of conversation, road signs, etymologies, etc.”9 From these bits, Mills said, poems “come to me as sonic excitement clicking in the syllables.”10 But such bits must be shaped into lines, like furrows in a field, and Mills notes that the word verse is rooted in the Latin versus, which refers to turning a plow at the end of a row. Thus, the poet is a plowman of words and also a “verse-wright” who builds his poems from parts.11

In his poetry classes, Mills urged his students to write formal verse, to pay attention to music in language, and to “think in lines.”12 Furthermore, Mills challenged them to write about subjects other than adolescent self-centeredness: “I teach them to get out of their own heads, to stop thinking that poetry is a soapbox for self-expression. Poetry is about expressing the dictionary [emphasis added]. Once they catch on, they realize that words are more intelligent than people are, and that words do a much better job of expressing their feelings and thoughts. Let good language do the work. So I teach students to look at what they see right in front of them and to say what they see in the most compelling language. Poets should make sense and make it sing.”13

* * *

Making sense by seeing clearly the life in front of him is the goal of Light for the Orphans. The light of the title is cast both on the poet as an orphan of the farm (sections 2 and 3) and also on the many characters (sections 1 and 4) whose stories are told in short narrative poems. These characters are all orphans of modernity who, though isolated within and maimed by the contemporary postagrarian world, still struggle to maintain and to assert their human worth either through dignified suffering or heroic action or by some kind of artistic affirmation.14

The singer who is the subject of “The Last Castrato” (d. 1924) is both orphan and artist, the two kinds of characters that make up sections 1 and 4 of this book. The castrato sings from The Tempest and “. . . only knows / That he was singled out and set apart, / An orphan of himself who testifies / Of sea change into something rich and strange / Like any artist, or the art itself / That says, ‘Remember me. Remember me’ ”(16).15 In “Confessions of a Steeplejack” (d. 1978), the speaker sees his life-threatening job as both a worldly art and a holy vocation and dislikes the materials used to make and decorate contemporary churches—“cinderblock and wafer board” and an “imitation cupola to hold / A speaker for the imitation bells” (19). In contrast, the steeplejack was a principled artisan “Who dangled from the lightning rod of faith / As if his work had been a holy calling” (20).

 In “Wind Chimes for Gladys,” a father purchases a set of chimes—porcelain birds with broken wings—for his young daughter. After her death, the father listens for her name in the music of the chimes, hoping “those wingless chimes” might with “Their brittle clinks of carousel / And carillon spell out her name” (22). Later, climbing a silo for a better view, he yearns to hear her voice in the winds that lift hot air balloons at a festival in nearby Baton Rouge, but the balloons sink in silence. Yet then, as if by miracle, the wingless porcelain birds give way to a natural sign that hints at providential grace: “My boot heel struck the silo roof / And startled all the cattle near me / And the pasture lifted white / With egret wings” (23).

These characters—the castrato, the steeplejack, and the father who has lost a daughter—represent a much wider range of other orphans of modernity: a disgruntled piano tuner’s wife who gets revenge on a neglectful husband, a school bus driver who is haunted by an accident with a train in which schoolchildren died, a young deer hunter who can never forget his father’s suicide, a troubled dowser whose father died by water in a hurricane, a shoeshine man who never speaks but who writes of a single poignant moment of fantasized romance with “the lady with the Spanish boots” (90).

One of the best and most representative poems about these orphans is “The Whirligig Man’s Invention.” This man, who as a child was taken to a field for a beating, searches in later years for redemptive healing by decorating that field with generator-powered whirligigs whose flashlights shine when the wind blows the whirligigs around. Although oblivious motorists drive past near the field, the whirligig man keeps faith that his strange invention can somehow makes things right: “The drivers speed to vinyl ­siding, bound / To hide in lives that say, I will not look. / I will not see. // He’ll always wave, then look / The other way to his clapping pasture wired / For wind, its light elapsing, where he, inspired / And almost lost in some delight with pain / Has found a meaning, lucid and insane, / An ugly-loveliness that sets him free, / Lit up for neighbors who in turn may see” (92).

The central sections (2 and 3) of Light for the Orphans describe the poet as an orphan of the farm. The poems focus on the poet’s childhood and young manhood on the farm, his relatives (mother, father, grandfathers), and his difficult decision to break a two- hundred-year-old tradition of Mills farming the fields of their Spanish land grant. In part, the poet leaves for a new life in his cabin home in Tennessee because of his calling to be a poet but also because of a dislike of noisy, modern mechanized farming and the realization that his family farm, already surrounded by urban sprawl and pressured by contemporary economic trends, cannot long survive and that a return to preindustrial farming is all but impossible.

“Morning Song,” whose interlinking rhymes musically reinforce the subject, finds the poet’s mother, Betsy Mills, happily humming a song as she bakes amid other sounds that indicate domestic harmony—“The house becomes her instrument” (37). Such maternal music, heard for years by her children, sets the tone of traditional family life:

So here we listen for the household sounds
Of home, ice water pouring from a jar,
Forks, knives, the flour sifter’s rhythmic rounds.
Each tone recalls our childhood’s symphony
Of clanks and bangs that softened into notes
We later learned to read. The melody Our mother hums this morning swells and floats
Across the room, and after breakfast, when
We go our different ways, she rests, then starts
Her kitchen-orchestrations all again With movements we come home to learn by heart. (37–38)

“Rain,” a sequence of six short poems, shows the young Wilmer Mills helping his grandfather plow rows. When the plowing ends in rain, the poet stays behind in the barn gazing at the grandfather’s tools and supplies that make up that ever necessary world of tilling the ground to eat and live: “I smell his saddles where they hang on rope / To keep packrats from chewing up their seats. / Sweet horse feed, hay, Bag Balm, and leather soap / Instill this barn with memories of when he taught / Me how to work the plows his father bought / To plant his lettuce, mustard greens, and beets” (41).

In “Cutting Hay,” whose long lines match the subject of the poem, the poet, home for a time from college, joins his father mowing in circles on their tractors, always moving toward the center point. The old relationship between agriculture and culture—the farmer’s turning his plow back and forth down rows (or in rings) and the poet’s turning of ringing lines of poetry—becomes clear near the end of the poem:

. . . Tonight, my father’s hay will lie
In grassy rings against the ground 
       like some perennial design
From prehistoric times when tribes
      dug ditches in the shapes of gods.
Tomorrow, we will bail them up,
      coiling their unintended art
To feed his winter cows this year.
      But now the day is spent and we
Head back. White egrets pattern home
     to marshes farther south, and when
Our tractors stop beneath the shed            
      I hear their wings above the trees. (46–47)

When Mills must return to college in Ten­nessee, the departure from the farm is almost as unbearable as it is, for him, inevitable. He must leave but, in a deeper sense, can never leave:

I tried to go before sunrise,
Not wanting to see the fields.
Too beautiful. Their frost
In chalices of spider web.

But peach light lifts behind far pines
As I roll over the cattle gaps.

These are my father’s pastures.
I’m twenty and I have to look at them.
They told me and they told me
What the issue is. I know it now:

Rye grass unraveling in steam;
A culvert where the cowponds drain;
The water flowing from its source.
(“Leaving Home,” 51–52)

In “A Codex for Killing,” a storm passes over Mills’s Tennessee mountain cabin. Rain “writhing” through the grass reminds the poet of nearby churches where snake-handling occurs in order to confirm Mark 16:18—quoted here as the epigraph: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them.” The poet meditates on chaos and creation, right and wrong, trying to discern his human duty to know and accept God’s plan for the world. He thinks of “. . . Noah’s nightmare-job: / To gather pairs of all the snakes / In Paradise-gone-mad, the ones / He would have killed if word had not / Come down to bring them two by two” (63). But here and now, in “Yahweh’s chaos” (64), the poet attempts, unsuccessfully, to keep his garden from flooding, perhaps due to the sin of pride, “As if I’d tried to kill the worm / Of ruin by attacking mud” (64). In the end, he knows that he must learn to leave the world, with its entanglements of good and evil, to the Creator thereof: “But if I learn to let things go, / Especially my tendency / To strangle what I cannot tame, / If I can trust in Yahweh’s order / When it seems to slither by, / Will that submission offer peace? / That has to be what Noah did, / His fingers streaming with the flood, / Reminding him of when he caught / A pair of rattle snakes and felt them / Sliding through his hands like rain” (65–66).

Light for the Orphans was acclaimed as an extraordinary first book. Donald Justice praised the orphan narratives, while Richard Wilbur noted the poem’s “striking phrases and happy accuracies” and found in Mills’s verse “pain and darkness” but also “a continual relief and gaiety as the right words are found.”16 Austin MacRae commended Mills for giving “a voice to others” and not being narcissistically self-centered. MacRae called Mills “a deeply spiritual poet” who unselfishly “speaks to universal human experience” and predicted that Mills’s verse would last, “For, in the end, unselfish works of art stand the test of time.”17 And the current writer, as a fellow conservative formalist poet and fellow Louisianian, concluded as follows in 2003: “Light for the Orphans [is] one of the most powerful and promising first books by any poet, Louisianian or otherwise, that this reviewer has ever seen. The rural Protestant culture of north and central (i.e., non-Acadian) Louisiana has for many years been waiting for a major poet to plow its rows into verses. In Wilmer Mills, that land has at long last found its plowman-poet and through him its . . . authentic, and deeply rooted voice.”18

* * *

Nine years after the publication of Light for the Orphans, Wilmer Mills prepared a new manuscript for submission, Arriving on Time, a manuscript the current reviewer was privileged to read and critique, at Mills’s request, in the spring of 2011. This second full-length collection contains not only new poems written in the Southern Agrarian tradition but also poems on family life, especially his love for his wife and children and his role as a father, as well as powerful meditative poems on the ultimate philosophical, even theological significance of a poet’s metaphors and analogies and on the mysterious relationship between time, eternity, and providence. The poet is seen as the Linker whose post-Edenic role is that of “singing the pieces back in place” (“Recordari-Song”—a poem to his daughter about memory). Since Arriving on Time is unpublished, my detailed comments on this impressive new and, sadly, now posthumous—or perhaps on a new and selected or a collected poems—collection will be saved for a later occasion.

* * *

In May of 2011, during gall bladder surgery, doctors discovered that Wilmer Mills was suffering from cancer of the liver. Some weeks later, when further medical treatment held out little hope, Mills asked to be taken from Chattanooga to his family’s farm in Zachary. As he said, “I want to go home before I go home.” There, he was given a few precious weeks with his family and friends. He died at home in the afternoon of Monday, July 25, at the age of forty-one. His obituary stated that

Wil was a Renaissance man who pursued all things Godly, true and beautiful, and who shared those things as well as himself generously with others. . . . He is respected as one of the foremost poets of his generation. . . . Wil also painted . . . wrote and performed music, worked as a carpenter and sawyer, wove white oak baskets from trees he felled himself, renovated two log cabins, built his own house . . . made furniture, grew gardens and baked bread in a wood-fired bread oven he made himself. The name of his bread oven was ‘Companis,’ the Latin root word for ‘companion,’ which means ‘with bread.’ Breaking bread at the Lord’s Table as well as with family and friends was at the core of Wil’s life.19

Mills’s funeral was held on Saturday, July 30, at the Plains Presbyterian Church in Zachary, Louisiana. The poet’s faith and his agrarian life were brought together in the recitation of Psalm 23 and the singing of Richard Wilbur’s “A Christmas Hymn” about the Nativity, a hymn also sung at Wil and Kathryn’s wedding. On the plain pine coffin was inscribed, in accordance with his wishes, a translation of “Entry” (“Eingang”), a poem by Clemens Brentano (1778–1842) read to him by his father-in-law, poet Raymond Oliver, during Mills’s last days. In his homily, Pastor Joseph Novenson remarked that these lines sum up much of human life: “O star and flower, / Flesh and spirit, / Love and suffering, / Time and eternity.”20 Thus both in this service and on the coffin itself were united poetic words, the Word, and wood—three things at the core of Mills’s being.

Mills was buried near the church and his family's farm. He had written of the farm and cemetery in his poem “A Dirge for Leaving”: “. . . Bed rows turned / In a tiller’s wake, sod of family plots, / They draw me here. . . .” (48). And in “A Christmas Card,” the poet, coming home for Christmas from Tennessee, confesses that, despite being in one sense an orphan of the farm, such homecomings will never end: “Ecstatic sadness, dirge and song. / They draw me back. I won’t be long” (69).

In an August 8 message to friends and family who had followed the progress of her son’s illness up until his death, Betsy Mills wrote:

Wil loved fresh figs. He and his family usually visited us in August, missing the July fig season. One of Wil’s unpublished manuscripts is entitled Arriving on Time. For the past month, Wil would walk into the kitchen around 7:30 a.m. and sit in an old family rocker to eat a bowl of oatmeal and another of fresh peeled figs. He delighted in watching the early light come through the multi-paned kitchen window over the sink. His gaze was absorbent, his blue eyes wide in anticipation as the rays moved over the well-known pots, plates, and counter tops. One morning I remarked to him that God had seen to it that he had arrived on time for fresh figs. Wil was his own prophet.

Mrs. Mills added that her son was “a poet of time who lived with one foot in Chronos Time but with eyes seeing Kairos.” She also urged us all to “encourage and support poets, writers, and artists who struggle to give us visions we need to hear and see.”21

* * *

Betsy Mills speaks of her son as having been a poet with a prophetic voice. That comment brings to mind statements Mills made in the letter of April 9, 2003, in answer to questions the current writer had while writing his book review of Light for the Orphans. Speaking of being the first Mills since the 1790s not to farm his family’s land, Mills wrote: “I’m the end of the line. This is why I left Louisiana. I saw no future for me there. Now I have lived just long enough to sense the pull of its soil, even the soil in the cemetery where I will be buried. That means something to me. It ought to be an agrarian principle that one should not live too far away from the place where one will be buried.”22

But death must not have the final word.

Mills once commented on the deep interrelationship between farming, words, and wood: “The loss of farming to me is so similar to the loss of traditional techniques and methods in writing and painting. In fact, they both started to go out of fashion at the same time. To tell the story with meter is like farming with the mule and the plow. In some ways, I’m plowing the verse rather than the ground.”23 Mills also referred to a linguistic revelation in his high school years that “forever changed my life.” This discovery was that the Indo-European root deru is the root word for both Tree and Truth, deru thus being a metaphor for Mills’s future life as a worker both in “tree-wood and truth-words” as carpenter and poet.24

These vocations, Mills believes, are deeply linked. In what amounts to a personal and poetic creed, Mills has said of the making of furniture and verse that

both involve a similar cognitive process that wants to understand how things fit together. I write verse because I want to make connections like a furniture maker who uses certain types of joinery and techniques to fit pieces of wood together. I work wood because I have a sense that it, too, is a type of language or style of rhetoric that has its own grammar and syntax. Both of these linguistic processes affect my thought patterns in the sense that working with Tree and Truth in this way I do tend to value fixity and meaning. The critics of traditional technique and even meaning itself (the two are usually two sides of the same coin) don’t want to admit that it is precisely a tree’s ability to hold its ground, that is, its limitation, which allows it to sway so beautifully without falling down. The same is true of the use of language. Being rooted in structure that has kept thoughts from becoming meaningless for thousands of years is precisely what helps words continue making sense so that they can then sway like trees and mean other things as well, and therefore be even more meaningful. The very idea of free verse is a covert if not overt attack on this assumption. My goal when I get out of bed every day in furniture and verse is to make sense. I can’t do it without patterns and shapes any more than water can have any human usefulness without some kind of physically limiting container. In other words the tools we use and the thoughts that accompany them are inseparable.25

In his uncollected poem “TREOW: An Etymology,” Mills speaks of the profound kinship between wood, words, and truth:

The English language is a living thing
Which over time has had the sense to ring
Its rhyme and reason with the symmetry
Of roots and branches in a family tree.
That’s no coincidence.

      The distant kin
Of certain pithy terms claim origin
From ancient trees that no one understood
Until the first codex had come from wood
And there were clerics who could read and teach
From books that got their letters  from the beech.

But long before the folio and poem
Had been pressed together in a tome,
Before the logs were kept on tablets hewn
Of oak or elm, before the druid’s rune,
There grew a seedling noun that ramified
The words for Tree and True and then it died.
Its sound was solid, Deru, finely grooved
And grained to mean: “That which cannot be moved.”26

This same quality of immovability informs Mills’s strongest poems, poems that ring true with those rare qualities of simplicity, depth, and wisdom so often found in the very best poets of this or any other time. Wilmer Hastings Mills will always be remembered as a poet who, in a postlapsarian and now a postagrarian world, devoted himself to doing what poetry could do by “Singing the pieces back in place.” ♦

 

David Middleton is poetry editor of Modern Age.


1      Wilmer Mills biographical statement sent to David Middleton on April 9, 2003.

2      Karin Glendenning, “Little House on the Mountain: Wilmer Mills Creates a Home for His Family,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, December 28, 2002, E1, E3; Wilmer Mills, “Farming Versus Poetry: The Making of a Rebel,” poetrynet.org/month.archives/mills/index.htm.

3      Leanne Martin, “Christians in the Arts,” an interview with Wilmer Mills, May 11, 2009, christiansinthearts.blogspot.com/2009/05/wilmer-mills-poet.html.

4      Ibid., 1.

5      Ibid., 2–3.

6      Ibid., 3.

7      Mills, “Farming Versus Poetry,” 4.

8      Ibid., 6.

9      Martin, “Christians in the Arts,” 1.

10     Ibid.

11     Mills, “Farming Versus Poetry,” 5, 6.

12     Martin, “Christians in the Arts,” 1; Travis Smith, “Thinking in Lines,” interview with Wilmer Mills, Cellar Door 36, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 1.

13     Martin, “Christians in the Arts,” 2.

14     David Middleton, “Wilmer Mills’ Light for the Orphans,” review of Light for the Orphans, Louisiana Literature 20, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2003): 115–21, to which some of the comments in this section are indebted.

15     Wilmer Mills, Light for the Orphans (Ashland, OR: Story Line Press, 2002), 16; all quotations from poems in this collection will be cited hereafter by page number or numbers in parentheses.

16     Donald Justice and Richard Wilbur, comments on Light for the Orphans, back cover.

17     Austin MacRae, “The Poet as Orphan,” online review of Light for the Orphans, Expansive Poetry (May 2003): 1, 3, www.expansivepoetryonline.com/journal/rev052003.html.

18     Middleton, “Wilmer Mills’ Light for the Orphans,” 121.

19     Wilmer Hastings Mills, obituary, The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), July 27, 2011, 12A.

20     A Service of Worship in Memoriam: Wilmer Hastings Mills (October 1, 1969–July 25, 2011), July 30, 2011, Plains Presbyterian Church, Plains, Louisiana, 5.

21     Betsy Mills, e-mail to Wilmer Mills’s family and friends, August 8, 2011.

22     Wilmer Mills, letter to author, April 9, 2003; quoted from with prior permission of Wilmer Mills, given in 2003.

23     Alan Bostick, “Plowboy Poet,” The Tennessean, October 6, 2002, 14.

24     Wilmer Mills, letter to author, April 9, 2003.

25     Ibid.

26     Wilmer Mills, “TREOW: An Etymology,” Literary Imagination: The Review of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics 4, no. 2 (2002): 263; this and the preceding two paragraphs are adapted from Middleton, “Wilmer Mills’ Light for the Orphans,” 120–21.