October 15, 2011

Review by Bruce Whiteman

by Laura Mullen

University of California Press
2120 Berkeley Way
Berkeley, CA 94704-1012
ISBN 978-0-520-26886-9
2011, 134 pp., $22.95

“…and the ghost always carries the message…that the gap between personal and social, public and private, objective and subjective is misleading in the first place. That is to say it is leading you elsewhere, it is making you see things you did not see before…your relation to things that seemed separate or invisible is changing.”

— Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters (as cited on Laura Mullen’s blog)

Once upon a time in America, this qualified as a poem:


When water turns ice does it remember
one time it was water?
When ice turns back into water does it
remember it was ice?

These seem to be questions that a child might pose, although a child would be unlikely to think of the relationship between water and ice as a “metamorphosis.” A child might ramble more too, might go on to other questions of a similar nature. There is no music in these words, or none that I can hear at any rate. They comprise a jot, a verbal doodle. They are the product of a mind indulging in woolgathering, seemingly unafraid of the pathetic fallacy. The language is informal (“turns ice,” “one time”), and although it is arranged at a basic level to look like poetry, really it isn’t, unless one believes that if a poet says something is poetry, then it is. Free verse, after all, was not freed by anyone from being verse, it was just freed from certain conventions of meter and line structure so that the language could respond to time and music in a more open-ended and unpredictable fashion. Carl Sandburg–for he is the author of “Metamorphosis”–never really understood this, and he let loose a flood of artless and unmusical poetry, his own and that of succeeding generations, on the American landscape. William Carlos Williams called his poems “just talk” and complained that they lacked “invention” and “regenerative power.” He wrote off Sandburg’s Complete Poems of 1951 as “formless as a drift of desert sand.” “Metamorphosis” was included in Sandburg’s final book, Honey and Salt, which came out in 1963 when he was 85 years old.

Almost half a century later, Laura Mullen begins one of a series of poems that relate in various ways to Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” a poem she calls “Love (Stratus Opacus),” with these lines:

What erases the signs of the morning
Is the sign of erasure itself indistinct
Siren wah wah wah away
Where the visual logic reveals only
The viewer’s absence a lie many lies
A “thicket” where wandering lost
Bright flat featureless very pale grey
As if a day not begun had yet as if
I were writing this having had to turn
A light on in the middle of the night

This is unarguably the voice of poetry, although poetry of a very specific kind, and one that Sandberg would have had trouble recognizing. It shares nothing with what his notion of poetic language was, except, perhaps, the now less common but hitherto standard convention of capitalizing every line. Its logic is that of consciousness itself, constantly interrupting itself mid-thought and mid-sentence, following instinctual nudges, following sense perceptions as they are registered, and caring little finally for any notion of shape or completion. Punctuation is abandoned (thought doesn’t punctuate itself, after all), and the occasional puzzle is allowed to stand–why the word thicket is in quotation marks, for example. The poem turns into a beautiful piece about the loss of a lover, and if Mullen in general lets her mind wander (lonely as a stratus opacus cloud), as any abandoned disconsolate lover would; all the same the poem has four ten-line stanzas, as if a modicum of formal regularity has to be imposed on the language to keep the heart from breaking entirely.

The Wordsworth poem is not only used for its associations of solitude and romantic nature meditation. It is registered in fiercer contexts too, such as a poem called “I Wandered Networks like a Cloud,” where lines of the poem keep surfacing in a vignette of the poet watching war reporting on TV, “remote / In one hand, drink in the other.” This could seem like a bit of facile grandstanding–what would be easier than to contrast the pleasant English countryside as captured by a dreamy poet with the gritty and violent countryside in Iraq and Afghanistan as captured by a camera?–but in fact the effect is rather chilling, not to say self-critical.

Mullen’s afterword, entitled “Evaporation/Condensation,” addresses appropriation of voice, theft, and literary transformation of sources and of experience, all of which trouble her and provoke her to thought. She seems to chide Wordsworth for leaving his sister Dorothy out of his “well-known” poem, since it was based in part on her diary account of a walk the two siblings took on a roily spring day in 1802. Her own appropriation and transformation of the Wordsworth poem, then, form part of this act of questioning the distinction, if there is one, between “allusion” and “looting.” Bits of other well-known poetry rise to the surface from time to time–“a goddamn big car and” (Creeley), “the age demanded” (Pound), “the last syllable of recorded” (Shakespeare), “ghostlier demarcations” (Stevens) and so on–and she suggests radically near the end of a piece called “Own String” that “These words are not my own, more so than ever, I found them in a structure made of mirrors I dismantled, rewrote to raw fragment submitted to a procedure––remains I remain with.”

The concept of a “dark archive” comes from the digital world and refers to a copy of a data set to which almost no one has access and that is retained in remote storage against the possibility of disastrous loss. Disasters of several kinds haunt Laura Mullen’s book–the loss of love (“the failure to be there for each other”); Hurricane Katrina (she teaches at Louisiana State University); the death by exposure of her stepmother, the artist Ingrid Nickelsen. The “dark archive” is perhaps a kind of philosophical and emotional survival manual that instead of giving recipes for making nourishing soup out of old rope talks about humanness, redemption, persistence, love, “the future” (the italics are hers). It is not always easy to read and digest, but that it is the nature of experimental poetry. Mullen has written in an on-line piece about poetics that poetry goes “back and forth between sound and sense, public and private, nonsense and wisdom” (“Version Notes re: Verse,” at http://www.eveningwillcome.com/issue7-lmullen-p1.html), and the same can be said of the poems in Dark Archive. She lists Cy Twombly as an influence, and one is often reminded of the way that artist used texts. At times they are barely legible, and even when they can be read literally, their metaphorical propositions can be challenging to make out (“Under a thick white sky the impasto parents the edge loss”). Text emerging from chaos and darkness is in a sense how the dark archive is intended to function, and so do some of the poems in this collection. Some poems just swim in sound, like a collection of objects floating in a river that have a relationship but no observable aggregate meaning:

we wavers. See underwater and also under Under. Rum numbers, numb members. Another bad dad had by hurt, another bird in the band flown like water. A shroud of cloud tears to show how slow clowning around drowns distrusted intelligence out, like, it’s all in your head (waters). Blurred word in these submerged streets: bad weather for bed wetters is best for our bettors. [etc.]

Of course this poem, entitled “Code,” has to do with Katrina, but this kind of language prompted by similarity of sound becomes a welter where it is difficult for the reader to get beyond the raw material.

All the same, it and others like it seem to me to belong in that wide Sargasso Sea of poetics demarcated by Olson’s 1950 essay “Projective Verse” and its plumping for negative capability over the egotistical sublime, and that is a good thing. Poetry, Mullen says in the poetics essay, “enacts dualities to complicate and blur them or to reveal the way they are entangled and engaged.” In a piece called “Interpreting” she takes issue with Olson for his sexism (he calls poets “brothers” in the essay and consistently uses the male pronoun) and for using a hunting analogy as part of his argument about poetics. I too am deeply uneasy about the various ways in which the language of hunting and killing permeate our speech, but it seems a little unfair to collocate criticism of Olson with the murder of Robert Byrd, Jr., the Texas black man who was the victim of a horrible and violent hate crime, as she does. Yet her poetry creatively eschews “the conventions which logic has forced on syntax,” just as Olson suggested it should, and she clearly believes, as he did, that “every element in an open poem … must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem.” As she puts it in a piece called “The Author Is Not,”

The author is not lonely as a cad
As arias the areas of air we are arise
To spin within convention
Centers’ centers cannot hold
The hell of whole untolled
And where an urgent surge
Of suggestion floods the subject
With reflections sssssh he is still

The complex of thought and sound here is impressive, as Barthes, Yeats and Wordsworth as well as references to Katrina (the New Orleans Convention Center, the storm surge) coexist with contentions about poetry and the poet (“As arias the areas of air we are arise”) in a veritable flood of assonance.

Sadness pervades Dark Archive. In the first poem Mullen speaks of “my need / for meaning in this / life,” but the last words in the book, admittedly someone else’s, are “I’ve run out of tricks.” People are lost, property is destroyed, and lovers disappear. Yet the book does move toward some version of rescue. Its final poem, situated on PCH on the farthest west coast of the country, is prospective and sounds a note of almost cheerful resignation (“Nothing / I’d change”). In “Ghost Mist” (a wonderfully evocative title), time dissolves “in a damp / Salt / Slur of obscuring air.” Here as elsewhere Mullen’s fine ear makes music out of felt experience and hope proposed (“Come home / In gusts as guessed”). The dark archive is not forgotten but transformed into something of a living present, full of light and poetry.