By David Mills
“David Mills’ Boneyarn; about New York’s African Burial Ground-America’s oldest and largest slave cemetery-conducts a heart wrenching yet historically meticulous excavation of America’s contradictory allegiance to freedom and slavery; equality and racial hatred. Whether speaking about or through the voices of nameless servants or chimney sweeps; Mills combines a novelist’s love of character with a poet’s pitch perfect ear for idiom and eye for unforgettable detail. The imagination at work in this remarkable book is humane; unflinching; erudite and utterly moving. In its wide range of styles and voices-its empathy and outrage-BONEYARN is a profoundly American work that enlightens and chastens; laments and affirms or finds in lamentation a complicated form of affirmation. A marvelous achievement.”
In a deft, linked series of lyric poems, the voices of the dead of New York’s Negro Burial Ground emerge to tell the stories of their lives as enslaved people. Boneyarn’s evocative poems bring a reader to feel history’s forgotten stories through Mills’s rich imagination. A suite of poems lauds early African-American poets Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon. These poems are a stirring document: a gorgeous, heart wrenching read.
David Mills’ Boneyarn takes an intricate look at a largely forgotten facet of American history: slavery in New York. The voices here explore the origins of our current racial crucible with the kind of lyrical intimacy and intensity that requires new understandings. Eduardo Galeano wrote, “…the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.” Boneyarn is undeniable proof of this.
Through meticulous and passionate scholarship and his own lyrical courage, David Mills, with Boneyarn, makes a verbal monument to the fifteen thousand bodies buried in the African Cemetery of New York between 1712 and 1795. It is a work that required tears to write and tears to read, for Mills dodges nothing and records all with style and dispatch: deprivation, torture, hunger, death, and, after death, desecration. Here is our nation’s hell, founded in the shadow of Wall Street. “First breath Akan. Last beat New Amsterdam.” For the 419 bodies unearthed when the site was discovered, only one whole name was found. Mills responds with a vision of real individuals that recalls both the invention of Blake and the humanity of Langston Hughes. A poet of heroic empathy, If he is virtuoso in making language come to life in many registers, the heart of the book arrives in tender and loving conversations with the bones and in homages to Jupiter Hammon and Phyllis Wheatley. Read it again and again and do not forget. Boneyarn is a brilliant, devastating, and important book.
Publisher: Ashland Poetry Press (February 15, 2021)
Paperback: 144 pages