Reflections from the Front Porch (Mike Gill)

Reviewed by Kathleen Champlin

Gill’s poems and poetic prose works bring nature vividly to life. The poems also place both nature and the world around his front porch in social and historical context. For instance, in “Mint,” Gill notes that settler culture tends to divide plants into categories such as invasive and useful (to humans) while the plants themselves simply want to live.* He compares a mint plant growing in his yard to a bishop’s weed plant elsewhere (where he lives), noting:

Nature is hard to control
Right, mint?
You and your friend the bishop
Grow and grow
One is considered food
The other invasive

Incidentally, I searched online for “bishop’s weed” and found that several plants were given that name. At least one may have medicinal value, and at least one is sold as a flowering plant for gardens. The line between weeds and useful plants truly is arbitrary. Moreover, as Gill notes, these arbitrary distinctions often determine which plants are killed and which are allowed to live. Gill has actually tried to control the growth of the bishop’s weed in his yard. Since he does not use pesticides, the plant simply ignores him and keeps growing. Meanwhile, in the front yard:

The pollinators
Come out to play
When you [mint] display
Your white flowers
Letting them dance

The word in brackets is mine. Both plants remain alive no matter what their neighbors say about them.

Gill makes a similar connection between nature and cultural interference in “Hey, Fox,” a poem that describes an early-morning encounter with a wild animal. This poem also alludes to another surprising animal encounter. Apparently, a coyote made the news in Chicago when it walked into a sandwich shop. Gill sums up the incident by saying: “It apparently needed to rest. Or was curious. Or wanted a toasted sub sandwich.”

A similar dry sense of humor pervades all of Gill’s poems and often underlines the contradictions (or horrors) of the majority culture. Later in the same poem, Gill notes that the majority culture often calls for “culling” both deer and foxes. This occurs when officials decide that the animal populations are too large. Gill considers this culling an act of official murder. He adds that another officially proposed solution to the “deer problem” involved slipping the deer birth control, concluding:  “Here is some Depo for you all. Wow. Is Deer eugenics a thing?”

Eugenics has long been tied to the majority culture, of course. As Gill notes, this culture has a long history of killing, burning, or destroying anything that gets in its way.

Several of Gill’s poems focus entirely on social commentary and on small horrors perpetuated by the majority culture. These poems include the disturbing “They.” In this prose work, Gill recounts being part of a gifted program that took place in a special education building. An administrator painted a line across the cafeteria/gym to keep the gifted and special education populations separate. As Gill puts it: “…the violence of ableism cut deep across the gym.” 

Gill also wonders about missed possibilities.

I tell my students about this experience. How some decision made created a barrier. Little kids that could be friends, any opportunities for love, or hate forbidden. What was not allowed because of that line?

What could these two groups of students have taught each other if they’d been allowed to mingle? What kind of culture creates such arbitrary distinctions? While these questions were not answered – either in the poem or in life – they do force readers to reconsider the lines drawn across their workplaces and communities.

Many of Gill’s other poems are more light-hearted. “Cicada on the Sage” simply celebrates the life of an insect that spends most of its lifetime underground. “Squirrels and Cucumber Beetles” and “Squirrels Again” vent a gardener’s frustration with the squirrels that dig up his vegetables.

You rearrange the deer netting hoping they will not climb up to the cucumbers. You place the plastic plant trays to protect the growing squash. You sprinkle cayenne. And coffee grounds.

Naturally, nothing works to deter these hungry rodents. The narrator ends up giving some of his plants to a neighbor with a truly squirrel-proof enclosure, concluding:

Seriously, just buy tomatoes at the market next year. Your blood pressure and your neighbor will thank you.

Gill’s Reflections from the Front Porch is both a joyful celebration of life and thoughtful work of cultural criticism. Gill chronicles the human and non-human lives in his neighborhood with humor and vivid sensory description.

*Settler is a term for those living on stolen Indigenous lands; the term is used by several groups in the unceded land sometimes referred to as the U.S.

Title: Reflections from the Front Porch
Author: Mike Gill
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Date: 2022

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About the Reviewer

Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.