Jonathan Harrington

David Mills

Boneyarn, David Mills: reviewed by Jonathan Harrington


This is a complex and at times disturbing book of poetry written by David Mills, a man with a profound grasp of history and a unique poetic voice that recounts the ugly truths of the African-American experience in Colonial America through the voices of the departed slaves buried in American soil. This accomplished book is haunted by the ghosts of black slaves who continue to haunt the American landscape.

The setting of this sequence of poems is New York City’s Negro Burial Ground, America’s oldest and largest slave cemetery. This is no Spoon River Anthology but something more akin to Dante’s Inferno, a trip into the bowels of a hell from which many today wish to turn their eyes. However, in these poems those subjected to this living nightmare of torture and enslavement are not like Dante’s sinners condemned for gluttony, envy, avarice, etc. These are innocent men and women trapped in a cruel and inhumane system of bondage. Even in death they are disrespected and segregated…

“Earth off-limits
to the bones of who
they owned.”

David Mills opens our eyes and asks—no, demands!—that we look directly at this history that many conveniently wish to forget. He delivers eulogies (in their own voices) for the 15,000 unnamed slaves and free blacks, indentured whites, and Native Americans buried in New York’s Negro Burial Ground in the years between 1712 and 1795. Mills gives voice to black chimney sweeps, victims of medical experimentation…
“…they uncorked coffins with wooden shovels, returned the earth hauled their borrowed quarry to class. This was sure. This was cheap. This was studying.”

…servants, laborers, cooks…

“Mostly I spice stir stew and boil.
I rule as salty beads crouch on my top lip;
I stoop and bury sweat in my striped apron. My body bakes and roasts while baking and roasting mutton and sweetmeat …”

…all these now forgotten people were trapped, tortured, worked to death or murdered in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The poet’s language ranges from a high poetic style to African American Vernacular English combined with a painstakingly researched history that is delivered not as an account of times past but in a gut-wrenching immediacy that brings alive the history of the dead and forgotten who were not so much interred but dumped in Lower Manhattan in the eighteenth century. Even then they did not rest in peace. Instead their graves were desecrated by…
“…white lads in wool
suits skulked cold, moonless streets past hunched sacks of rubbish to the boneyard—grave riflers seeking recently-turned earth; the newly deceased in winter…”

This complex work conjures the world of the seventeen hundreds in vivid and graphic imagery that transports the reader to another age. But it does not leave us simply contemplating history, instead it points clearly to the violent inheritance that is still America’s legacy today in the 21st century. Boneyarns is a book of historical poetry that can be read very much like a novel in which we feel, smell, taste and hear the world of these forgotten men and woman as they struggled for dignity under terrifying circumstances.

Towards the end of the collection is a suite of poems dedicated to Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley. Hammond, the first black poet to publish in the colonies. Wheatley the first black poet to publish an entire book. Both…

. “Given the scribble gift.”

…yet still enslaved:

“The Negro’s first
printed offense in English while Jupiter fidgeted under the supple
and galactic shadow of suffering.”

There is so much to admire in Boneyarn: the poet’s grasp of history, Mills’ ability to transform into language this historical milieu, and the skillful juxtaposition of various levels of diction that leaves the reader breathless.

Boneyarn is a tremendous achievement by a poet at the pinnacle of his art. If David Mills can possibly go even higher than this (which would be hard for any poet to do) then he may yet become one of the most relevant American poets writing today


Boneyarn by David Mills, The Ashland Poetry Press, Ashland, Ohio, 2021

Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years.

Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is The Frozen Sea Within Us: New & Selected Poems ( The book covers forty years of a life in poetry.

David Mills holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and an MA from New York University—both in creative writing—as well as a B.A. (cum laude) from Yale University. He’s 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.