David Mills: Three Poems

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. 
David Mills has published four poetry collections: Boneyarn, The Sudden Country, The Dream Detective, and After Mistic. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, Jubilat, Callaloo, Obsidian, Brooklyn Rail, Diode Journal and Fence. He has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Breadloaf, The American Antiquarian Society, the Lannan Foundation, Arts Link and a Henry James and Hughes/Diop fellowship. He lived in Langston Hughes’ landmark home for three years. The Juilliard School of Drama commissioned and produced a play by Mr. Mills. He wrote the audio script for MacArthur-Genius-Award Winner Deborah Willis’ curated exhibition: Reflections in Black:100 Years of Black Photography, which showed at the Whitney and Getty West Museums. He has also recorded his poetry on ESPN and RCA Records.