NOT EVERYTHING THROWN STARTS A REVOLUTION BY STEPHEN S. MILLS
Stephen S. Mills’ Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution bridges two centuries to connect its reader to the larger questions of oppression, violence and the human condition. The book begins in the early 18th century, following Mary Agnes through her trials and tribulations of marriage, childbirth, and execution. Midway the collection moves to current day New York with a narrative that runs parallel in its exploration of relationships, despair, and the criminal justice system. The line between true and imaginary memories blur throughout. Poems, like “Self-Portrait as a Danny Lyon Prison Photograph from 1968 at The Whitney,” use ekphrasis to further blend historical contexts into a collective memory—a place where past and present are interwoven, if not mirror images. Mills’ stylistic choices reflect the speaker’s need for answers with frequent parentheses and questions that remain unanswered.
Though Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution does not promise answers, it does remind us that we tend to look at the wrong facts. In “Self-Portrait As Unconscious Man at Bathhouse,” Mills ruminates over the police’s desire to find out “who” the man is by finding their identification: “None of this tells them who he is. / Or why. / Or how.” Other poems, such as “You Don’t Look So Violent,” directly question our misperceptions. Here, Mills writes “. . .the voice that leaves these lips is not violent // not masculine/ manly / straight-acting/ sounding.”
With both sections, Mills’ poems present a moving picture of the US criminal justice system across centuries. His two speakers’ shared preoccupation with death, the state’s impact on life, haunts from one section to the next in its familiarity. Mills’ use of dual narratives to explore violence, execution, and injustice ultimately show us that times change but the criminal justice system and its impact on the human experience remains.