Wilmer Mills was a poet deeply rooted in the rural Protestant culture of the Plains, an area located between St. Francisville and Baton Rouge.
Wilmer Hastings Mills was a poet with deep roots in the rural Protestant culture of the Plains, an area located between St. Francisville and Baton Rouge. Mills found joy in his heritage and family and published widely on several major subjects. In earlier poems, these subjects include lonely souls he calls “orphans,” farm life in Louisiana, and leaving home for college in Tennessee. Later poems are about his marriage and children, life in the modern world, and the relationship among time, eternity, and poetry, especially poetry’s unique power to link together through metaphors all the things of this world. Mills’s verse won recognition from his peers both for his mastery of the poet’s craft and for the depth of his thoughts and emotions. His poems have earned Mills a permanent place among Louisiana writers.
Life, Works, and Honors
Born on October 1, 1969, in Baton Rouge, Mills was raised on his family’s farm in nearby Zachary until the age of three. Writers and artists as well as farmers, members of the Mills family have worked that land since the late eighteenth century and are related to Jim Bowie, Elemore Morgan Sr., and Elemore Morgan Jr. In 1972 Mills, along with his brother and his two sisters, moved to Brazil with his parents. There, his mother and father served as agricultural missionaries of the Presbyterian Church. These years spent living in a rural, almost pre-modern world with few amenities left a deep impression on Mills, who grew up speaking Portuguese as well as English.
After his family’s return to Louisiana in 1980, Mills attended public school in Zachary and then became a high-school boarder at the McCallie School in Chattanooga until his graduation in 1988. In 1992 Mills earned a BA in English from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he won the Bain-Swiggett poetry prize three years in a row. An MA from the School of Theology at Sewanee followed in 2005. It should also be noted that Mills was an accomplished wood worker, bread baker, painter, basket weaver, songwriter, and singer as well as poet.
Mills’s poetry appeared in many major national journals including The Hudson Review, Poetry,The Sewanee Review, and The Southern Review. Two chapbooks of Mills’s earlier verse were printed as Song and Testimony (1994) and Right as Rain (1999). In 2002 Story Line Press published Mills’s widely acclaimed first full-length collection, Light for the Orphans.
Mills had completed several versions of a new collection of verse when he was diagnosed with liver cancer in May 2011. A few weeks later, when further medical treatment held out little hope, Mills asked to be taken from Tennessee to his family’s farm in Zachary. He said, “I want to go home before I go home.” He died at home on July 25, 2011, at the age of forty-one. Mills’s Selected Poems was published posthumously in 2013. Other works remain to be collected and brought into print.
Mills’s earlier poetry is mainly of two kinds: narrative and meditative. The narrative poems are spoken by ordinary people he calls “orphans,” people who have been forgotten, neglected, misunderstood, or maltreated yet who are also heroic in their suffering, even defiantly joyful, and who have attained a tragic dignity. The meditative verse is often about first growing up on a farm in Louisiana and then leaving it for Tennessee—with Mills himself an orphan, of the farm now as of Brazil earlier. The variety of Mills’s orphans is remarkable: a castrato, a steeplejack, a school bus driver, the wife of a one-armed piano tuner, a shoeshine man who never speaks, and others. Poems about the family farm in Louisiana or his years in Tennessee tell stories of plowing, cutting hay, and life in a dilapidated house he entirely rebuilt for his wife and children.
One earlier poem celebrating the harmony of farm life is set in 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. / 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” (“Morning Song”).
In his later poems, Mills often writes on two subjects. One is his immediate family. Mills found great joy in being a husband to his wife, Kathryn, and the father of a son, Benjamin, and a daughter, Phoebe-Agnès. “Benjamin Shooting Skeet” is a poem about a father’s advice to his son: “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.”
Other later poems address philosophical questions about the relationship among time, eternity, and memory, about opposites of life held in tension, and about connections among language, wood, the world, and God’s creating Word. In “Making the Cradle,” the poet sees in the shape of wood knots a primal correspondence to the circling patterns of the stars and the music of the spheres: “I’ve heard it planing knots in oak where scenes / Of grain in radiating lines abound. / Their patterns look like solar systems drawn / In books, elliptical by how they’re sawn.” This likeness between star and wood, cradle and constellation—“Orion keeping time / With Leo in a pattern like a rhyme”—leads to the conclusion about the art of a cradle-maker: “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.”
There are also poems on faith and doubt, feeling out of place in the modern world, seeing the divine in the everyday and commonplace, critiquing modernity with its technological gadgets (“Rest Stop, Alabama”), and especially celebrating the power of metaphors to bring together names, thoughts, and things in a way that points toward the Word itself and Eden. This kind of poetry is what Mills called “Singing the pieces back in place” (“Recordari Song”). For Mills, the poet is preeminently “the linker.” Not surprisingly, Mills felt a deep kinship with fellow Louisiana-born artist Walter Anderson of whom Mills said that in paint, “He wrote the birds” (“Walter Anderson on the Chandeleurs”).
Almost all of Mills’s poems are written in traditional forms and in an attractive voice—humane, inquisitive, witty, poignant, sincere, serious, sympathetic, and, at times, warmly humorous as well. Mills acknowledged a great debt to Robert Penn Warren for showing him that he could write story poems about country life in the South. A turning point in Mills’s life as a poet occurred in April 1985, when, as a somewhat reluctant fifteen-year-old, Mills was taken by his mother to hear Warren read at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux as the first Fletcher Lecturer in American Literature. Mills once wrote that a line he heard Warren read that night from “Audubon: A Vision”—“Tell me a story of deep delight”—became his motto as a poet. John J. Audubon had lived and painted not far from the Mills family farm.
Mills also said that he was indebted to Robert Frost for demonstrating how poems can be composed in traditional meter and rhyme and yet still be wholly modern in theme and style. Mills called Warren and Frost “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.”
As a writer who looks primarily at other people and the world outside himself, Mills sees a deep metaphorical bond between all words and things and their histories. It is the poet’s role to find these connections traceable back to Eden because likeness implies a oneness from which all likenesses descend. His style, subjects, and voice led to praise and recognition from readers and fellow poets of greatly differing cultural perspectives. Mills’s best poems have an undiminished sense of wonder about the joys, sorrows, and mysteries of the world and the human condition.
Former US Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur praised Mills’s earlier poems for their “emotional density” and said of Mills’s writing, “There is pain and darkness in it; and there is a continual relief and gaiety as the right words are found.” After Mills’s death, X. J. Kennedy published “The Poems of Wilmer Mills,” a brief, moving tribute, in The Sewanee Review: “Each one is like a coin of heavy gold, / Modest the denomination on its face, / Not meant to spend, a valuable to hold, / One that no common mintage can replace.” And, as his widow and literary executor, Kathryn Oliver Mills, has written, Mills was a “magical Southern gentleman of a poet” who “devoted himself to making a handmade life that was beautiful and full of meaning” and of whom it can be said, “His life gave shape to his art, and his art gave shape to his life.”