Meg Boerema: On "Mill Town"

What's first striking about "Mill Town" is its title. Since the poem describes a mother and not a town, why isn't it called "Mill-Mother"? This substitution of the word "Town" for the word "Mother" is significant for several reasons.

First, the title's erasure of motherhood performs the denial of motherhood that the poem describes. Motherhood in the poem cannot be realized. The mother's first child died, and we anticipate a similar fate for the second; the second child is always compared to the first, referred to only and always as "*another* child" (emphasis added). We might think then of the title's denial of the word "Mother" as participating in the poem's imagining of an unfulfilled motherhood.

Second, we might also think about the title's substitution of the collective and public "Town" for the personal and private "Mother" as participating in the poem's public representation of motherhood. The "Town" of "Hill Town," like the poem itself, brings motherhood into the public realm. Motherhood in "Hill Town" is very exposed. The first lines the poem, without any hesitation, announce the most intimate details of the mother's life: her mourning and her pregnancy. We then see the mother move from the public funeral to the public mill and back to her house. But even at home she has no privacy and we watch her, in a very private moment, putting away the clothes of her dead child. The poem's voice is also a very public voice and this compounds her exposure. A public investigator announces the cause of the child's death, and the announcement of the mother's pregnancy reads for me much like a news report:

 

"...the child died, the investigator said, for lack of proper food.

After the funeral the mother went back to the mill. She is

expecting another child..."

 

The collective "we" of the speaker's voice adds to a sense of the mother's exposure by creating an audience for the mother within the poem.

But what's most interesting about the public status of motherhood in this poem is that there seems to be nothing appropriative or accusative in its publicity. The mother's body remains her own--"Your body drugged with work and the repeated bitter/Gall of your morning vomit" (lines 12-13)--and she is the poem's victim, not its villain:

 

And by this act prepare

Your store of pain, your weariness, dull love,

To bear another child with doubled fists

And sucking face. (lines 5-8).

 

The publicizing of motherhood, then, does not seem to be an attempt to make private failures public, but an attempt to contextualize and share these failings. The poem implicates an economic structure, not the mother, for the death of the child. Hard as she works (remember how she goes to the mill right after the funeral!), the mill does not pay her enough to feed her children. The public performance of motherhood in "Hill Town" thus refuses motherhood's insularity and disallows an accusation of the mother than doesn't implicate the public.

Owing, then, to the speaker's sympathy for the mother and disavowal of her insularity, I can hear little accusation in the speaker's final directives "Soap on the yellowed blankets. Rub them pure" (line 15). Instead I read these directives not as telling the mother how to absolve her own guilt, but as begging her to absolve the public speaker of his. The publicizing of motherhood in "Hill Town," finally, is quite interesting because it is neither appropriative nor oppressive, but instead rather generous and sympathetic.

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Criticism Overview
Title Meg Boerema: On "Mill Town" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Meg Boerema Criticism Target Genevieve Taggard
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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