Joseph Mills


As he cleans the neighbor’s car,
he keeps glancing over at our house
and the children riding bikes
on the sidewalk. Finally he walks over
to where I’m painting shingles
and asks, “Where are they from?”
When I say, “We live here,” he says,
“But where did you adopt them from?”
He expects to hear Haiti or Africa,
and when I say, “They were born here,”
he recoils like I’ve struck him.
After a moment, he reaches out
to shake my hand. I hold up mine,
showing the paint smears; he takes it
anyway, his skin damp and soap-slick.
“What church do you go to?” he asks.
When I say we don’t, he shakes his head.
“At my church we have a lot of couples
who want to adopt babies from China.
Never here. Never ours.” I don’t know
what to say to this. I don’t say anything.
“Thank you, “he says, “God bless you.”
I don’t say anything to this either.
He smiles at the children pedaling past
who look at him curiously, then he crosses
the street. The neighbor inspects the car
and, unsatisfied, makes him wash it again.

At the Book Festival My Daughter and I Turn Away from Truth

When I see the author in a Confederate uniform
standing by a stack of books announcing,
The Truth About Slavery , I look around for
my daughter, and I’m relieved to find her
at a table with balloons and a candy bowl.

I used to be more interested in truth,
but now when someone starts to explain
The Truth About Women, Men, Blacks,
Whites, The President, Politics, America, God,
I sidle away. This author might be innocuous,

even friendly. He might smile at my child,
something that happens frequently enough
to suggest there’s a fundamental belief that
nothing shows you’re not racist like smiling
at a black kid. He might even be right about

whatever he’s written, but my daughter and I
decide to leave, turning our backs on the truth,
to search for ice cream, a park, a swing set,
buskers, some kind of pleasure and beauty
we can share in our short time together.

The Problem with Grades

She can barely stand on her skates,
her ankles bending like plastic rulers,
yet somehow she has ended up
in the middle of the rink, stranded
in that empty island of space.
She seems close to tears, but determined
not to cry. No one notices. No one stops.
They circle past, again and again,
intent on their own motion and balance,
and then one boy, about her size,
starts chopping towards the center
as if dogpaddling into deep water.
When he reaches her, they clasp hands
and try to work out how to move together,
a combination of stepping and coasting
and holding one another vertical.
They cut straight across the lanes
as skaters swerve around them,
and eventually they reach the safety
of the cinder block wall. There,
she moors herself, and he moves away
without a glance, then, after a moment,
she pushes herself back out onto the rink.

Art Life

On a family walk, I notice a For Sale sign,
and as I read the listing, the daughter notices
a small statue of David in the yard. She asks,
“Why is that guy naked?” which makes the son
stop bouncing his soccer ball, stare, then yell,
“I can see his wiener!” I say, “That’s David,
who fought Goliath. It’s a famous art work.”
They scrutinize the sculpture and both agree
it would be stupid to fight naked like that
although the slingshot would be cool to have.
The daughter asks, “What’s that design for
above his penis?” I explain it’s pubic hair,
and she’s surprised. The doctor gave her
a brochure on puberty which she’s read
several times, but none of its graphics
are anything like that. She leans on the fence
to get a better view. I note hair can be hard
for artists to do, and the son announces,
“I have tons of pubic hair. Tons and tons.”
“No, you don’t,” I say, “You will someday,
but your sister will be getting hers first.”
He mutters, “No fair,” turning away,
and I’m relieved at this decline in interest.
Lately his mother and I have been trying
to get him to stop pulling his pants down,
so I had been afraid of this counter-example.
His sister continues to consider the statue.
Finally she asks, “Daddy, do you want
to buy this house?” When I say, “No,”
she seems relieved. “Do you?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “It would be weird
having a naked guy around all the time.”


It’s when they go back to visit old teachers,
you realize just how much they’ve grown.
They were those small kids on the playground
not long ago and even then you kept remarking
on how big they were getting and how quickly.
Stop it , you would say, pushing down on their heads.
Once you held them in the palm of your hand,
and carried them in a pocket; soon, they won’t fit
in the car, the house, your life as it’s shaped now.

Copyright  ©  2014 Joseph Mills

A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills published four books of poetry with Press 53. His fifth, "This Miraculous Turning," will appear in September 2014.