Mills’ poetry examines a bucolic La. farm life


The University of Evansville Press, $20

Born in Baton Rouge in 1969, Wilmer Mills spent much of his later childhood and middle teens on the family farm in Zachary, land that had been worked by members of the Mills family since the 18th century.

Mills gave up the turning of soil for the turning of verses and thought of himself as an orphan of the farm. He often wrote poems about farm life and about other orphans of the modern world — souls lost or forgotten but who nonetheless lived their lives with tragic or stoic dignity. One such person is a castrato who sang in the operatic version of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest in New Orleans:

He 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.”

(The Last Castrato)

Mills’ own remembering of farm life is often moving. Morning Song recalls the music of his mother’s kitchen:

So here we listen for the household sounds

Of home: ice water pouring from a jar,

Forks, knives, the flour sifter’s rhythmic rounds.

. . .

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.

Other poems are about plowing, cutting hay, building his family a cabin in Sewanee, Tenn., and his love for his wife and children.

His later poems show Mills moving in a new direction, thinking deeply about time, eternity, memory, the mysterious kinship of words and things, God’s creative Word, and the poet’s role as The Linker whose connecting metaphors hint at an Eden-like harmony that now is lost but that may be found again:

Consider the stars, no, all things far apart;

By a common trait or someone’s turn of phrase,

They leap together in the linker’s mind,

A backwards bang that reunites the light

That shines as various and sundry suns.

(From Lookout Mountain at Night)

In May of 2011 Mills was diagnosed with cancer and died July 25 on his family’s farm at only 41. When doctors in Chattanooga could do no more for him, he said, “I want to go home before I go home.”

In Making the Cradle, Mills brings together a number of things that mattered most to him: working in words and wood, family, and faith:

This is the joy in a cradle-maker’s heart:

To build a little bed and make it sound,

To learn the curvature of crescent moons,

Their delicate meniscus, all with art

So rudimentary it becomes profound.

The walnut whispers and the starlight croons.

I’ll make this cradle by the sky and swing

Our child to what the constellations sing.

Wilmer Hastings Mills has left behind a body of poetic work that simply rings true and in so doing will find a lasting place in Louisiana literature. As Mills said in Fourth of July Fireworks about his love of the Southern “countryside,” including the Louisiana farm he knew so well, “Our final faithfulness is to the ground.”

David Middleton is professor emeritus of English at Nicholls State University. His next book of verse, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill, is expected out from LSU Press in October.