A Review of Stephen S. Mill’s Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution — August 20, 2018
by Lucas Wildner
There’s something about Mary… in Stephen S. Mills’ third full-length collection from Sibling Rivalry Press, Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution.
Set in early 18th century New England, part one begins with a formal introduction, a poem setting the stage for the drama to unfold. Mills introduces Mary Agnes, “our heroine,” and in the next line interrupts himself with an aside: “(if that’s the right word for her).” Such interruptions occur frequently in section one: the first three poems contain 19 of them. As a set, they give Mills the opportunity to both start telling the story of Mary Agnes while also decentering this particular telling—a story vs. the story. Their main benefit lies in creating opportunities for empathy and lighthearted cynicism—on Mary Agnes, more than a year into her arranged marriage to Harold: “she doesn’t desire him (can we blame her?).”
While most of these interruptions enrich their poems, some of the parentheticals register as heavy-handed. “The Doctor Speaks of Mary Agnes’ Melancholia” begins with a bit of stage direction— “(In a patronizing-know-it-all voice.)”—that proves to be redundant once the doctor compares Mary Agnes to “a child.” On the whole, though, the narrator’s interruptions prove to be a welcome component of section one that insists the reader acknowledge the artifice of the narrator’s tale as it unfolds while simultaneously growing closer to the protagonist.
After establishing Mary Agnes’ joyless marriage, part one focuses on the psychological effects of such a captivity. “John Plymouth (a Neighbor) Commits Suicide, Mary Agnes Imagines” and “Fragments from Mary Agnes’ Diary” shift to a first person point of view, giving the reader the illusion that our narrator has moved off stage temporarily to let our heroine speak directly. In the former poem, Mary Agnes gives the reader an insight into the trajectory of the rest of the section: “For he left this world by choice. / By his own hand.” Mary Agnes finds her neighbor’s suicide worth imagining because she considers it a chosen escape, confirming what the reader has guessed by now: she feels trapped in a marriage and by a society benefitting from her powerlessness.
She is Christian enough to disprove of Plymouth’s suicide, but longs for a similar result. She seeks out another option, which Kathy Stuart describes in part one’s epigraph as “suicide by proxy[: to commit] murder with the intent of bringing about their own death by execution.”
Interestingly, Harold—who could represent all of the forces taking Mary Agnes’ agency away from her—is not her target. Instead, Mary Agnes settles on Obadiah, a child in the community. Her faulty logic sounds like a loophole in Christian doctrine: “innocence hangs on him / like a fresh coat of snow / he will not tarnish / she’s sure of that.” She does not give herself time to hesitate. One poem later, he is gone.
The accuracy with which Mary Agnes predicts the sequence of events after Obadiah’s murder reveals her not-inaccurate understanding of the patriarchal system in power, one eager to blame a (red-headed) woman for any glimpse of evil in the community. “Check her rags,” her lawyer insists.
At this point in section one, some readers may wonder, if Mary Agnes is so melancholic, why doesn’t she “just” kill herself? The narrator’s reflection during her execution in the final poem of part one provides an intriguing explanation—a complex intersection between a protest against her lack of agency and her obedience to Christian doctrine:
she is everything
she needs to be:
forgiven by God
forced to pay
the ultimate price
That Mary Agnes’ exit strategy depended on another, nonconsenting individual’s participation in her scheme adds a messy reckoning that part two will explore to great effect: how do we (fail to) acknowledge the collateral damage of our decisions, especially when those decisions aim to resist the violence of others’ expectations?
Part two locates us in present day New York, and for the readers who may consider part one too linear, part two rewards the reader by immediately beginning its two-fold mission to acknowledge the thematic work of part one while spiraling its investigations out into new territories. The parallels start with the titles: “21st Century Melancholia” updates the first title in part one. This prose poem finds a nanny insisting her charge is “Not mine” as she imagines what the people looking at her and the baby think of her. No need to imagine: a man gives himself permission to “[make] eyes” at her. Nearby, another woman reads a chapter on “unionizing sex workers.” Central to the poem, then, is its meditation on sex: who should have it, what ends should it achieve.
The poem ends with an image as everyone in the subway car is “mesmerized by our own reflections staring back at us” from the surface of a birthday balloon. Where part one focused on the heteronormative gaze reading Mary Agnes’ body as her Christian husband’s property, this poem generalizes that act: all of us, even in looking in the mirror, are distorted. The looking, as much as it reveals, also distorts.
Sex and criminality become the most consistent acts of distortion throughout the collection. In “You Don’t Look Violent,” the speaker reflects on an encounter at a gym, where boys laugh at the speaker’s “effeminate wave of hands / at my voice.” He shrugs off the insults, but their memory lingers. The accumulation of such episodes builds. What are the consequences of having fixed impressions held up against the body? “…anyone could go mad / anyone could go violent.” Later, in a poem referencing his own trial, the speaker confirms “sometimes we are the villains not the heroes.”
Part two echoes many moments from part one in this way, and it’s in this strategy that Mills runs a risk unique to this two-part collection. I found those echoes to be the sign of a cohesive collection and the rewards for rereading part one after part two. Some readers, though, may question their effects. For example, when Mary Agnes reflects on John Plymouth’s suicide and imagines his final moments, she laments “it is almost enough to shake / the melancholy from my bones.” It is a bittersweet moment, one that conveys her dire mental state and the relief that she may find an end to her suffering.
The same phrase appears in “How We Became Sluts” in a new context: “Some nights our bodies move together / like the first years… / Something to shake the melancholy from my bones.” Here, legally married to his husband and continuing to enjoy other sexual partners, the speaker reflects on the evolution of sexual intimacy in his relationship. He acknowledges a long-term relationship will host great and lackluster sexual experiences.
A lovely moment in the poem, but here’s the risk: the echo is ambiguous. Should the reader interpret that the speaker is a twin of Mary Agnes, an analogous figure three centuries later? Does this speaker, who could be the narrator of part one see himself in Mary Agnes? Temporarily re-establishing the fulfilling sex of days past feels like a situation with lower stakes than a woman failing to find a reason to live. More of a concern: a man’s revision to or his speaking over Mary Agnes’ earlier confession feels ironic and counter-productive to the criticisms of patriarchy part one endorsed. Suggesting an equivalence risks cheapening part one, and may be greater than the reward for such a parallel.
Part two benefits when it avoids such direct comparisons and instead opts to build off of the thematic concerns of part one. “Domestic Terror” has a great line I can see many people knowing by heart after reading this collection: “Spoiler alert: We are all monsters.” But I find the “Preface” to be a more nuanced primer on Mills’ concerns in this collection. The speaker rues the consequences of our choices: “How quickly we fall // victim // to our own belief systems.” It’s a smart sentence, and its arrangement visually mimics the speaker’s own fall from grace.
The inevitability of this fall becomes Mills’ first and last rebuttal to the skeptical reader, who may resist empathizing with the speakers in this collection arbitrarily because of their criminal records. He asks us to leave the collection pondering the damage we have caused. He insists we have caused damage. And with that, Mills unsettles us.