Magazine article Modern Age

Toward Eden's Trees

Magazine article Modern Age

Toward Eden's Trees

Article excerpt

The death of poet Wilmer Mills in 2011 at the age of forty-one was the occasion of my memorial commentary in Modern Age: "Singing the Pieces Back in Place: The Life and Verse of Wilmer Hastings Mills (1969-2011)." (1) In that essay I discussed the course of Mills's all too brief life, his family background, his poetics, and some of the best poems from his remarkable and highly praised book Light for the Orphans (2002). Now, in Selected Poems, Dr. Kathryn Mills has brought together in four sections a number of poems from that first book (here, section 1), along with later poems from three possible new collections, each one titled and sequenced by Wilmer Mills, and overlapping in part. Poems chosen from these proposed books--Arriving on Time, The Heart's Arithmetic, and The World That Isn't There--make up sections 2, 3, and 4 of Selected Poems.

There is both continuity and difference in Mills's earlier and later poems. Among the later poems are character studies similar to those of the orphans of modernity sympathetically portrayed in the earlier verse. There are also poems on family members, but in place of honoring his mother, father, or a grandfather Mills now celebrates domestic life with his wife, son, and daughter.

Most noticeably, though, Mills in the later poems engages more directly, more often, and at greater length with interrelated philosophical questions that are certainly present in the earlier poems yet not as dominant or as explicitly and fully treated. These concerns include the mysterious relationship between memory, time, and eternity; the kinship of words and things; the meaning and consequences of Eden and the Fall; the role of the poet as "linker"; and the ways in which metaphor and etymology trace roots and branches of human and natural history back to, yet also onward toward, a primal place faintly discerned as a wind on the verge of articulation, whispering in Eden's trees.

Since my memorial essay dealt at length with the earlier orphan poems, I will comment on only two of the poems included here from Light for the Orphans. These are poems that preliminarily explore major themes of the later poems.

In "Mockingbird Boy," the boy of the title hears the songs of mockingbirds and picks out notes from their songs on the piano. Both birds and boy are artists who imitate what they remember:

His music comes from listening
To mockingbirds reciting songs
That on his ears might well have been
The fossil calls of ancient birds
That only mockingbirds remember.

The boy may be seen as a figure of the poet listening back through time toward time's beginnings.

In "The Basket Weaver's Dream," Mills enters the mind of a young boy weaving baskets in an orphanage. The sound of the boy's departed or dead mother brushing tangles from her hair blends with the woven "basket splinters" and these in turn with his dream of "the trees / Of Paradise," trees on which hanging moss reminds him of his mother's hair. And through these trees a breeze blows, an elemental wind--perhaps the ruach--the source of the ancient fossil music another boy long afterward would hear in mockingbirds' songs. The poem closes with the weaving together of these various strands of metaphor as the boy, now a man, attends carefully to his work:

We've seen him often, crouching over,
Almost listening to the grain.
And if you ask him what he hears,
He'll stroke his beard and talk about
A lost significance of wood;
He'll lean and whisper in your ear
About a breeze in the trees of Eden.

Section 2, from Arriving on Time, is the first of three sections taken from various selections and orderings of Mills's later poems. Some of these poems are set on the Gulf coast, including Grand Isle, Louisiana, where the Mills family had a house.

One of the best of Mills's Gulf poems, "The Flower Beds of War," considers both nature and history with their many conflicting yet balancing opposites. …

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