An introduction to and appreciation of the work of the modern agrarian poet Wilmer Mills (1968–2011).
By Steven Knepper
B. H. Fairchild says it is good for poets to “come from people who make things.” Poets from a crafting background have rich subject matter for their poetry. Fairchild’s own father operated a metalworking lathe, and his poems often focus on the demanding, skillful work of machinists, welders, and ranchers. More fundamentally, poets from such a background often value work ethic and attention to detail. They often see themselves as having apprenticed into a tradition that provides both sources of inspiration and standards of judgment. Such poets can help us recover the roots of the poetic art in the Latin ars (fitting together, skill, craft) and in the Greek poiesis (making). For before art came to mean the beaux arts or “fine art,” it simply meant the capacity to make.
We need this older, broader way of thinking to understand the significant achievement of Wilmer Mills, a master of verse-craft and many other arts. Mills’s poems draw on both his Christian faith and his work with his hands in order to meditate on the redemptive possibilities of human making. From the late nineties through the first decade of the twenty-first century, Mills consistently placed poems in leading literary journals. In 2002 he published Light for the Orphans, an acclaimed collection of mostly narrative verse. Hedied from cancer less than a decade later, in 2011, leaving behind additional collections in manuscript. His wife, Kathryn Oliver Mills, a French professor at Sewanee, included a generous sampling of his later work in the Selected Poems that she edited in 2013 for the University of Evansville Press, and the same press will release two posthumous collections of Mills’s verse later this year.
Mills was born in 1969. He grew up in the rainforests of Brazil, where his parents were agricultural missionaries, and on the family farm in Louisiana, where he helped raise cattle and harvest grass seed. His ancestors settled on the Louisiana Plains in the eighteenth century, and the Mills family has farmed there ever since. Some of Mills’s most poignant poems reflect on leaving the family farm to go to school in Tennessee. In “Leaving Home,” for instance, he writes,
I tried to go before sunrise,
Not wanting to see the fields.
Too beautiful. Their frost
In chalices of spider web.
Mills recoiled from the increasingly industrial agriculture of the late twentieth century, but he still missed the farm. He saw himself as an agrarian in the mold of Andrew Lytle, his undergraduate mentor at Sewanee, and Wendell Berry. In an autobiographical essay, Mills wrote that he began “to think of the narrative, metrical, old-fashioned poetry I was attracted to as a kind of non-mechanized farming, using outmoded metrical devices to create an organic gardening on the page.” Just as organic farming has learned from and revitalized traditional farming methods, Mills sought to write poems that renewed old forms.
When Mills left Louisiana, he took a farmer’s practical skills with him. While working on his verse, Mills would support himself and later help to support his family as a carpenter, furniture maker, basket maker, bread baker, and gardener. Indeed, Mills credited this manual work for shaping him as a poet. In an interview, he said, “When I work with my hands, I feel a broadening of connection-making ability. I am able to see how things fit together, how things work in a series of steps, almost how a story fits together.” Here the focus is on piecing together stories, such as the striking narratives in Light for the Orphans. But this sense of craftsmanship also made him a master of traditional meter and form, as evidenced in those narratives’ deftly executed blank verse as well as in his later lyrics’ consummate rhymes and taut stanzas.
Christian faith was another major influence on Mills’s verse. Mills grew up in the Presbyterian Church, and he earned a master’s degree from Sewanee’s School of Theology. His poems reflect a complex religious sensibility, often raising theological questions and alluding to the Bible. David Middleton, a fellow Louisianan and poet, claims that Mills’s “faith and his art were always at one.” Here too, though, the word “art” should be understood in the broad, traditional sense. For Mills once claimed that working with his hands “is what makes me most human and also what puts me closest into contact with my creator.” This sentiment aligns with traditional thinking about art as a capacity for making. As Brian Keeble explains, this tradition often held that art is “an analogue of a cosmic principle, whereby the Logos, the Divine Reason, manifests in the world of created things.” True artistic creation is a way in which humans reflect the image of God. The human artist “operates in imitation of how God creates the beauty and order of the world, of how He shapes the order of the Creation from the Divine Intellect according to the cosmic possibilities that properly belong to it and thereby perfect its manifestation.” For Christians, the analogy is secured by Christ who was, after all, a carpenter. In its truest forms, human making is a redemptive activity.
In a Christian understanding of art, human making is not primarily about producing things to sell. It is about making gifts to be offered for the good of others. This is one of the major themes of Mills’s poetry. While building a home from recycled materials in Tennessee, Mills wrote poems addressed to his wife Kathryn. These poems, which are themselves gifts, present the house as a gift to her, a labor of love charged with romantic passion and rooted in the sacrament of marriage. When imagining the structure in his mind, he imagines not only the carpenter’s dimensions and angles—he also imagines their life together. In “Stanzas for Kathryn,” for instance, he writes,
The world will tell us, trying to break our spell,
That marriage is a necessary hell.
And 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.
As Kathryn Mills writes in her afterword to the Selected Poems, “Wil devoted himself to making a handmade life that was beautiful and full of meaning.” The later poems seek to make the quotidian strange, revealing not only the deep significance of what can easily be taken for granted but also how it needs to be continually sustained by redemptive making.
Mills’s narrative poems in Light for the Orphans, on the other hand, rarely take the quotidian as their departure point. They feature a cast of characters to rival William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor: the last castrato, a one-armed piano tuner, a mute shoe-shiner, a water dowser who lost his father in Hurricane Camille. These figurative “orphans” inhabit a world rife with tragedy. Kathryn Mills notes a “perennial tension” taken up by her husband’s poems: “a profound engagement with a redeemed world on the one hand, and a sense of loss and displacement within a fallen world on the other.” There is no shortage of loss and displacement in Light for the Orphans. Unsurprisingly, many of the characters in this collection are makers, but their world is one in which the redemptive possibilities of human making can easily be thwarted or warped.
In the dramatic monologue “The Dowser’s Ear,” for instance, the narrator has what would seem to be a great gift. He can hear approaching rain and find water even deep within the ground. But his father died at sea, and now he can no longer stand the sound of water, let alone the dowser’s task. He has thrown away his wand. The poem takes place in Tennessee during a severe drought. Two neighbors ask the narrator to help them locate a new well. He refuses, and they find it “sinful” that he does not use his “skill.” There is good reason to agree with them. The poem makes it clear that the narrator could save livelihoods (and probably the lives of farm animals) if he were to use his dowsing skill. But the poem also reveals the deep, unhealed wound festering beneath the narrator’s misanthropic demeanor. Mills gives us a characteristically complex portrait, the kind that denies easy judgment.
In the Bible, of course, idolatry is the great danger of human making—the production of false images that distort, obscure, or mislead. “Diary of a Piano-Tuner’s Wife” is, among other things, a meditation on Exodus 20:25: “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” The wife who narrates the poem says, “That’s my kind of story, Exodus.” Her husband has treated her like “just another string he fails to tune,” and she blames him for driving away their daughter. Yet he presents a different image to the outside world. To his clients he’s “pleasant, making conversation,” and he keeps a carefully ordered garden. The wife sees this garden as idolatrous, a false image of domesticity, one that keeps them from addressing their problems and seeking healing. She wrenches out the bricks that line his garden bed,
And made a pile of them beside the fence.
It had the look of Bible altars, built
When Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt.
Her hand-built altar lacks the precision of his garden beds, but it is the more honest act of human making. In characteristic fashion, Mills makes the absent husband more than a cardboard cutout villain. He has only one arm, and he still “wakes at night and swears he feels mosquitos/Biting on the arm that fertilized/A cubit-length of battlefield in France.” But this struggle only deepens our sense that the wife is correct—they need to seek healing and to reorient themselves, to right their relationship with each other, with their daughter, with God. They need the openness that her “altar” represents.
Other poems in Light for the Orphans affirm that human making can be redemptive, that it can bring some measure of healing in a fallen world. This is especially clear in the collection’s final two poems. “The Whirligig Man’s Invention” tells the story of a man who was severely beaten as a child. Behind the barn where “he received the licks,” he has set up an elaborate field of whirligigs. This seemingly gratuitous act of creation brings him some measure of peace. He doesn’t do it just for himself, though. He offers it as a gift to (mostly oblivious) others—“An ugly-loveliness that sets him free,/Lit up for neighbors who in turn may see.” The protagonist of “The Basket Weaver’s Dream” had a traumatic childhood as well. He grew up in an orphanage, haunted by memories of his absent mother. He once “cried himself to sleep/When basket splinters sounded like/His mother’s brush in tangled hair.” Later that same night, though,
… he dreamed about the trees
Of Paradise. He saw a grove
Between two streams and heard the wind
In rows of hanging moss, the same
Distressing memory of hair.
Years later, when making baskets, he still seems to be “listening to the grain,” in which he may hear “a breeze in the trees of Eden.”
Redemptive making is not a simple cure-all in these poems. Still, they suggest that there is something transcendent about such work. It can help one overcome personal hurt and offer gifts to others, and it can even offer intimations of the Divine. Indeed, “Confessions of a Steeplejack,” another poem in Light for the Orphans, can be read as an allegory about art’s ability to give us some hint of the heavenly kingdom. The protagonist of the poem practiced a now-obsolete craft—climbing steeples to make repairs. Once, lightning struck “above his head “and left him hanging,/Dazed for hours …” During this time he had a vision: “A woman’s ghost around him on the rope./She never spoke but to this day he swears/It was Evangeline.” As an old man, he looks forward to returning to “a native land/Where God is partial to the steeplejack.”
Mills undoubtedly felt something like a steeplejack himself at times, keeping alive the traditional verse-craft he found enduringly beautiful and true but which was often written off as obsolete. Like steeples, his poems are made of the stuff of this world but point to another. They are gifts to God, family, friends, and any reader fortunate enough to come across them. To repurpose a line from “Chapel of the Cross,” another of Mills’s meditations on human making, they offer “a structured grace, both lithe and permanent.”
Steven Knepper is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Military Institute. His essays and reviews have appeared in Telos, Commonweal, The Hedgehog Review, The Robert Frost Review, The Cormac McCarthy Journal, and Studies in American Culture. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Modern Age, Pembroke Magazine, SLANT, and Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry.