- 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...