Content warning: suicide
Stephen S. Mills‘ third book, Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution, surprised me. It’s written in two parts: the first covers the end of an 18th-century New England woman’s life, the second details the ups and downs of modern day life in New York. There’s a lot of tragedy in these pages. People die, people are accused of crimes, people want to die, people suffer from such “suffocating heat / that anyone could go mad / anyone could go violent”.
“By the Numbers” takes an in-depth look at how many people have faced capital punishment in the U.S. prison system in recent years. The poem describes the living conditions of a cell, contrasts them with how in a brief 18-hour jail stint, “everyone was kind”, waiting to be released.
“The Drowning / The Confession” details the pivotal crime in the book: the heartbreaking practice where suicidal Christians committed “suicide by proxy“, which means they killed someone, often a child, so that they could be killed via capital punishment (think: hanging) but still have their soul go to heaven, since suicide itself was a damning sin. I won’t give away too much here. Read the poem. It’s brutal.
Another of my favorite poems, “This Isn’t Law & Order“, is a narrative piece, wherein the speaker is in court gathering “sighs and paperwork” and waiting to see a judge. The whole process is impersonal:
[T]hese faces aren’t Hollywood types.
The defense attorneys aren’t arrogant assholes
like they are on TV,
and the prosecutors are not all power and grace.
In fact, they’re mostly fumbling
glancing at details of cases they’ve barely seen.
No one knows your story.
There’s no time for that.
And the poem speaks to the societal issues of ignorance, reluctance to change, and dissociation and alienation. We’re so caught up in this paradigm of “Don’t think.” We don’t connect truly to each other, and it allows, as this poem points out, people who work in retirement homes to continue abusing the elderly after being convicted of that very crime. When everyone is busy, we become anonymous. Interchangeable. Isolated. Depressed. Suicidal. It escalates very quickly.
“How We Became Sluts” is a masterpiece of a poem: seven pages of sex and disease and open relationship and love. How to navigate them. How to enjoy each moment. How to cultivate gratitude for what’s been gained and how to live in the gaps between memory: “We talk of bodies we want — / old times together — of changing landscapes. // We speak of anything and everything and nothing. / And tomorrow I will text you pictures / of me fucking a guy we met once… You will send me a smiley face — / or maybe a simple: I love you.”
This book is important because it is honest. It doesn’t apologize for reveling in taboo. It doesn’t glamorize depression or anxiety or suicide. It reminds us that “A body next to a body / is only a certain kind of knowing.” It shakes the human condition for answers, then resigns itself to paperwork, but it doesn’t forget to observe the journey. These poems teach and reassure and offer a hand back up. If we don’t learn to rely on each other, learn to make time for each other, learn to breathe and forgive and communicate and simply commune, the revolution won’t come. So let’s be painfully honest, so that we can “see the error of [our] ways” and change.
Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution is available from Sibling Rivalry Press for $18.