How Will a Poet Govern Maine?

Agnes Bushell was tired. It was a Saturday in mid-May 1975, and for months, she’d been editing a book of poetry, a thin volume she called Balancing Act: A Book of Poems by Ten Maine Women. The work was driven by her frustration with the state’s literary establishment — male publishers and editors who didn’t care much for what women wanted to put into verse — but now, she wrote in her diary, she felt “extremely malaise, eyes and face hurt, couldn’t breathe, it hurt to talk.” In a bookstore on Portland’s Congress Street, though, friends and colleagues were gathering. So, “dressed like a publisher” and feeling “totally uncomfortable,” Bushell swallowed her anxiety and headed to the book launch.

The party was attended by the 10 Maine women of the collection’s subtitle, many of them previously unpublished poets, along with their partners, family members, and friends. Among them was a 28-year-old law student named Janet Mills.

Mills seemed quiet and serious, Bushell recalls, and she brought along her brother, Peter, as her plus-one. She had two poems in Balancing Act, both free verse. One of them, called “He looks in the metal waters,” described a man seemingly going through a melancholy breakfast routine. The other, about death, was titled “This fussy fatality.” It begins:

This fussy fatality I have found must
belong to some god-like dog-day dreamer
who, falling under the frequency of
the full moon, forgets us,
blinded by forgeries of the past,
his eyes two telescopes of time turned inward.

Bushell remembers that Mills’s poems felt different from the other submissions, many of which were autobiographical and confessional, focused on the poets’ daily lives of child-rearing and mothering. Janet’s poems, by contrast, “felt like a relief,” Bushell says. “They use language in a wonderful way, as though it were the words themselves she cared about. They’re playful and witty and weren’t bogged down with angst.” Mills’s brother stayed at the party until every poet had autographed his copy of the book, but not Mills. “She came breezing through,” Bushell remembers. “We met her, she was delightful, and then she left.”

Last December, Bushell and Mills met again, this time at Space Gallery, a cozy, club-like arts venue in downtown Portland and an unlikely place for Maine’s governor-elect to turn up unannounced on a Saturday night. A crowd of a few dozen was celebrating the publication of Balancing Act II, a decades-late sequel, of sorts, again edited by Bushell and collecting the work of Maine women poets. Mills, who’d been elected governor six weeks prior, isn’t in the new book, but she delivered an off-the-cuff speech about the importance of verse in her personal and political life, about how an appreciation of poetry leads to better understandings of ourselves and our world. Bushell was touched by the appearance.

“We invited her to come, but I didn’t think she would,” she says. “She was very humble. She bought a book and had all the poets sign it. It was lovely.”

Mills has been a regular on the Maine literary circuit throughout her political career, sometimes as a speaker or guest, often as a low-key attendee at public readings, book launches, and fundraisers. A lawyer and former state district attorney, she served three terms in the Maine House of Representatives, representing Wilton and her hometown of Farmington, before being elected the state’s attorney general in 2008. She comes from a prominent political family: Her granddad served as a Republican in the state legislature, as did her father, who was also a U.S. attorney under Eisenhower and Nixon. Her older brother, Peter, spent 16 years in the state legislature and twice sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Her sister, Dora Anne Mills, did a stint on the Democratic National Committee before serving 14 years as the state’s public health director. Famed McCarthy-defying Maine senator Margaret Chase Smith was a family friend.

Mills’s mother, meanwhile, was a high school English teacher. Kay Mills grew up in Aroostook County, in Maine’s northern farm country, and Mills’s sister, Dora, remembers her mother reciting poems during long car rides up north: Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandberg. “She brought us up with poetry, there is no doubt,” Dora says. “Janet’s love of poetry stems from her.” Kay nurtured her older daughter’s nascent passion for writing, even helped her land a teen column in the Farmington paper.

After high school, Mills headed to Colby College in Waterville, but she dropped out after three semesters, in 1967, and headed to San Francisco for the Summer of Love. A year later, she enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston, then went to Paris for a year-long study abroad. In 1970, she finished her bachelor’s degree, with a major in French and an English minor. After a stint as a legal secretary in DC, she returned to Maine, to enroll at the University of Maine School of Law in 1973.

When she wasn’t cramming for exams, memorizing court cases, or editing the Maine Law Review, Mills made time to write poetry — a conscious escape from the tedium of legal writing. Her poems from the ’70s are dreamy and a bit strange, filled with “spiraling scarlet circles,” “metal waters,” and characters “simmering from life to life.” They read like the work of a writer who’s allowing herself time to dream.

Wesley McNair has known Mills for three decades. Maine’s former poet laureate, he’s also an emeritus professor at UMaine–Farmington and a recipient of seemingly every prestigious grant and fellowship the poetry scene has to bestow. In the ’80s, he ran a visiting writers’ series at the university, and Mills — then a district attorney, New England’s first female DA — often turned up in the audience and stayed to mingle after. As she and McNair became friends, they traded books and book recommendations. These days, they regularly swap poems over email.

“She doesn’t just read over the top of things,” McNair says. “She reads deep down into things. Words are very important to her, and not just because she’s a poet — she has a philosophical bent.” As both a poet and a politician, McNair says, one of his friend’s defining features is her approachability. “From the moment you meet her, you can see that she’s open to you. . . . You immediately get the feeling that you are seeing the whole person — mind, heart, and soul. Poets tend to be like this.”

McNair recalls an August afternoon a few years back, when Mills showed up at a get-together at his family camp on Drury Pond, outside Farmington. “You would think, ‘Here comes the attorney general of our state — maybe she’s here to have a little wine or something,’” McNair says. But the first thing Mills did was shed her office attire, don a bathing suit, and leap off the dock for a swim.

“It felt metaphoric,” McNair says, “but that’s the way she is. She can so easily shrug off her importance and become a human being.” That afternoon, Mills and nature writer Bob Kimber went for a paddle together in McNair’s canoe. Evening found the three of them sipping wine on the screened porch, talking about the pond and about poetry with what McNair remembers as “this quiet, wonderful intimacy.”

Not long afterwards, Mills sent both McNair and Kimber a copy of an untitled poem she’d written, commemorating the day.

You are floating
in a blue bowl
Where you find
New muscles
Where you
Watch the glow
Of sun on green
Where steep trees
Guard the shore
Where your words
Flow like the water
Among friends
Whose screens keep
away bugs that sting
Where you are
Barefooted
Bareminded
And where you leave
Two books richer.

To this day, McNair keeps his copy stuck to the fridge at camp. And this January, he returned the favor, reading a poem written for the occasion at his friend’s inauguration.

McNair isn’t the only poet with whom the governor rubs shoulders. Stuart Kestenbaum, the state’s current poet laureate, has twice led her in poetry workshops, the most recent in 2016. Her traits as a student, Kestenbaum says, make him feel optimistic about how Mills might govern the state. “Both times I’ve interacted with her, she was the attorney general, but she was completely down to earth,” he says. “She was focused on the writer and so enthusiastic, ready to offer comments and to hear feedback.” A poet’s habits, Kestenbaum says, can make for good politics, since poetry creates “a certain flexibility of thinking — you don’t want to know the answer before you start, and to me that seems like a transferable mindset.”

Another friend was Pulitzer-nominated poet and peace activist Henry Braun, of Weld, who died in 2014. Mills has told the story more than once of how Braun approached her at the swearing-in ceremony for one of her stints as attorney general, handing her a folded-up note that she slipped into her pocket. She found it there later, some time after the ceremony. It read, “Write poetry every day.”

Mills does not write poetry every day, but when I spoke to her after her inauguration, she said she does still read it daily — in an email newsletter from the Poetry Foundation, if nowhere else. She shared a few of her poems from the last decade or so, many written for occasions: a wedding, the birth of her granddaughter. My favorite is one that the 71-year-old Mills wrote in 2007, reflecting on turning 60, which contains these stanzas:

Now, in darker, closer hills,
Forests of choice,
Ancestral woods
Fed by cold laughing waters,
My mind decades deeper,
Companions comfortable,
Fine decaffeinated friends,
A family to call my own,
Shoes and slippers,
A dog to kiss my hand at end of day,
Slowly haunching,
Legs less limber,
Just lean of sixty,
I crunch my craft,
Serve my world,
Buried in the business of the day,
Live in an ever-green state,
Buy grapes in a grocery store
Olive oil in a cooking can . . .

She also mentioned a few favorite works by other poets, including Billy Collins’s “The Death of the Hat” (“Life is never boring in the world of Billy Collins,” she said) and Mary Oliver’s “Starlings in Winter.” Even if she rarely writes verse, Mills said she finds ways to weave a poetic sensibility into her work.

“I try to incorporate it into my public statements. I think there is always a place for literature and poetry in a person’s life and profession,” she said. “Poetry helps bring things together across the world. It helps you make the connections that you don’t otherwise make.”

In her political life, Mills has relied little on speechwriters. She wrote her own inaugural address, ticking off the challenges facing her administration and digressing to celebrate the state’s history, culture, landscape, and people. In one evocative passage, Mills described the river of her childhood, which flows out of the western Maine mountains, carrying sand and silt to the coast, connecting towns and villages.

“Many days, I awake to see the mist rising from the Sandy River as it steers its course to the Kennebec,” she said, “the winter’s breath unveiling a new day in my hometown, a new day in this state. Then I hear the familiar sounds of chickadees, church chimes, and Jake brakes. This is home in Maine.”

In recent years, with seemingly heartbreaking regularity, Mills has applied her talents to eulogies. In 2014, she lost her husband of nearly 30 years, Stanley Kuklinski, to a stroke. They met when Kuklinski, a widower, gave Mills a tennis lesson in 1984, and together they raised five daughters from Kuklinski’s earlier marriage. In her deeply affecting eulogy, she described all the qualities she loved in her husband — his practicality, steadfastness, loyalty, and work ethic — then ended on a note of something like grace.

“A few weeks ago, I realized we were losing your dad,” Mills said at the memorial, addressing her stepdaughters. “I went out to the lake at sunset. I saw the uncountable ripples on the water — black, green, blue, silver, like the jigsaw puzzle of a person’s life — then the nearly full moon that peered over the trees, making it all smooth and sensible again, saying, ‘It’s all right.’ . . . And it became unaccountably peaceful in my heart.”

Perhaps her most moving eulogy was the one Mills delivered on a rainy afternoon in Farmington in October 2010, commemorating her mother, Kay Mills, before a crowd of hundreds that included most of Maine’s congressional delegation. “On the night she died,” Mills said, “I felt the blood rush from the hands that held me at birth: the hands my grandparents warmed and taught on a farm for 18 years; hands that parted and swam the Aroostook River in the spring; hands that gathered food in the desperate times of a Great Depression . . .”

Her lyrical meditation on her mother’s hands went on for 22 lines. It included her penultimate observation: “Hands that wrote poems on a chalkboard every working day.”

MOVE OVER, MILLAY

Janet Mills isn’t the first Maine politico to nurse a passion for verse.

1903_Mills_Baxter

James Phinney Baxter. The mayor of Portland from 1893 to 1897 and again from 1904 to 1905, the successful businessman was also a man of letters who helped support and establish several libraries. He published poetry too, including, in 1893, a book-length poem about the Portland Observatory, writing:

They built it so their ships might be
espied far off upon the sea,
returning from voyages long and dree.

Baxter the poet seemed to have a streak of nautical melancholy — a lot of his verses are pretty dree.

1903_Mills_Smith

Margaret Chase Smith. Before she died in 1995, Maine’s first female senator (and the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress) answered a request from a grade-school class for her favorite poem. She sent them what she called “My Creed,” a prose poem of her own composition — one part Winston Churchill, one part Dr. Seuss — that declared, “that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, that honor is to be earned but not bought.”

1903_Mills_Cohen

William S. Cohen. Now 78, Maine’s former House representative and Senator — and secretary of defense under Clinton — has published two collections of poetry (as well as several political-thriller novels). In 1985, he told a Christian Science Monitor reporter that a good poem should “try to compress an idea into a very few words and to make that idea almost phosphorous, to light up in one’s mind or memory.”