EP&M Online Review

The Poet as Orphan
Wilmer Mills, Light for the Orphans, 93 pages, $12.95
Story Line Press, 2002

Review by
Austin MacRae

With far too much of modern poetry indulging in openly autobiographical experience, it's always refreshing to read a collection of poetry that gives a voice to others.  Whereas many modern poets limit themselves to themselves--much of Sharon Olds' self-indulgent work comes to mind--the true test of any poet is the breadth of his vision.  Wilmer Mills' first collection, Light for the Orphans, passes with flying colors.  Mills, who operates a sawmill in Sewanee, Tennessee, has published a book which is predominantly made up of longer narrative pieces and dramatic monologues, and explores the lives of characters who are entrenched in rural, blue-collar life.  The colorful cast of characters includes a failed farmer, a tent delivery woman, a shoeshine man and a basket weaver, just to name a few.  The various voices--wistful, sometimes defiant, and always distinctive--seek faith and meaning in a world that has forsaken them; many of the characters are marginalized from society, lost beyond the outermost reaches of a loveless land.

The book is split into four sections: the first and fourth focus on the lives of others, while Mills writes more personally in the two middle sections.  Not to slight the middle of the book, which contains some fine writing indeed, but I found myself returning again and again to the bookend sections. Just the titles of the poems alone are curious enough to make one want to read further--"Confessions of a Steeplejack," "Ghost of the Beekeeper's Wife," and "The Moth Daughter's Garden" are a few examples.

As the titles tend to indicate,  Mills' subject matter is by no means trendy:  his characters and settings seem from a past age--a world with no prozac, cell phones and computers--a time when a single farmer could still pay his bills.  Isolation and loss are the  major themes of the book, and appear both in the longer narratives and the pieces which focus on the author's own agricultural heritage (Mills grew up in Brazil, where his parents served as agricultural missionaries for the Presbyterian Church).  The recurring sadness in the collection is often tempered with faith, for Mills is certainly a deeply spiritual poet.  The tragic circumstances of his characters are combined with a sense that however ruthless a place the world may seem, an individual's faith helps make life bearable.

The majority of Mills’ work is metered, much of it written in blank verse, and he also works with rhyme periodically.  Several poems employ both rhyme and more complex stanzaic patterns.  

The first section consists of several brilliant narratives and dramatic monologues.  "Diary of a Piano-Tuner's Wife" is spoken by a woman who suffers from a life of loneliness while her husband is out "keeping the world in tune" and vows to teach him a lesson by pulling the bed-rows out of his garden, thus throwing into chaos his well-organized life.  Curiously, we learn that the husband lost his arm on the battlefield in France (he still tries to itch his phantom limb), and along with his physical loss came the dismemberment of the marriage.  This is a powerful poem that plays with the idea of physical and spiritual growth, or "regrowth," to be more accurate.  The poem ends memorably with the speaker discovering her independence and worth as an individual:

    And when he sees the pile of stones I made,
    He'll try to set them back in lines again,
    But just today I found my phantom limb,
    And it was burning like a bush in Egypt.
    Now I know, and so will he: I'm more
    Than just another string he fails to tune.

Another highlight of the first section is "Railroad Crossing," a narrative piece about a bus driver isolated from society because of a horrific accident.  Years ago, she forgot to look both ways at a railroad crossing and consequently several school children died in the collision.  This poem is deep in its exploration of the boundary between real life tragedy and artistic imitation: to live with an isolated life of such guilt is indeed excruciating for the woman, who tries to cope with her feelings by retreating into the realm of dramatic literature--her life too horrible to be anything other than a fiction.  The speaker states, "The way she views her life as 'tragedy' / Or 'epic narrative' all come to naught" and the neighbors "can't suspend their disbelief in her / To notice drama in the everyday."  The public's hatred of her only increases when she uses the wrecked bus as a greenhouse, where she plants flowers on the children's seats.  The end of the poem continues to explore the sometimes elusive boundary between real life and drama.  In the end, the speaker alludes to the mythic character of Hecuba as evidence of the redeeming power of art.  Art, the speaker concludes, allows us to find grace in the grotesque and disfigured.  The story of the bus driver ends with her suicide pose against the side of the bus:
    ...if you could see her arms out wide
    A stance however pitiful, grotesque,
    You'd have to grant that something in the pose
    Evokes a woman on the walls of Troy.
    And in the end you'd know her greatest role
    Was playing true to life.  She got it right.
    Tonight she's everybody's Hecuba,
    Appealing for the bodies with her own,
    Unable to sustain the anguish of waiting.

There are several other gems in the first section: "The Last Castrato," which similarly deals with the staying power of art; "Wind Chimes for Gladys," a sensitive piece about a father in search of his dead daughter's spirit; "Horse to the Water," a dramatic monologue spoken by a ruined farmer; and "Mockingbird Boy," a strange and beautiful shorter lyrical piece about a boy who discovers a spiritual connection to the past by imitating the music of mockingbirds.

The fourth section, equally strong, contains the superior "The Dowser's Ear," a short poem (by dramatic monologue standards) spoken by a man whose sense of loss manifests itself as the repetitious sound of water falling, flowing, and crashing inside his ears.  What others consider his "gift" for finding water he defines as torture.  This poem immediately reminded me of Richard Wilbur's "The Mind-Reader," and though the two poems are significantly different in tone and scope, they operate with the same general premise.  The poem ends with a swell of drama followed by a beautifully-timed rural colloquialism:

    The neighbors think I'm crazy,
    Up all hours, but they'll never know
    The screaming voice inside a breaker's rage
    Or how it simmers in my ear.  I hate
    The sound of water.  Give me one good chance
    To make it silent.  I'd be right as rain.

Impressive too is "The Tent Delivery Woman's Ride," written in a strong female persona.  The poem opens with a tinge of much-needed humor, albeit dry as the Dowser is wet: "My daughter asked me if I've always been / A tangled woman.  I told her insanity / Could be hereditary, that you get it / From your children."  Satisfied with her wayward style of life, the woman concludes that she may be "pulled out, unraveled" but likes it just fine.

Then there is "The Ghost of the Beekeeper's Wife," a piece about a female spirit who was never able to have children when she was alive, who now serves as a sort of omnipresent mother, hovering, like a queen bee, above the earth as a protector of all children.  The poem gives us Mills at his musical peak:
    In late afternoon her limestone light runs thin
    With bee-lines trickling back to fan the honey comb.
    She leads them in, her shape between close trees,
    A constant movement home that children hear
    As whisper, "Time to go inside, my dear."

The two middle sections of Light for the Orphans are closely tied, it seems, to the poet's personal life. Most of these poems are shorter and at times employ rhyme with much success.   However, the meter could be a bit more regular in certain areas.  The second part opens with "Morning Song," a nice piece that is marred by a few awkward metrical substitutions.  Written in an ababcdcd rhyme scheme (though it contains no stanza breaks), the poem’s meter is rough at the start:

    In the kitchen, my mother hums so low
    And clear her song and morning voice
    Sound like a cello, bowed for tremolo.
    Some parts of the house are still asleep, by choice.

It is unclear, as one scans the second line, whether the poet wants to write in tetrameter or pentameter.  The fourth line is rough as well.  Such slight awkwardness is noticeable in several other lines of "Morning Song" and some of the other poems as well, but does not detract from an overall well-crafted collection.

There is something of Seamus Heaney's "Digging" in the middle sections of Light for the Orphans, as the poet comes to terms with the fact that he inhabits a different world from his father and grandfather.  Most evident in a poem such as "A Dirge for Leaving," in which Mills describes the land of Tennessee as a "Home for the living.  Home for the dead, laid deep," one is reminded of Heaney's descriptions of the bogs in Ireland.  The poet, too, is an orphan.

At nearly one-hundred pages, Mills' collection is impressive in its depth and originality.  This collection boldly speaks to universal human experience (an overused yet apt phrase) when most first collections only stutter.  Or, as mentioned before, many poets are too fascinated by their own lives and minds to think about creating a piece of unselfish art.  For, in the end, unselfish works of art stand the test of time.   Mills speaks about an unselfish artist in "The Last Castrato," which ends as follows:

                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."

Mills need not worry.  Light for the Orphans speaks for itself.  And will be remembered.     

                                                                        Austin MacRae

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