"I’m looking for ways to make history sing," said poet David Mills.
In his latest collection, "Boneyarn," a volume of poems laced with grit and grace about Manhattan’s African Burial Ground — America’s oldest and largest known slave cemetery — he raises a stirring 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-oft-forgotten song," Mills acknowledges in the book released last year.
The author will discuss his work and read from 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’s written five collections of poetry and holds an undergraduate degree from Yale University and graduate degrees from Warren Wilson College and New York University. "The history is in there, but I’m also trying to give another window into approaching the history, and that’s through the poetic mode."
At Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport where Mills appears on Feb. 6, Matthew Still, head of reference and adult services, eagerly anticipates learning more about the book and its meditations on bondage and freedom.
"Poetry is huge out here in the North Fork," he said. "Many people nowadays are looking back at a history that’s different from the one that we learned about growing up. The author is giving voice to the unheard and that’s really exciting."
In addition to poems depicting the triumphs and tribulations of nameless men and women from the burial site, other works showcase 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 the library presentations.
Giving 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 an array of persona poems, the poet assumes the voices of characters to share their experiences. Among them are victims of grave robbers reckoning with desecration. Their bodies were exhumed and used as "homework" by anatomy students at Columbia University. Yes, that happened.
We meet an enslaved cook who endured backbreaking work in a stifling cellar and a boy who cleaned the flues of colonists’ homes. He recalled squeezing into the tiny space. "I’m what happens when a house breathes out: sore black breath in a New York throat," the chimney sweep apprentice says. "Trapped caterpillar …"
That unsettling image is a far cry from the jubilant escapades of Dick Van Dyke and the band of chimney sweeps — who oversaw young apprentices — dancing merrily in "Mary Poppins."
Mills points out that this work was done by enslaved Black boys as well as young white males. "The boys could be as young as 5 years old because they had to be small enough to fit into the flue," he writes in book notes, adding that the work led to cancer and deformities. "Boys sometimes got stuck in there and died."
"It wasn't exclusively something that happened to enslaved African American boys, but it did happen to them," said Mills. "As it happens in many narratives, and not just in this country, if there are people of color who’ve also endured certain things, it’s erased."
"Boneyarn" is about exposure, and Mills immersed himself in reading and research to write it. A large portion of that investigation was at the African Burial Ground National Monument, near Wall Street. It was unearthed in 1991 during excavation in downtown Manhattan for the construction of a federal building.
"David’s work combines inspiration and solid research," said Nan Wolverton, interim vice president for programs at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Mills researched "After Mistic," his slavery-themed collection about Massachusetts, there. "He really wanted to dig into the archives to find materials for his work."
Mills’ immersion into history was deep enough to seep into his unconsciousness while working on "Boneyarn." Some material, Mills said, was inspired by dreams. "The poems keep coming," he writes in the acknowledgment. "I’m even jarred from sleep by them."
"With about seven or eight poems that sort of thing happened," he said. He added that a woman’s voice spoke to him while he was sleeping and he used her words.
That woman, Mills had discovered, was an adult who forensic specialists determined had died by a gunshot. A musket ball was lodged in her rib cage centuries later. "Who put the ball beneath your rib," she is asked in the poem. "A musket seeking flesh that only wanted freedom," she responds.
The poem’s final line, which came to Mills in a dream state, speaks to fate. "What we leave the earth when we leave the Earth is not ours to say."
Lifetime of poetry
In his poems about Jupiter Hammon, Mills pushes the boundaries of "Boneyarn" beyond the African Burial Ground 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 next year. Hammon died in 1806.
"I read his work years before starting work on this collection," Mills said. "I had just either forgotten or didn’t learn that he had actually been enslaved on Long Island." He was the property of four generations of the Lloyd family whose agricultural estate was in Lloyd Harbor.
Mills marvels at the stakes for a Black man to author a poem in the mid-18th century. "Writing and reading at that time for a person who looked like me was a revolutionary act," Mills said. "You could be punished. You could have your hands cut off."
Mills’ poem titled "Scribble: Jupiter Hammon" reads: "Chattel can be an entire planet: a first name hailing from outer space … schooled in the three ‘r’s’ … kiss-close contact with the Master’s family. Still. never freed."
"It's like honoring my forbearer," Mills said, "my first literary ancestor in the English language."
Mills said his interest in writing poetry began as a kid. Evidence of early work charting his evolution as a writer can be found in journals in his New York City apartment.
"I’m literally looking at the spiral notebooks I have going back decades," he said. "The first poem I remember writing that wasn’t for some assignment or for a Mother's Day card or something like that was when I was 10 or 11 years old."
At the time, he recalled, he had recently read Robert Frost’s "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and that he was looking out at a dark sky and roiling clouds.
"I just kind of went off on this apocalyptic riff," he said, adding that his work was prompted by the line "And miles to go before I sleep" concluding Frost’s work. " ‘With miles to go before I wake’ is where my mind started," Mills said.
He’s never stopped writing. Some of his work was done while in residence for three years in the landmark 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 have people be part of that journey," he said. "Let’s do this. Let’s talk about things."
'Boneyarn' LI library talks
At East Hampton Library, Steve Spataro, head of adult services, was struck by the collection’s depth and poems about Jupiter Hammon. “We have quite a number of Hammon’s works in our Long Island collection,” he said. “The presentation is a great fit.”
Mills’ upcoming slate of talks includes:
Feb. 6 at 3 p.m.: The poet appears in person at Floyd Memorial Library, 539 First St., Greenport; floydmemoriallibrary.org, 631-477-0660. No registration is required for this live event; books will be available for purchase.
Feb. 16 at 7 p.m.: A virtual talk at East Hampton Library, 159 Main St., East Hampton, easthamptonlibrary.org; 631-324-0222.
March 23 at 6 p.m.: A virtual talk at Amagansett Public Library, 215 Main St., Amagansett, amagansettlibrary.org, 631-267-3810.