When I joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I was only planning on staying a few years. That was over fifteen years ago. In fact, the sentiment “that wasn’t what I expected to happen” is probably at the core of most of my work. I’ve published five collections of poetry with Press 53, most recently This Miraculous Turning. Every New Year’s Eve I resolve to improve my guitar playing and learn how to cook more interesting dishes; the fact that each year I genuinely believe this will happen reveals a fundamentally optimistic nature. My website: www.josephrobertmills.com
Author's Note: This April, Press 53 released the second edition of
Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers in which the following two poems appear.
In college I read the Iliad and Odyssey,
and, although I thought they could be shorter,
overall they were better than I expected.
I wrote papers, bestowing my approval,
received the grades that I deserved
(but still complained about), and,
after graduation, boxed up Homer
with Hemingway, Hesse, and those authors
whose names you drop to impress people,
but whose books you usually read
only when it’s required.
The box survived decades of moves,
changes and turbulence,
and one day, living alone
in yet another apartment,
I began to reread its contents
as if deciding to drink wines
I had sampled long ago
and been cellaring ever since.
I discover the stories have become richer,
more complex and more immediate.
At twenty, I had noted my professor’s explanations,
so when Dante found himself lost in a dark wood
in the middle of his life, I had scribbled
“means something more” in the margin;
now, I realize what that something more is,
just as on my return to Homer’s epics,
rather than impatiently skipping
the repetitive descriptions,
I find myself moved
by the constant insistence
on the “wine dark sea.”
Perhaps it’s because I better understand
how all of us end up voyaging
across some similar vastness,
and no matter how well we navigate,
how heroically we act,
what stories we tell for protection,
at some point we find ourselves
shipwrecked, lost, far from home,
struggling to make it back
to the ones we love,
yet knowing even as we do so,
that they, like us,
are being irreparably transformed
by time’s unavoidable tides.
When My Students Ask Why They Need Poetry
What should I say? Because maybe they don’t.
Now. Or next year. Or ever. Poems won’t get them
a job or raise. They might never feel a connection,
or need, or desire. And yet, one day, they might
find in the waiting room, at the banquet table,
along the road, or by the grave, a poem will say
what they cannot. So maybe they should consider
poetry a type of first aid kit or fire extinguisher,
insurance for emotional emergencies, something
you hope to never use, but should have around.
Or, if this seems too cynical, consider me
a kind of merchant offering poems like bottles
of fine wine, ones that can be stored away,
so after you’ve accomplished your goals
of money, fame, and love, and find you have time
for luxuries like literature, you’ll discover,
a cellar of aged poems, waiting to be savored.
What should I say? Maybe this: Whatever
you think you will need and whatever you think
of poetry, take some. They don’t cost much now,
or take up much space, and they may be worth
a great deal to you later if you should live
long enough to return to them. I hope you will.
©2015 Joseph Mills