By David Mills
“David Mills’ BONEYARN; about New York’s African Burial Ground–America’s oldest and largest slave cemetery–conducts a heart wrenching yet historically meticulous excavation of America’s contradictory allegiance to freedom and slavery; equality and racial hatred. Whether speaking about or through the voices of nameless servants or chimney sweeps; Mills combines a novelist’s love of character with a poet’s pitch perfect ear for idiom and eye for unforgettable detail. The imagination at work in this remarkable book is humane; unflinching; erudite and utterly moving. In its wide range of styles and voices–its empathy and outrage–BONEYARN is a profoundly American work that enlightens and chastens; laments and affirms or finds in lamentation a complicated form of affirmation. A marvelous achievement.”–Alan Shapiro
It’s been said that the historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. sequences DNA: the poet David Mills sequences the poetry of lives entangled within it. Within the pages of Boneyarn, Mills’ latest collection, readers will encounter the archaeology of memory and the cartography of what’s been left behind. In this book it is soil, teeth and femurs which form the landmarks. There’s a chimney sweep, a cook. Cartilage and sinew, skulls and backbones are the subjects of Mills’ spiritual and anatomical study. One hopes that through his moving incantations, the souls of these good folk have found, if not true repatriation, then at least a kinder, more consecrated ground.
– C. Schantz, Editor
Chimney Sweep Apprentice (Enslaved Teenager, New York: 18th Century) I’m what happens when a house breathes out: sore, black breath in a New York throat. Trapped caterpillar. What they think of me—owners of these homes and white master who hires me out to black master sweep. Elbows, ankles knees up zig-zag chimneys: squeeze of heat and dusk. Soot head to toe: dirt thick as a shirt. Palms facin’ out; stomach up against and empty. My days a brick wide and a brick and a half long: I could die here. But brush above my head I chuck soot; chip tar wit’ a scraper; black rain pepperin’ my neck, hot rim of my eyes. Filth to the sides of flues, mazes sticky with poison, hearth to cap damper. Started prenticin’ when I was six. Now Eighteen Flesh leathery. Ankles swelled to black apples. Growin’: a stunt. Can’t say which is better: cramped heat or winter’s chill. My cry—Soot-O, Weep, Weep! — on the street or pinched in the flue. My life up in nothin’ but smoke.
Knuckles of Smoke: Peggy (Enslaved Cook, New York City, 1780s) I got dark authority. Some down below and a bit-of up-above say-so. Shop and sometimes sign for Master. Mostly I spice, stir, stew and boil. I rule as salty beads crouch on my top lip; I bend and bury sweat in my striped apron. My body bakes and roasts while baking and roasting mutton and sweetmeat. With all these smells—cured fish: its salty kick—a nose is mostly on its own down here in this clammy dark. My world ruled by mean heat and knuckles of smoke: hours of kindling fire, bake kettles swaying from pothooks, grimy spits turning, flames flaming, coals raked. Grunt. Drag a cast-iron pot onto a bickering pile of them, guide that wood shovel: handle long as Big John’s arm. Ease some tarts in that oven’s gut. Everything boils down to heat. Some fire place bricks: the color of bone. Simple. Black bread only rises to a point, like me, climbing the mistress’ stairs setting my simm’rin living just shy of her shut door.
Talking to the Teeth Now you are one with a skull: its white hush But sometimes a mouth was a hot leaking cottage we was all forced to live in Front tooth, why were you whittled to an enamel fang? Animal fang? What animal? Not animal. Enamel. Teeth ingredients. like what you been reduced to: bone When she giggled. chewed or smiled, some knew I might be the one thing she clung to from home. In the children’s graves, their teeth were almost always gone Cause they was the here-born. The start life. The too-often sugar, corn suppers. In the back of your mouth, one of you looks like a peg. Death picks everything clean. Here now, buried, skinned, lips can no longer hush us, way a lid might muffle a pot of cornmeal mush. And, you, tooth, shaped like an hourglass? A tooth occasionally tells a skull’s time: means I was born and adorned before this unwelcoming earth.