June 2020 Poetry Feature: David Mills

New work by DAVID MILLS

Table of Contents

  • Breath’s Breath: Japhet
  • Talking to the Bones: Talking
  • Long in That Late-Afternoon Light: Bukay

These poems are part of a series about slavery in New York City. The City is home to America’s oldest and largest slave cemetery—The Negro Burial Ground—which is located in Manhattan’s City Hall area. This slave cemetery (officially open between 1712-1795) contains 15,000 bodies.

Breath’s Breath: Japhet
(Enslaved New York sailor, 1774)

When I’m cursing them tanners under
my breath’s breath, I speak Yankeyfied
Negro English. Gathered bit of limping
French and Spanish on a voyage

to Cadiz; anchor jarring the sleepy
waters of Caleta. Beach pinched
between two castles. Actually
city lil’ more’n a spit,

twisting alleys, a square, some
tower called Tavira. Designs
‘round its windows like a hoot
owl: rust-colored eyebrows

upturned moustache. But New
York’s tanners’ yards always
loud makings and bold odors
right there in the burial ground—

our Negro frontier where mosquitoes
deliver malaria: an evil meal—during
the two months my sea legs would sink.
But who am I—rag picker; sailor; there- 

and-here day laborer between Mulberry
and Orange. Still I’m ekin’ something out
of winter: a living from its hard margins
where I gather chucked cloth and leavings:

hog hocks and corn sheaves. Right
about now could use Cedar Street Tavern:
a nip of spirit’us liquor, a shot of liquid
forgetting, shatterin’ in the gulch of my throat.


Talking to the Bones: Talking
(The spirit of an enslaved victim of the Columbia University graverobbers)

What of the way of your demise?
This box—death’s wood bondage

Were you buried in a coffin?
No matter. This colony’s a coffin: with shores instead of sides

What of these students of physics?
I’ve heard when a body’s scooped, chocolate
coffins are ‘natomy class coffers 

But their behavior?
They stole what had already been
stolen. For us white was never
wanted but always wanton 

Why unearth only at night?
Cause darkness don’t inspect the devil’s sweat


Long in That Late-Afternoon Light: Bukay
(Free New York sailor, 1780)

I want to give Suley another name
maybe not hers but not her master’s
either. ‘Scort her to charade clubs.
Airs. Fin’ries. No more moldy kerchiefs
roofing her ‘do or baize aprons that feel
welcome as felt when I’m smuggling

a Sunday smooch. She the apple
of my black eye. More’n two years
now, been figuring in on a way to buy
her bondage and sniff what I don’t
even has to consider: freedom.
A given. It’s mine. But no

matter if it’s ten months at sea
or two on land huddlin’ rags
there’s a shadow won’t abandon
me: out front or following at times.
It’s mine and not mine: long
in that late-afternoon light.

Swells on a wave’s salty shoulders;
withering on a ship’s buckled deck;
snaps in a wrinkled snowdrift.
This here shadow even shadows
me at night. Got to be Suley stitched
to me: her right hand balled, inching

up inching down, head low. Can’t
say if it’s focused, heartsick or
both. But it’s sewing a mantua:
them gowns that flow like lampshades
wit’ pleats, shades that part-ways
dim the don’t-you-look light

of a white woman’s legs. Suley
and me had a Negro union—but she’s
wantin’ a legal one, wants me take
her trembling hand in marriage
so I can take more than just her
shadow wherever and whenever I go.


David Mills is the author of two poetry collections—The Dream Detective and The Sudden Country, a book-prize finalist. He has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and Washington College. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review, Fence, Colorado Review, Jubilat, The Literary Review (Fairleigh Dickinson University),Hanging Loose and Callaloo. He has also recorded his poetry on RCA Records and had a play commissioned by the Juilliard School of Drama. He lived in Langston Hughes’ landmark Harlem home for three years.

June 2020 Poetry Feature: David Mills

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