During his lifetime, the poems of the American poet Wilmer Mills were published in journals (Poetry,
The New Republic, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review,
The New Criterion, among others), in two anthologies (Penguin/Longman
Anthology of Contemporary American Poets, 2004; The Swallow Anthology
of New American Poets, 2009) and in two books: a chapbook, Right as
Rain (Aralia Press, 1999) and a full-length collection of poems, Light
for the Orphans (Story Line Press, 2002). After working as a carpenter,
sawmill operator, songwriter, and artisan bread baker, he became the Kenan
Fellow at U.N.C. Chapel Hill from 2008-2010. Wil was the Writer-in-Residence at
Covenant College when he died in 2011 following a two-month battle with liver
cancer. His Selected Poems (May 2013), edited by his wife Kathryn, were
published posthumously by the University of Evansville Press in 2013. His last
two manuscripts, Arriving on Time and The World That Isn’t There,
are forthcoming from Measure Press in 2017.
When I die and breathe my last,
It won’t be in or out.
I’ll take my final breath,
Hailing the silence of glass,
Glass that isn’t a solid,
But slowly cooling back
From molten silica,
The unheld breath of time.
Once dead, I’ll see the moon
As close as my hand, like this.
Who cares if there’s any water
Trapped inside its rocks
Like all the water trapped
In Bible stories, water
God brooded over, parted,
Walked on, turned to wine?
I’ll see the story of time
Made clearly visible;
I’ll see my final breath
Annealing, a miracle
Of clarity, of silence
Of water’s opposite,
A perfect silence drawn
From my blood, my noise.
Originally published in The New Criterion
An Equation for My Children
It may be esoteric and perverse
That I consult Pythagoras to hear
A music tuning in the universe.
My interest in his math of star and sphere
Has triggered theorems too far-fetched to solve.
They don't add up. But if I rack and toil
More in ether than a mortal coil,
It is to comprehend how you revolve,
By formulas of orbit, ellipse, and ring.
Dear son and daughter, if I seem to range
It is to chart the numbers spiraling
Between my life and yours until the strange
And seamless beauty of equations click
Solutions for the heart's arithmetic.
Originally published in Poetry
All afternoon I walk behind the mower,
Imagining, though paradoxically,
That even though the grass is getting lower,
What I have cut is like a rising sea;
The parts I haven’t cut, with every pass,
Resemble real geography, a map,
A shrinking island continent of grass
Where shoreline vanishes with every lap.
At last, the noise and smell of gasoline
Dispel my dream. What sea? Peninsulas?
They were the lands my inner child had seen,
Their little Yucatáns and Floridas.
But when I’m finished, and Yard goes back to Lawn,
I can’t help thinking that a world is gone.
Originally published in Poetry
A homeless woman sleeps outside the door.
She smells of urine so the customers
Who eat brioche and talk about the poor
Step wide of her in winter and in summer.
But she has noticed them in their retreat
Of tea and café latte ambiance.
Oh, yes, she sees their pious nonchalance.
They give her quarters on the holidays
And she would give them stories with her gaze:
A childhood served on white enamel plates;
A father's drunk abuse; teen runaway;
The search for something--love, or merely dates--;
A candy-wrapper life in lingerie.
But eye contact is precious on the street.
She takes their pocket change and falls asleep.
And I'm no better in my arrogance
And its complacent little cubicle.
If I could be like Jesus, just for once,
I'd wake her up and make her beautiful.
Originally published in First Things
A Christmas Card
Another building in the snow,
Not mine, but much the same. I thought
You'd like the scene.
It snowed all day
And sifted thickly down despite
Sunlight that broke for moments, catching
The frozen motes in disarray.
My town's electric ornaments
Announce the season, green and red,
Storefronts in frost and sidewalks tight
With ice like scenes on tacky prints
To signal Christmas time.
My prayers for the road, and heading home,
I know that close to Baton Rouge
I'll pass the oil refineries
And see their miles of lighted chrome,
So hideous, beautiful and huge.
I'll pass the city factories
And all their man-made constellations,
Lantern mantles, year-round bulbs,
Like stars to bring a prince or plowman
Back to the birthing place.
The heart, like a joke that Paw Paw tells
Until he cries, all part of the plan,
Ecstatic sadness, dirge and song.
They draw me back. I won't be long.
Originally published by Story Line Press
Benjamin Shooting Skeet
Eleven years have led to this.
You break the gun, eject a shell,
Reload, and stand there saying, “Pull!”
“Joy” is being caught in the act
Of never asking what it means.
It’s just a game to you, a trick
Of sending one more pigeon out
The thrill is seeing
Your skill rewarded instantly.
The art of it is how to swing
Your barrel past the target, then
To shoot the empty space in front,
The place the moving skeet will be.
It matters how you try to miss.
My joy is that I almost forget
How target clays were made to break;
That effort isn’t always paid;
That you will learn, as I once did,
That it’s not a game at all.
The constant aristeia mode
Of being male, the history
Of arrow, spear, atlatl, bolt,
And bullet hiding in your eye.
The game of life is “life and death”
And played across the simple ways
A man can hit or miss the mark:
Outlandish women and booze, both
On the rocks, singing in your veins
For you to be the schooner captain
Snookered to dock with them for good.
The pleasures of this world are hints
Of deeper feelings in the next.
Beware of strawman arguments,
Cheap praise, sure bets, and easy gain.
The line between success and failure,
Son, is Timing more than Line.
Remember that even falling short
Reminds you where the target is.
Take aim and fire. Delight in that.
Each gaffe you make can turn to good.
Remember how it feels to be,
And not yet know that you’ve become,
An artist of hamartia
The summer house was being sold,
And I told my daughter, “Remember this!”
She looked and smiled; at three years old,
She didn’t know what she could miss.
I tried to plant the treasure clue
That she could find another day.
“Remember this,” I said, “so you
Will have it when you're old! Okay?"
Her eyes were full of sky, but what
Could they have held? If I had died,
Could all her doors to me have shut
In time no matter how she tried?
Did thinking that make me a ghost
Or retroactively erased?
Or was I something at her coast
Of Thens and Nows that would be traced?
Two years, and hurricane Katrina
Shredded the house she couldn’t forget
And dumped its wood in the marina
As if to unrecord Regret
And Thing at once, all memory drowned.
But a “record” calls to cor, to heart
And makes a song of what it found.
Let past and present come apart!
My daughter has learned a way to plant them,
Her treasure troves of time and space.
Like a troubadour, she’ll find them and chant them,
Singing the pieces back in place.
Stanzas for Kathryn
I love how bodies move, the way they sway,
Especially inside where limbs obey
The architectural syntax and grammar
Found in well-made houses.
There's a glamour
On a person's stride if walls and doors
Allow a natural traverse of floors,
Much like the spell of spoken words that ring
Inside the stricture of their structuring.
Good house design can make you waltz to suit
Its orchestrated fugue of chamber suites
The way a well-turned phrase can lift the sound
Of language from what's common to profound;
How stanzas can arrange the mind to walk
With patterns like a dance where walls can talk.
I've read the body language of our house
The way a man removes a woman's blouse
And dress, then petticoat and lingerie,
To watch the movement she concealed all day.
Undressing walls until the frame shows through
Is not erotic unless I think of you
Since where I choose to place a door affects
The view I'll have, say, to enhance effects
On me when you step from the tub to dry.
Such motion has a power on the eye,
However inadvertent, so you should know
That like the moves in some exotic show
Where dancers glide by choreography,
I have a plan for your geography.
It's odd that in our present circumstance
Without a house I'm drawn to thoughts of dance.
Our lives continue at this frantic pace
As if we thought to win the human race.
The world will tell us, trying to break our spell,
That marriage is a necessary hell.
But if we listened we might soon believe
And lose the movement that could help us cleave.
That's why in work to build our house I think
Of how we'll move together near the sink,
Or in the halls, in sickness and in health.
It is a dance that whirls us, full of wealth,
If we can feel the pleasure in the storm
That funnels freedom into love and form.
It matters that you first saw the light of day
In San Francisco where the locals say
The air is sparkling like champagne, so clear
And filtered as it meets the bay.
The light has not that same intensity.
I've brought you back to the hills of Tennessee,
And so this bungalow I'm building for you
Will have a lot of windows.
There's no view
Of bays or bridges, only oaks and pines
To filter the wind. But when the summer shines
We'll have a quilt of light in every room.
Our son, and child who's still inside your womb,
Will grow in sight by how their parents see
The need to drink the day's transparency.
You've heard me quip that while you make the womb
Around our baby I will make the room.
My play on words can try to hide how stressed
We are by both, but humor, at its best,
Is such a fluid thing it joins the joke
To what was true about the fun it poked.
That's why I think about the miracle
Your body works, how it's empirical
The way by trial and struggle we gain entry
To the greatest joy.
Externalizes your internal task
Like finer points of the pun that make one ask
If life is a jeu de mots, push come to shove,
Since giving shape to things is a labor of love.
Rearing children is no haute culture.
It's more like husbandry or agriculture
With the fencing and the fertilizer.
We're not only fertile we've grown wiser
Which allows a certain laissez faire,
At least in terms of dirt or germs they share.
But as in farming, there is a kind of art
To how you tend a thing. All chores impart
Their lessons over time by drawing on
The rudiments of life.
It's dawning on
Me while I raise the children's walls how much
A parent needs a farmer's careful touch.
The art is seeing nature as an order.
Artists and parents give it shape and border.
The actuarial evidence has shown
That men who try to make it on their own
Die sooner than their married counterparts.
It's no surprise that guys "protect their hearts"
By finding trophy brides who're blonde, good looking,
Keep a spotless house, and do the cooking.
I could be accused of such convenience,
Having you, but it was grace, prevenience,
That led me to you providentially.
And I will say unconfidentially
This kitchen is a present since you're more
Than some man's "jackpot wife" or "perfect score."
I will live long by chopping block and knife
But that's not why I married you for life.
A luthier can build a violin
By shaving top and back exactly thin
Enough to know the timbre it will make.
In carpentry the margin of mistake
Is more forgiving, less a mystery,
But framing is a kind of luthery
The way I see it.
When I'd planed the wood
Above our dining room I understood
By standing under it, how older cellos
Resonate a certain tone that mellows
Like a human voice.
I said, "Amen,"
And heard the consonance of M and N
Where someday prayer will sound a compliment
To food like music in an instrument.
So much attention goes to special touches
Like the chandeliers and china hutches
One might think that houses are defined
Exclusively by things we call refined.
One might assume that people spend their days
Entirely in the dining room with trays
Of silver, serving food to honored guests.
I hope our lives will have that kind of zest,
But while I'm hanging pantry doors and trim,
And caulking tiles around the bathtub rim
I know that life will also be sublime
Where things become pedestrian with time.
I'll relish every nook and closet shelf
Where next to you I'll feel beside myself.
The final touch will be your dressing room
Where in a funny way I'm more your groom
Than when I married you since I will build
Your closet which I know will soon be filled
With all the clothes you own and hope to own.
It will also hold the wedding dress you'd sewn
To wear just once for me before it fell.
Its purpose was to cast a lasting spell
And not be worn again, a sentimental
Notion, but it's hardly incidental
That it worked.
I'm building your boudoir
To house a romance, like an old armoire,
And giving thought to you with each detail
Because I'm still the one who lifts your veil.
Originally Published in The Hudson Review