Magazine article Modern Age

Singing the Pieces Back in Place: The Life and Verse of Wilmer Hastings Mills (1969-2011)

Magazine article Modern Age

Singing the Pieces Back in Place: The Life and Verse of Wilmer Hastings Mills (1969-2011)

Article excerpt

Wilmer Hastings Mills died at the age of forty-one on his family's farm in Zachary, Louisiana, July 25, 2011, after a brief battle with cancer of the liver. He is survived by his wife, Kathryn Oliver Mills, a professor of French at the University of the South, and his two children: Benjamin and Phoebe-Agnes. Mills earned a BA in English from the University of the South (Sewanee, Tennessee) in 1992 and an MA in theology from the School of Theology at Sewanee in 2005.

Born in Baton Rouge on October 1, 1969, Mills grew up on farmland that had been worked by members of the Mills family since the original Spanish Land Grant of the 1790s. Thus, Mills knew the agrarian way of life from direct experience and could do many things besides the writing of verse. At one time or another Mills worked as "a carpenter, furniture maker, sawmill operator, artisan bread baker, white oak basket weaver, farmer, and a white water raft guide." (1) Mills was also a talented watercolorist, guitar player, songwriter, and a superb poetry-writing teacher, serving as Kenan Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Moreover, he single-handedly rebuilt for his family a dilapidated bungalow in Sewanee that the local fire department had planned to burn as part of a fire-response exercise. This house was the subject of a feature story in Southern Living. (2) Truly Wilmer Mills was a man of many talents.

Mills published a chapbook of verse, Right as Rain, on Aralia Press in 1999. This was followed by his first full-length collection, Light for the Orphans, which appeared in 2002 on Story Line Press as a winner in the Story Line First Books Series. Mills's poetry was also published in many of America's finest quarterlies and journals. These include the Hudson Review, Modern Age, the New Criterion, Poetry, the Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and the Southern Review. Mills's verse has been praised by some of America's most distinguished poets, including Donald Justice and Richard Wilbur. At the time of his death, Mills had just completed a second full-length collection, Arriving on Time. He also left behind a number of uncollected and unpublished individual poems as well as other book-length gatherings of his verse. A volume of new and selected poems or a volume of collected poems is to be hoped for in due course as Kathryn Mills begins her work as literary executor.

Fortunately, in several interviews, an autobiographical essay, and a personal letter to the current writer, Wilmer Mills discussed his development as an agrarian and a traditional metrical poet and has put on record a number of important statements about poetics. It should also be noted that Mills was a deeply religious person who was raised as a conservative Presbyterian. His faith and his art were always at one.

Mills spent much of his childhood in Brazil, where his parents were agricultural missionaries. This experience made a deep impression. Back in Louisiana, Mills was bored in school and so took to writing down poetic images and phrases about rural life on pieces of paper that his mother later found in the pockets of his clothes in the laundry and saved. At the time, Mills did not think of these fragments either as poetry or as suitable subjects for poetry, yet he has stated that they "caused me to assume, at the worst, that there existed other territories of thought, places to which I was called, or even entitled, at best, like a young mallard on his first migration." (3)

Mills's "youthful epiphany" (4) as a poet came in April 1985, when his mother, Betsy, took a somewhat reluctant fifteen-year-old to hear Robert Penn Warren read his poetry at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, as the first speaker in the Marie Fletcher Lecture Series in American Literature. Mills recalled "seeing that oak of a man stand up in front of grown people and read poems" and said that

  Warren's poem "Audubon: A Vision" particularly moved me. … 
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