“I’m looking for ways to make history sing,” said poet David Mills.
In his latest collection, “Boneyarn,” a volume of courageous and graceful poems about Manhattan’s African Cemetery – America’s oldest and largest known slave cemetery – he raises a moving chorus of voices.
“To the 15,000 enslaved ancestors buried in Lower Manhattan, thank you for letting me sing a few notes of your necessary and too often forgotten song,” Mills acknowledges in the book published last year.
The author will discuss his work and read it at Long Island public libraries in February as part of Black History Month and in March as part of their free programs. (See box.)
“I’m not a historian,” said Mills, who has written five books of poetry and holds an undergraduate degree from Yale University and graduate degrees from Warren Wilson College and the ‘New York University. “The story is in there, but I also try to give another window on the approach to the story, and that’s through the poetic mode.”
At the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport where Mills appears Feb. 6, Matthew Still, head of reference and adult services, eagerly awaits to hear more about the book and its meditations on bondage and freedom.
“Poetry is huge here in North Fork,” he said. “A lot of people these days look back at a different story than what we learned growing up. The author gives voice to the unheard and that’s really exciting.”
In addition to poems describing the triumphs and tribulations of unnamed men and women from the burial site, other works feature Jupiter Hammon, a pioneering literary figure who was enslaved on Long Island. He was born in 1711 and became the first African-American poet to be published in the United States. Mills’ Hammon poems will be featured in library displays.
Give voice to history
What emerges in “Boneyarn” is a vivid group portrait forged by poetic imagination and rigorous research into a painful slice of American history. The cemetery operated from 1712 to 1795.
In a series of persona poems, the poet assumes the voice of the characters to share their experiences. Among them are victims of grave robbers counting on desecration. Their bodies were exhumed and used as “homework” by anatomy students at Columbia University. Yes, it happened.
We meet an enslaved cook who endured backbreaking labor in a sweltering cellar and a boy who cleaned the ducts of settler homes. He remembers slipping into the small space. “I am what happens when a house expires: black, painful breath in a New York throat,” says the apprentice chimney sweep. “Caterpillar trapped…”
This disturbing image is a far cry from the jubilant escapades of Dick Van Dyke and the band of chimney sweeps – who supervised young apprentices – dancing happily in “Mary Poppins”.
Mills points out that this work was done by enslaved black boys as well as young white men. “The boys could have been as young as 5 because they had to be small enough to fit in the fireplace,” he wrote in book notes, adding that the work led to cancers and deformities. “The boys sometimes got stuck in there and died.”
“It’s not exclusively something that happened to enslaved African-American boys, but it happened to them,” Mills said. “As happens in many stories, and not just in this country, if there are people of color who have endured certain things as well, that’s erased.”
“Boneyarn” is about exposure, and Mills immersed himself in reading and research to write it. Much of this investigation took place at the African Burial Ground National Monument near Wall Street. It was unearthed in 1991 during excavations in midtown Manhattan for the construction of a federal building.
“David’s work combines inspiration with solid research,” said Nan Wolverton, acting vice president of programs at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Mills researched “After Mistic,” his Massachusetts slavery-themed collection, there. “He really wanted to dig into the archives to find materials for his work.”
Mills’ immersion in the story was deep enough to seep into his unconsciousness while working on “Boneyarn.” Some materials, Mills said, were inspired by dreams. “The poems keep coming,” he wrote in the acknowledgment. “I’m even roused from sleep by them.”
“With about seven or eight poems, this sort of thing happened,” he said. He added that a female voice spoke to him while he slept and he used his words.
This woman, Mills had discovered, was an adult whom forensic specialists determined had been shot dead. A musket ball was lodged in his ribcage centuries later. “Who put the bullet under your rib,” she is asked in the poem. “A flesh-seeking musket that only wanted freedom,” she replies.
The last line of the poem, which came to Mills in a dream state, is about fate. “What we leave earth when we leave earth is not for us to say.”
In his poems on Jupiter Hammon, Mills pushes the boundaries of “Boneyarn” beyond the African graveyard to Long Island.
He wanted to celebrate the black poet born in 1711 whose work – “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries” – was written at Christmas 1760 and published as a broadside, or poster, the following year. Hamon died in 1806.
“I read his work years before I started working on this collection,” Mills said. “I had just forgotten or hadn’t learned that he had in fact been enslaved on Long Island.” It was owned by four generations of the Lloyd family whose farming estate was at Lloyd Harbour.
Mills marvels at the stakes for a black man to write a poem in the mid-eighteenth century. “Writing and reading at that time for someone who looked like me was a groundbreaking act,” Mills said. “You could be punished. You could have your hands chopped off.”
Mills’ poem titled “Scribble: Jupiter Hammon” reads: “Chattel can be an entire planet: a first name from outer space…raised in the three ‘r’s…close contact with the Master’s family .always.never released.”
“It’s like honoring my ancestor,” Mills said, “my first literary ancestor in the English language.”
Mills said his interest in writing poetry began when he was a child. Evidence of his early work tracing his development as a writer can be found in journals from his New York apartment.
“I literally look at spiral notebooks that I’ve had for decades,” he said. “The first poem I remember writing that wasn’t for homework or for a Mother’s Day card or something was when I was 10 or 11.”
At the time, he recalls, he had recently read Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and was staring at dark skies and choppy clouds.
“I kind of got started on this apocalyptic riff,” he said, adding that his work was inspired by the line “And miles to go before I sleep” concluding Frost’s work. “‘With miles to go before I wake up,’ that’s where my mind started,” Mills said.
He never stopped writing. Some of her work was done during a three-year residency at the iconic Harlem home of the great African-American poet Langston Hughes.
He welcomes opportunities to share “Boneyarn”. “It’s a blessing to do what you love and to have people that are part of that journey,” he said. “Let’s do this. Let’s talk about things.”
David Mills outside the visitor center at the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan, and his book. | Photos by Bruce Gilbert; Illustration by Nicholas Fedorchak / Ashland Poetry Press
‘Boneyarn’ LI Library Discussions
New York poet David Mills will discuss and read poems from “Boneyarn” – available at ashlandpoetrypress.com and amazon.com – at local libraries.
At the East Hampton Library, Adult Services Manager Steve Spataro was struck by the depth of the collection and the poems about Jupiter Hammon. “We have a number of works by Hammon in our Long Island collection,” he said. “The presentation is perfect. »
Mills’ next list of talks includes:
February 6 at 3 p.m.: The poet appears in person at the Floyd Memorial Library, 539 First St., Greenport; floydmemoriallibrary.org, 631-477-0660. No registration is required for this live event; The books will be available for purchase.
February 16 at 7 p.m.: A virtual lecture at East Hampton Library, 159 Main St., East Hampton, easthamptonlibrary.org; 631-324-0222.
March 23 at 6 p.m.: A virtual lecture at the Amagansett Public Library, 215 Main Street, Amagansett, amagansettlibrary.org, 631-267-3810.