EP&M Online Review
The Poet as Orphan
Wilmer Mills, Light for the Orphans, 93 pages,
Story Line Press, 2002
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
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
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
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
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.
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