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The Stable Doubt of Wil Mills

The poet Wilmer Mills was raised in the conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church, came from a long line of well-established Christians, and rigorously embraced a staunch, evangelical faith. Given that background, which I knew intimately as his wife, what struck me most when assembling his Selected Poems (University of Evansville Press: 2013) was not the omnipresence of spiritual matters in his life’s work. Rather, it was the degree to which negative as well as positive space increasingly defined the experience of God in his poetry. That is to say, even as Wil’s life and actions were governed by religious certainty, God’s presence is defined perhaps most sharply by His absence in Wil’s lyrics.

I lived with Wil for sixteen years before his death in 2011, so it might seem strange that this revelation came as a surprise to me. However, the phrase “I resolve my enigma on the lyre” (Ps. 49) resonates with the mystery and tensions within this man and his poetry. Wil could be stymied by contradictions that he experienced within the certainties to which he held himself in life. Raised in a context that expected men to be the providers, for example, this devout agrarian never had a reliably full-time job and suffered from this, wanting

                         . . . things I cannot have:Assurance that my children never suffer;An ordinary life where things make sense.”

(“Crosswalk”)

Working within the well-defined constraints of lyric form, though, Wil would doubtless have agreed with Pascal: “Man is nature’s most [End Page 84] prodigious product; for he cannot conceive of what body is, and even less conceive of spirit, and least of all how a body can be united with a spirit. That is where man’s greatest difficulty lies, and yet it is his very being.” Because of his particular nature, Wil’s challenges centered around an impossible but for him inescapable quest to unite world, words, and Word—and if that conjunction of nouns sounds over the top, let me say that he called his wood-working, poetry, and bread-baking business Wood, Word, and Wheat. The result—for me anyway—is profoundly moving, even and maybe especially within its occasional obscurity. It is a vision that requires and embraces the equivocal and the contradictory in its drive for clarity. In his poetry, Wil Mills’s existential sense of life, language, faith, and doubt often, and sometimes inadvertently, goes beyond the usual categories people use to define themselves as well as their beliefs.

The complexity of Wil’s religion is evident from the first, in Light for the Orphans (Story Line Press: 2002) as well as in the three manuscripts in progress at the time of his death. Nowhere, however, is it more explicit than in the poems he was writing at the end of his life. He considered grouping these under the title The World That Isn’t There, and that is what I did in his Selected Poems. The textual history of that phrase gives a context for its final uses, so I will start there.

Wil grew up in a farming community in Louisiana that had been settled by his ancestors in the 18th century, and the history and traditions of the Mills family represent a quite significant, powerful force in the lives of its members. Arriving on Time—the second of Wil’s four collections—springs from Wil’s early adulthood, so its poems are about revisiting his childhood experience as a man, and what it was like to be a husband, father, and artist in Tennessee. In “After the Fact,” from Arriving on Time, Wil describes hearing that horses on his family’s farm had been struck by lightning, and how he went to the scene [End Page 85]

                         after the factTo see for myself, to wrap my headAround the proof I lacked.But at the scene I shut my eyes,And when I did I swearThat something let me visualizeA world that wasn’t there, [italics mine]The way those horses might have seen. . .The colors of stars, all night and day,

The narrative then shifts to a broader consideration of times past in Louisiana, and specifically to the memories of Wil’s father, Wilmer.

But Daddy said that, as a boy,He walked the woods at nightAnd saw what dirt did not destroy:A poltergeist of lightWhere phosphorous in rotted woodStill burned a shape of trees.So I remembered it for good,As if his memoriesWere mine, his story the proof I prize,Though after the fact, in trust,What I believe without my eyes,Believing because I must.

“After the Fact” is about two different kinds of faith, then, although neither one is specifically religious: the sort one believes in by dint of the inner eye (of imagination, of spirit), and what one accepts “in trust” from traditions that are passed down. In both of these cases, Wil believes on the basis of outside authority. While this trust is willing, there is also a constrained air about it: at the same time that phrases like “I swear / That something let me visualize,” “So I remembered it for good,” and “Believing because I must” sound certain, the degree of their emphasis also lends them an impelled character. Furthermore, the two narratives of this poem fit together somewhat disjointedly, and this knotted quality suggests that Wil is trying to find his own way [End Page 86] through a complicated matter with a certain strain and lack of clarity. The notion of a “world that isn’t there” first occurs in the context of family history, and in a poem conveying both conviction and compulsion about the faith the poet embraces.

The posthumously eponymous phrase recurs in “Fallen Fruit,” a poem found in The World That Isn’t There.

The very day that Ingmar Bergman died,I read a book on pictures, words, and sumsThat glossed the first time Helen Keller cried.Beside me, there were piles of rotting plums,The neighbor’s summer windfall gone to waste.A yellow jacket landed on my chair,And colors on its abdomen were spacedSo perfectly I couldn’t help but stare.

My daughter asked me, “How are shadows made?”And, blinded by how clear and luminousHer eyes were then, I suddenly felt afraidThat I would disappoint the obvious,The sensual world in words I’d merely choose.But then my son asked, “What if time could slip?”His Time! Her Light!                              Though Eden’s ingénues,Their minds and garden-hearts could already lispIn metaphors that I would not dispute,Could see the world that isn’t there, could smellThe sweetly fecal scent of fallen fruitThat issues out of symbols like a spell.

I can’t protect them; they were bound to see.The Fall was knowing what it meant “to stand”Then painting the paradise that used to beIn language that could raise it from the sand.Thinking in pictures, feeling in words, I criedWhen Bergman died, like Helen when she knewThe beauty of the world, what liquefiedAcross her hands that felt and wrote and drew. [End Page 87]

Like “After the Fact,” this poem deals with belief, although in this case it is specifically religious. In “Fallen Fruit,” too, ambivalence combines with certainty: on the one hand metaphors are “indisputable,” and children are “bound to see” what the Fall means. On the other hand, the links among Bergman, Keller, and the Fall are not immediately apparent, and the speaker’s tears at the end are mysterious. The balances between confusion and clarity shift around from one poem to the next, though, and in ways that are revelatory.

Although both poems are narrated in the past tense, in “Fallen Fruit” the world “isn’t there” rather than “wasn’t there”; it exists in the present rather than in the past. Furthermore, the dialogue about faith is conveyed via indirect discourse in “After the Fact” (“. . . Daddy said that, as a boy, / He walked the woods at night”), whereas in “Fallen Fruit” it occurs as direct discourse in the immediate present. As an immediate experience for both children and father, moreover, secondhand proof—that the speaker both “lacks” and “prizes” in “After the Fact”—is not necessary.

At the same time that the experience of belief is more direct in this poem than in the first, however, it is also more exploratory and openly ambivalent. In “After the Fact” Wil believed on the basis of hear-say, without question, because he “must.” In “Fallen Fruit,” on the other hand, Wil engages with his children in direct discourse that entertains their questions (“How . . . ?” and “What if . . . ?”). Furthermore, in contrast with “After the Fact,” where the child’s faith comes entirely from the parent’s experience and testimony, in this poem the children have a knowledge of their own:

                    Though Eden’s ingénues,Their minds and garden-hearts could already lispIn metaphors that I would not dispute . . .

A further change in “Fallen Fruit” is that the speaker is more obviously torn between the world that’s there and the one that’s not. In “After the Fact,” Wil’s faith involves shutting his eyes to the world [End Page 88] around him: in the first section, “I shut my eyes”; in the second, “What I believe without my eyes.” “Fallen Fruit” is inspired by the death of Ingmar Bergman, a director known for his quasi-religious devotion to art as well as the sensual, and Wil absorbs the physicality of this world fully—the rotting plums, the colors spaced on the yellow jacket’s abdomen, the sweetly fecal scent. Moreover, at the same time that Wil demonstrates an affinity for the world that is very much there in this poem, he also intimates a quasi-wariness of the spiritual world, actually wanting to protect his children from the tenets that define it:

I can’t protect them; they were bound to see.The Fall was knowing what it meant “to stand”. . .

Indeed, when the speaker cries at the end of the poem, it’s not clear whether it’s for the “paradise that used to be”—which would indicate a leaning towards the invisible realm of faith—or for “The beauty of the world” and the death of Bergman, who had a notably dark relationship to Christianity, which would indicate this-worldly preoccupations. “I cried / When Bergman died, like Helen when she knew / The beauty of the world . . .” What is clear is that these levels of apprehension intermingle confusedly and enigmatically. I’ll develop that ambivalence vis à vis language later. For now, I conclude that in The World That Isn’t There, the rock-solid faith handed down by his forefathers in “After the Fact”—which was very important to Wil, whether it be in the form of religious or ancestral piety—gains a deeply personal layer, born of mature experience, with a trickier dynamic between this world and the next. “Fallen Fruit” characterizes faith as immediate rather than at one remove, individual rather than corporate, questioning rather than blind, and ambiguously yet persistently situated with respect to the material world rather than contained within its own sphere. This view of spirituality is typical of The World That Isn’t There.

By surrounding faith with ambiguity, this last collection entertains two possible and opposing perspectives on the world “that isn’t there”: it isn’t there because religious faith is “belief in things unseen”; [End Page 89] alternatively, it isn’t there because it quite simply does not exist. Challenging one’s position on belief or disbelief with the opposite view demonstrates maturity and courage, especially in a social climate that dichotomizes left from right, in the religious as well as the political realm. The capacity to question one’s assumptions usually leads to greater depth. It also involves risk, however. All of these things emerge in Wil’s poetry as it evolves.

Pain and darkness exist alongside joy from the very beginning in Wil’s work. The lives of the orphans in his first collection are miserable by most standards; the family home teaches “Silence, grief in the eyes, a sweet despair”; Wil even describes the “charm” of his mother’s “Morning Song” as “sung disenchantment” within the same line. However, in The World That Isn’t There, the world that is there is more irredeemably fallen than it was in Light for the Orphans, Arriving on Time, and The Heart’s Arithmetic. Music most dominantly denotes familial harmony in “Morning Song” and throughout Wil’s first three collections, whereas in The World That Isn’t There it opens into fullblown disillusionment—the washed up waitress listens to songs that “resolve nothing but the seventh chords” in “Pop’s Happy Land and Truck Stop.” Other elements that had offered hopeful portent fail at the end as well. Birds sang “otherworldly tunes” in Light for the Orphans’ “Mocking Bird Boy,” and their flight surpassed words in Arriving on Time’s “Black Skimmers.” In contrast, in Wil’s last collection birds imitate the trills of cellphones and repeatedly seek heaven to smash into glass. In The World That Isn’t There, people like the Monteagle Farmer “hate[s] with a perfect hate,” priests are corrupt, and heaven is reduced to a place where children aren’t violated and painted buntings “never ever die” (“A Young Priest’s Wife Begins to Think”).

The problem of spiritual darkness extends from Wil’s characters to his own experience in this last collection. Again, inner torment existed in Wil from the start. At the end, though, the psychic and spiritual angst of the very young man trying to find his own way becomes the despair of the grown man who feels he has reached a dead-end. [End Page 90] The first person speaker of “The Unemployed Man at Forty” revs the drill to his head and tells himself to “Stare / At nothing, and think of everything.” The narrator of “Crosswalk” urges himself to “Walk with light” while earlier images of a robin beating herself against a window (“wanting some illusion in the glass / As much as I want things I cannot have”) shadow that conclusion. And Wil’s faith goes out of focus at points. In “Dream Vocation” the speaker dreams of finding a prayer on a slip of paper in Tibet, but can’t remember who signed it. In “Questions in a Doctor’s Office Waiting Room” he confronts the problems of a “post-Edenic world,” speculating that a woman he sees “will be well, / I know it” while concluding that “for me it’s not as certain.”

After returning from two and a half years commuting home from UNC–Chapel Hill, where he had been a Kenan Fellow of Creative Writing, Wil was diagnosed with the liver cancer from which he did not in fact recover; “though for me it’s not as certain” indeed. The potentially incurable problem Wil describes in “Questions in a Doctor’s Office Waiting Room” was not cancer, though, or any other physical ailment, for that matter.

               Life imitates . . . oh, what do you call it? Kitsch?So there, I’ve given it a name. Now sleep!I would . . . but how, when everywhere the worldIs full of hybrid creatures needing names?A post-Edenic problem.                                        After the fall,Who’s up to such an Adamantine task?I’m trying not to think of all the junkSomewhere awaiting nomenclature, taggedAnd catalogued against ignominy.

As he had observed and experienced fallenness in life, he also perceived it, and with particular intensity, in language. We have many, many books about the philosophy of language on our shelves, so by introducing that dimension to this discussion I as lit crit am not taking my husband’s poetry in directions he didn’t fully consider himself, as [End Page 91] individual, poet, and student seeking a masters degree in theology. I can’t say that he evolved a clear, coherent theory of language, and that of course is not a criticism. I, too, will try to avoid the pitfalls such a system would invite. However, I do want to explore the relations among world, word, and Word in Wil’s poetry, because these things inform and illuminate the multifarious body of his work. In “Fallen Fruit,” for example, the world of faith that ambiguously, enigmatically both is and “isn’t there” is revealed—and obscured—by language.

The speaker of this poem starts off by announcing what he was doing the day Ingmar Bergman died: he was in a garden—my parents’ backyard in Berkeley, actually—reading a book about Helen Keller’s discovery of the world through words. The connections among the garden, Bergman, Keller, and language evolve obscurely in the course of “Fallen Fruit,” and are at the heart of its mystery. For Wil at this stage, language is a matter of intellectual pursuit, and he is clearly immersed in his physical surroundings—the piles of plums, the evenly spaced colors on a yellow jacket’s abdomen. The story he has been reading, though, is about someone who can neither see nor hear anything, and who discovers the world through writing. When Keller related the word “water,” spelled by touch onto her hand, to the liquid pouring over it, “that living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!” (from her autobiography). Cut off from the sensual world as she was, her tears when she “knew/The beauty of the world” are most probably tears of joy. For Keller, words mean the world, and more.

In the poem’s second section Wil introduces our children and, through them, another kind of world—a metaphysical one.

My daughter asked me, “How are shadows made?”And, blinded by how clear and luminousHer eyes were then, I suddenly felt afraidThat I would disappoint the obvious,The sensual world in words I’d merely choose.But then my son asked, “What if time could slip?”His Time! Her Light! [End Page 92]                          Though Eden’s ingénues,Their minds and garden-hearts could already lispIn metaphors that I would not dispute,Could see the world that isn’t there, could smellThe sweetly fecal scent of fallen fruitThat issues out of symbols like a spell.

The first section’s rotting plums become allegorical as “fallen fruit”; its real-world garden is internalized as the children’s “garden-hearts”; as “Eden’s ingénues” they represent not only innocence but paradise itself; son and daughter can see a world that isn’t there. Unlike the immediacy and beauty of the physical world represented in part one, the status of this otherworldly place is not clear. On the one hand, the world that isn’t there could be a lost Eden via its association with the children. On the other hand, Wil sets the invisible sphere the children see in opposition to their inner purity (“Though Eden’s ingénues] [they] . . . could see the world that isn’t there”), and he also associates this place with the Fall syntactically: the children “could see the world that isn’t there, could smell/The sweetly fecal scent of fallen fruit.” Thus this world could represent a fallen state, or a spirit world beyond a fallen existence, or a kind of ephemeral artistic dimension, since the death in question is that of Ingmar Bergman, an artist who sought the meaning of life, of beauty, and did not find it in religion. These possibilities are all evoked, and none is explicitly chosen.

The relationship between these multiple worlds and language is also more complicated in this middle part of the poem. Keller’s connection between verbal signs and physical experience was direct. In contrast, the speaker is wary of his ability to use words in a way that could do justice to the material world, of “disappoint[ing] the obvious, / The sensual world, in words I’d merely choose.” He’s also aware that language, like the world’s fruit, is fallen. The “sweetly fecal scent of fallen fruit / . . . issues out of symbols like a spell.” The most obvious symbols here are the fallen plums, which symbolize Eve’s apple and the Fall. Words are symbols, too, though, in that they represent things. [End Page 93] Furthermore, the “spell” cast by the smell of human waste mingling with that of sweet fruit is all the more present in language, and literally so, because words are themselves “spelled,” like “w-a-t-e-r” on Keller’s hand. Wil liked double entendres. So language is potentially inadequate, contaminated, bewitching, and dual. At this stage, though, one form of language escapes compromise: while the words the speaker “merely chooses” risk “disappointing the obvious,” the children speak in “metaphors that I would not dispute.”

The final section of “Fallen Fruit” develops the associations of metaphor by bringing us back to Helen Keller, the beauty of this world, and the death of Ingmar Bergman. In this last stanza the wonder of both worlds—seen and unseen—becomes markedly tragic.

I can’t protect them; they were bound to see.The Fall was knowing what it meant “to stand”Then painting the paradise that used to beIn language that could raise it from the sand.Thinking in pictures, feeling in words, I criedWhen Bergman died, like Helen when she knewThe beauty of the world, what liquefiedAcross her hands that felt and wrote and drew.

The Fall involves menace (“I can’t protect them . . .”), loss (of “the paradise that used to be”), and crying, this time the speaker’s. The echo with Helen’s crying in the first stanza amplifies these tears, and so do the four long “i” sounds packed into the space of three lines: the pronoun “I,” and the verbs “cried,” “died,” and “liquefied,” two of which are emphatic end rhymes. With “liquefied,” moreover, the water of Wil’s tears also expands visually and conceptually to encompass the word and the world that wash over Keller’s hand.

The status of the two worlds is more clear here than earlier: paradise is lost, the world is heart-breakingly beautiful. Less transparent than Keller’s initial tears of joy, though, is the nature of Wil’s tears. Crying when someone dies is normally a sign of grief. However, Wil adds sweetness to that bitterness by likening his crying over Bergman’s [End Page 94] death to Keller’s joy when she discovers the beauty of the world. And then he adds bitterness to the sweetness of Keller’s discovery by the same process in reverse. Like so many elements of this poem, its emotions are mixed, rendered bittersweet and absent or present by obscure associations.

The status of language, too, is mixed in this last stanza, and also flickers between ambiguity and complexity. Eden is gone, but language “could raise it from the sand.” That power of resurrection is not unequivocal, though, it is conditional—“could raise it from the sand”—and Wil once again associates language with the Fall, this time by its very definition. “The Fall was knowing . . . / Then painting the paradise . . . / In language.” Indeed, the evocation of that which is lost is a kind of artistic cenotaph, a reminder of what no longer exists. The power of language as such is ambiguous here.

Language as such is not the only form of language represented in this final part of the poem, however. Words are coupled with other forms of response and expression throughout these last eight lines. In addition to the obvious verbal and cognitive components, words are invested with a visual dimension (“painting . . . in language”; “Thinking in pictures”; “hands that . . . drew”) as well as both sensate and emotional kinds of feeling (“feeling in words”; “hands that felt and wrote and drew”). Wil blends forms of perception and expression even further by “thinking in pictures, feeling in words,” changing around our usual associations with pictures and words, thought and emotion. As the Fall becomes more dire in the course of the poem, then, the human response to experience becomes progressively more complex, and more fertile. At first, Wil merely “stares” at the world around him, words are just printed in his book, and they “gloss” Keller’s story, a verb that does mean “explain,” but that can also signify “a surface luster or brightess,” and “to mask the true nature or deal with a subject too lightly.” In the middle section, Wil starts entertaining questions, but he doesn’t know what to say or think, and the children respond only on the sensual level to a deeper level of experience—they “could [End Page 95] see the world that isn’t there,” “could smell the sweetly fecal scent of fallen fruit” [italics mine]. At the end, Keller and Wil experience words living in emotions, images, sense, and thought. And for Wil there is the further possibility that an amalgam of self with experience and language could intimate a living Word in a world that both is and isn’t there.

Underlying ambiguities continue to sow the seeds of doubt in “Fallen Fruit,” though. Is Wil grieving the loss of a great atheist artist and the beauty of the world, or is he coming to terms with the Fall through death? Is the “world that isn’t there” a kind of heaven, or is it, too, contaminated with our fecal scent? How far can language go towards redeeming all this? Word and world, art and metaphysics, joy and grief, mingle ambiguously in this poem. In fact, it’s the play along the fault line of what is there and what isn’t that makes “Fallen Fruit” particularly compelling. Enigmas and resolutions flirt across the borders of stanzas, sounds, images. And metaphor is the “indisputable” figure of speech that may—or may not—relate and illuminate apparently opposing dualities.

Wil used metaphors throughout his work, of course. In The Heart’s Arithmetic, though, he started endowing that trope with special connotations. “From Lookout Mountain At Night”: “A memory is like a lack of time, / And time is like a dream I can’t recall, / And Metaphor is how the three are joined, / And all of them are where my son will be / When I am gone . . .” Metaphor is not just a form of illustration in that poem, it is a way of holding together and understanding the different dimensions of human experience (“Metaphor is how the three are joined”).

Perhaps influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s idea of metaphor as “living” and as capable of revealing ultimate ends by relating two apparently unrelated things (“la métaphore vive”), for Wil the value of metaphor changes in The World That Isn’t There. Towards the end of his life, metaphor goes beyond comprehending the natural world and holds out the possibility of transcending it. We saw that in “Fallen Fruit”: that [End Page 96] poem’s consideration of a world that isn’t there works through as well as against associations made among disparate entities, and metaphors were the only “undisputed” form of language. “Snowman Argument,” a poem accepted for publication in the last two months of his life, develops this idea further.

The snowman looks a little worse for wear,Melting away from his intended ties,However slim, to Man, to me; his hairMade from a broken mop, his acorn eyes,They cease to imitate their maker’s face.“Props in a childhood theater of lies,”The poet said. It’s true, we limn our raceIn clay, paint, stone, and word, though each, like ice,Forgets the living likenesses we trace,As if the arts were nothing but a viceOf verisimilitude, analogiesThat don’t ring true then fade to fail us twice.

But if our metaphors and similesAre only simulacra we assign,Does nature have its similaritiesApart from how we draw a common line?If we were gone, would all our mirrors meltTo nothing like the snowman’s vain design?Dust in the window light where I had kneltAppeared to ricochet at random, drifting,Darting, lacking a pattern spun or speltFrom entropy except for how the siftingParticles resembled swarms of gnatsOr microscopic life that’s always shifting.

We don’t need scientists who read the statsAnd call the motion “Brownian” to seeThat correspondences exist in catsAnd rats despite the animosityThey show each other. I watch the snowman fadeTo nothing, but what approximated meIs similar to how my mind was made,Imagined in an image I can knowEach time I see the “somethings” that have stayed [End Page 97] With parallels in sand or wood or snow.I am most like a snowman in the sun,And most alive, when, also melted low,I sense affinity and joy, made one,With whom I suffer in comparison.

“Snowman Argument” was written as a response to “Snow Man,” by Wallace Stevens. I am not a Stevens expert, and do not intend to enter into the fullness of his poem. However, based on what Wil told me, and wrote in his poem, he read “Snow Man” as a statement that “the arts were nothing but a vice / Of verisimilitude, analogies / That don’t ring true then fade to fail us twice.” Wil’s “Snowman Argument” opposes the notion that language (metaphors) reveal nothing of the world. The title of Wil’s poem, which refers both to Stevens’ work and to the concept of a “straw man argument,” indicates Wil’s belief that the other poet’s “Snow Man” invoked and knocked down false premises. In his poem, Wil substitutes “somethings” for Stevens’ “nothings.” Then, and this is what particularly interests me, he concludes “Snowman Argument” not only by relating man to the outside world through a snowman, but by moving from that initial metaphor to the ultimate metaphoric association, that between man and God.

How one metaphor progresses to the next in this poem is revealing in and of itself. At first Wil compares himself to something one can ordinarily see in a winter landscape: a snowman. The initial basis for the comparison is physical and approximate—the two share the general outline of a man, with hair and eyes. Then Wil says that he is most like the snowman when the two are “melted low”: the point of analogy becomes, interestingly, the disappearance of the physical characteristics that the two had shared. And that annihilation leads to a final association by comparison, this time with an unspecified entity (“whom”), and involving unity, joy, and suffering. Changing relationships with the central figure of the snowman allow Wil to move smoothly from presence to evanescence to presence-within-evanescence in the course of the poem. [End Page 98]

Because the snowman facilitates a fluid transition from one world to the next through metaphor, it is all the more striking that the workings of the particular metaphor disable that very figure. A comparison involves two variables. However, when the speaker, like the snowman, is “melted low,” the result is a metaphoric relationship in which he is “made one” with God. The last metaphor of “Snowman Argument” thus eliminates itself by removing one of the two elements necessary for its definition. And yet, though strictly speaking a comparison between man and God is impossible quite simply because one point of comparison has vanished, the last line of the poem explicitly reasserts that very literary figure: “With whom I suffer in comparison [italics mine].” It doesn’t stop there, moreover. Suffering reestablishes relationship through comparison. However, the phrase “suffering in comparison” once again breaks down the association between two things by establishing difference; idiomatically, that expression means “to fall short.” The conclusion of “Snowman Argument” at once constructs and deconstructs metaphoric relationship.

Contradicting and questionable associations rendered the thrust of “Fallen Fruit” conflicted and obscure. In “Snowman Argument,” though, Wil’s central figure works with and against verbal relationship to reveal the poem’s subject as a whole. Wil’s snowman metaphor embodies the doubly paradoxical nature of man in relation to God through Christ. That relationship, like Wil’s metaphor in this poem, involves association between a fallen creature and a perfect being through suffering, and also a communion between entities that are nonetheless distinct, “one” but not at all the same. This complex intimacy is new. In Light for the Orphans’ “Codex for Killing,” Wil could neither trust God nor give himself and his own constructs for the world over:

But if I learn to let things go,Especially my tendencyTo strangle what I cannot tame,If I can trust in Yahweh’s orderWhen it seems to slither by,Will that submission offer peace? [End Page 99]

Wil finds that peace, and more, in the image of variegated union offered by the snowman metaphor.

There is another difference between Wil’s verbal approach to faith in The World That Isn’t There as opposed to the one in Light for the Orphans. If God’s presence flickers throughout the central metaphor of “Snowman Argument,” God is absent as a word in this poem: in contrast with Light for the Orphans, where references to Yahweh, Moses, and Jesus abound, Wil doesn’t name God here. Rather, in “Snowman Argument” Wil invokes Him with an unspecified pronoun (“With whom I suffer in comparison”) and with traditionally Christian associations—being melted low, joy through oneness, suffering. Indeed, although allusions scattered throughout The World That Isn’t There make it clear that the faith Wil is wrestling with is Christian, in almost all of these last poems the word “God” actually appears mainly in the context of unbelief. The disillusioned priest’s wife’s exclaims “I swear to God,” or “my God”; the speaker observes that in the future “the only God will be the human face” in “Breughel’s Harvesters”; in “Praying Hands” the nuns take a souvenir shop’s plastic hand “giving the finger” for “the hand of God,” and so on. When Wil evokes God’s presence (as opposed to His name) in his last collection, it is most often subtly, through references to a “living hymn, a prayer” in “Breughel’s Harvesters”; to Zacchaeus and a title of “Praying Hands” for a poem about workers pruning a sycamore tree; to the need to be healed in a doctor’s office in “Questions in a Doctor’s Office Waiting Room”; to the peace and beauty of a church in “Chapel of the Cross”; and the simple “Amen” in “Ruach.”

The virtual absence, or negative presence, of God’s name in Wil’s last collection has several implications and repercussions for how he viewed language and faith towards the end of his life. On the most obvious level, to name something is to limit it to one’s own terms. The fact that Wil does not name God in “Snowman Argument” is a verbal instance of giving up control, a phenomenon manifested conceptually in the image of the melting snowman. [End Page 100]

Along the same lines, but in a slightly different direction, to refrain from naming something while at the same time indicating its presence is to acknowledge the possibility of an entity or an experience that could go beyond sensate and verbal categories, that could in fact be boundless and unknowable. Indeed, verbally marked lacunae are essential to the enterprise of representing spiritual experience. “Sacred” literally means that which is set apart. By its very nature, the ineffable must forever elude direct contact of any kind, physical and verbal, or risk a spiritual form of King Midas’ curse. In religious terms, Kierkegaard is one of many Christian philosophers who also took this view. For that reason, the author of Fear and Trembling communicates through such indirect devices as paradox, circumlocutions, and hiding his identity behind a verbal subterfuge. Furthermore, the pseudonym that Kierkegaard chose, Johannes de Silentio, puts his work under the sign of silence, the ultimate abnegation of names. Understood in light of an established tradition of Christian semiology, the tactics Wil exploits in “Snowman Argument”—the vehicle of the snowman, the undefined pronoun, the use of metaphor to elide the religious subject of the poem—make sense. And it’s true that the poems exuding the greatest sense of peace and transcendence in Wil’s final collection do so by representing the wordless silence of a chapel, of prayer, or a breath. This figurative indirection contrasts with the more Old Testament vision of God in Light for the Orphans, where Yahweh is regularly named and feared. Certain works in The World That Isn’t There suggest that Wil’s poetry moved beyond understanding the inexpressible as a constraining and even painful state—as for Light for the Orphans’ “Mocking Bird Boy” who “held his tiger-lily tongue,” or the “Shoe Shine Man” who was beaten into silence—and grasped it as the Inexpressible.

There is another possible angle on Wil’s snowmen, robins running into windows, gnarled sycamores, empty churches. Wil’s vocabulary is rich, his words sonorous, and his overtones otherworldly. However, earthly scenes define the settings of his poems, and although his metaphors gesture towards an experience beyond themselves, they are also [End Page 101] dominantly of this world, and of an ordinary one at that. In fact, Wil articulates the virtues of plain language as forcefully as he wrote about the value of the metaphor. In “For the Unemployed Man at Forty” Wil calls language that “tells it like it is” “prophecy”:

Prophecy is not aboutThe future; it isn’t fortune telling.It’s more the ache of déjà vuExpanded as an open windowThat lets you see the obvious. . .Prophecy tells it like it IS.

Words thus have the potential to carry the weight both of what they can and cannot say in Wil’s work. In a sense, then, the reader has two choices before the scenes Wil depicts: to move in the direction in which the metaphors point, from the pedestrian to the potentially sublime; or to rest in the everyday elements that ground the metaphor, and maybe—or maybe not—invest them with the glimmer of further possibility. Those two alternatives represent dual approaches both to faith and to language. Wil’s plain, direct mode can represent a secular world, or a deeply incarnational Christian world-view that lets the world, and its mystery, speak for itself. His indirect metaphoric associations invoke an existential Kierkegaardian perspective that can be both tortured and transcendent.

Plain and figurative poetic styles—this-worldly straight talk, other-worldly figures of speech—are in fact both part of Wil’s cultural and literary background. The sensibility and idiom of Wil’s Southern roots are naturally florid. But he spent a fair amount of time at the West Chester Poetry Conference, where Yvor Winters, a notable practitioner of the plain style, has been a strong influence. Wil and I met at West Chester, and Winters was my Yankee father’s mentor at Stanford, so one could say that those verbal modes played out on other levels of Wil’s life as well. In any case, though, both forms of expression are [End Page 102] certainly at work in the dynamic between enigma and resolution on Wil’s lyre, where transcendent metaphors sometimes arise from prophetic plain style. In “Crosswalk,” crossing the street can be a “way of the cross”; a traffic light can be a sign to “Walk with light.” In The World That Isn’t There the Inexpressible can be immanent within the world that is there in addition—or as opposed—to transcendent within a world that is not.

But Wil also uses plain language and metaphors to represent the failure of transcendence and immanence in his lyric universe. As each poetic style has virtues, each also has features that contribute to the strong undercurrent of doubt and disaster in these poems. “Prophecy” communicates the truth of how the world really is, whatever one might want to make of it, or fail to see, and sometimes that truth is ugly. The Monteagle Farmer hates with a “perfect hate.” The Priest’s Wife was sexually abused and her husband’s philandering caused the suicide of a teen. The waitress at Pop’s Happy Land goes nowhere, and resolves nothing. As he revs a drill without a bit to his head, Wil’s prophesy for himself is to notice a long series of grim and gritty particulars, and the injunction to “stare / At nothing,” yet “think of everything” (“Unemployed Man at Forty”). Perceiving the world as it is includes seeing and understanding dead-ends. On the other hand, but just as damningly, the “obvious” that prophetic realism reveals can also be suspect. In “Breughel’s Harvesters,” a poem about the different perspectives one can take on an ordinary scene, Wil warns that a “hopelessly down to earth” point of view can “anoint / Amnesia or a willful ignorance / Of any elevated vantage point.” There are limits to a strictly realist vision.

The enigmas of metaphors can be deceptive, too. In “Crosswalk” Wil warns that

We hurl ourselves at hope. We try to readThe symboled wonders signaled in the world,But often it’s the obvious we miss:A billboard, a street sign. [End Page 103]

Our attempts at reading “symboled wonders” can distract us from what is right in front of us; “Fallen Fruit” might hold up “metaphors I would not dispute” as a way to avoid “disappoint[ing] the obvious,” but indisputable metaphors can cause us to miss what’s really there. Also, as we saw earlier, the positive power of metaphors can be weak; again, the ability of language to evoke “the paradise that used to be” is not in the indicative, it is in the conditional. Perhaps God really is no more present than His name in Wil’s last body of work, and language only lies, or tells unbearable truths. Enigmas and plain style involve obscurity, failure, and disenchantment as much as mystery and transcendence.

Thus for Wil metaphors are both “indisputable” and deceptive, “telling it like it is” can be both true and misleading, the world is both fallen and redeemed, the realm of faith is both invisibly present and not really there. Although he may have thought he had found a solution for the “heart’s arithmetic” at different points along the way, Wil’s life-long exploration of language did not settle on a simple verbal formula that could articulate his life’s quest. Furthermore, despite his ultimate faith, doubt was always a driving force for Wil in his poetry, where he persisted in putting into question everything he knew. However profound and intimate his apprehension of redemption, for Wil there were always fault lines in the relationships among language, the human world, and an invisible spiritual one. These cracks had the capacity either to break words and world asunder, or to open into a hidden world, and the revealed Word. There are no simple resolutions in Wil’s poetic universe.

Because there is no single resting place between the poles of metaphor and plain style, enigma and prophesy, this world and the next, Wil’s point of balance became, rather, a kind of constant lyric counterpoint. Wayne Booth has used the term “stable irony” to describe how an undercutting response to a proposition can create a third vantage point that encompasses—and thus stabilizes—both positions through its comprehending grasp of irony. “Stable doubt” would be an apt [End Page 104] phrase for what sometimes seems like Wil’s contradictory positions on words, world, and Word. Wil knew that poetry, like life, has contrasting dimensions (the figuratively ephemeral and prosaically down-to-earth), values (true and false), and potentials (fallen and glorious). He embraced the notion of “misère et grandeur” both in man, as Pascal did, and in language. And, though he often experienced one pole or another individually, maybe especially in life, he—like Pascal again in this—found the deepest mystery and resonance in paradoxical wholes. A common snowman bridges spheres by relating Wil, through metaphor, to God; by seeing an ordinary traffic light clearly, Wil gets the message to proceed with the light, and he enters the walk of the cross.

Dick Davis told me he regretted that, by dying at forty-one, Wil had not had time to reach his full potential as a poet, and pointed to a knotted, unfinished quality in some of his poems. That judgment is right, of course. It is not always clear that Wil brought what he was thinking and wanting to say to light. It would have been a gift to read what he might have written with more time. At the same time, it’s also possible that his poetry would to some degree always have been marked by the raw energy of an outsized quest that, because of its nature, he—along with most of the rest of us—perceived only “through a glass darkly.” The individual and the relational possibilities for faith and doubt, word and world, enigma and prophecy really cannot operate in a linear and necessarily triumphal progression. Accordingly, Wil’s poetry was not a tidy Hegelian matter of progressing from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. It was more a Pascalian sense of the “misère et grandeur” all paradoxically bundled together in “l’homme.” Like Pascal, Wil’s world-view was defined by contradictory and mystifying dualism: the dualism of the various tensions he experienced in his own life; and the metaphysical dualities inherent in man, in a God made flesh, and in a faith grounded in the simultaneous realities of crucifixion and resurrection. Wil resolved these enigmas best on the lyre, where he could write down—for example—what he’d heard the waitress say at the Waffle House: “‘. . . things come apart; / ‘Refrain’ means both ‘hold [End Page 105] back’ and ‘go again’; / Things join in wholes of which they are a part” / . . . / Her broken pencil left a double line / On my tab, both legible as one design.” (“Double Vision”).

At the end of his life and of The World That Isn’t There, Wil took that broken pencil mark metaphor for verbal and experiential duality as far as it could go, until he reached the parallel lines’ vanishing point, where for him world and words disappeared before the Word. After a death sentence of a diagnosis, Wil wrote on our Caring Bridge site: “Despite my bleak diagnosis, I now see everything in front of me as a space of infinite possibility, within certain limitations, with a full and nourishing sense of Time.” “Ruach” stands out in Wil’s oeuvre both for its prescience—it was written in the last years of his life, but before diagnosis—and because for Wil it is unusually clear, simple, and direct. In time, wrote Wil, the glass against which birds hurl themselves, and through which we see the world darkly, will melt. Silence born first of pain, then of enigmas, will be “perfect.” Lyrics and life will be over. Then—as punctuated by the absence of a final period—the last word will announce a world and Word without end.

When I die and breathe my last,It won’t be in or out.I’ll take my final breath,Haling the silence of glass,Glass that isn’t a solid,But slowly cooling backFrom molten silica,The unheld breath of time.

Once dead, I’ll see the moonAs close as my hand, like this.Who cares if there’s any waterTrapped inside its rocksLike all the water trappedIn Bible stories, waterGod brooded over, parted,Walked on, turned to wine? [End Page 106]

I’ll see the story of timeMade clearly visible;I’ll see my final breathAnnealing, a miracleOf clarity, of silenceOf water’s opposite,A perfect silence drawnFrom my blood, my noise.Amen [End Page 107]

Kathryn Mills

KATHRYN MILLS is Professor of French at Sewanee, University of the South. She has published on Baudelaire and Flaubert, but most recently she has been editing the work of her late husband, Wil Mills.

Excerpts from Wilmer Mills’s Selected Poems appear courtesy of the University of Evansville Press.