Review by Lucy Biederman
By Tyler Mills
Southern Illinois University Press
1915 University Press Drive
SIUC Mail Code 6806
Carbondale, IL 62901
2013, 80 pp., $15.95
Like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red or Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands, Tyler Mills’s Tongue Lyre (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, takes place in a world in which myth and contemporary life mingle freely; here Philomela is acquainted with Multiplexes and Winnebagos. The impetus behind such admixture, however, seems quite different for Mills than it does for Carson or for Gluck, both of whom have used myth to create novelistic, character-driven books. Mills makes a more fragmented, uncertain world for her speaker; her poems examine and expose human consciousness, destabilizing the boundaries between myth and whatever it is we mortals tend to refer to as “real life.”
Mills moves from myth to modern-day and back again like passing between rooms of a house. Actually, more easily than that—often these movements occur within the same stanza, barely perceptible, or perceptible only once they have passed. For example, “Telemachos,” despite its title’s suggestion of the Odyssian myth, seems largely to take place near a suburban highway, but there is a man lurking in these stanzas that the poem and the speaker cannot seem to shake: the poem begins, “There is a sound—a fist? I see the man/ in my mind”; and in the poem’s penultimate stanza, we hear the sound of the man’s speech:
Pump fumes smell like greasy hamburgers.
Your hair, your hair is red. The man is behind me,
his pale eyes smoothing my shoulders,
drawing a cold line under my t-shirt.
Telemachos literally means “far from battle,” but at this gas station in peacetime America, the speaker is not safe. The suggestion of mythology here, rather than underscoring or clarifying a narrative, exposes a sense of fear, violence, and insecurity. Here and throughout, Mills uses myth to peel back the illusion of safety that “reality” offers us—and with it the illusion that there is a barrier between myth and real life. Myth is not a story or a set of stories here; it is a force that makes and unmakes, continually and throughout Tongue Lyre. “Do not admit I am lost,” Mills writes in the gorgeous and surprising prose poem “Spoken from the Maze Daedalus Made.” Or, in the lovely two-part poem “Scylla and Charybdis, “Here I am/ again.” By placing such close and careful attention to consciousness and self-making alongside her invocation of myth, Mills shows how myth does not only inflect reality—it changes reality.
Mills’s attention to selfhood, danger, and physicality is also evident in the book’s longest poem, “Rose,” an extended and profound meditation on the question, “What is it about truth, images of truth?” Mills writes:
When my mother was younger than I am,
she took the train from New Jersey to Penn Station,
her zip-up leather portfolio almost the length of her legs.
She clutched it against her ripped coat.
A man tried to pull it away—
Pencil self-portraits inside
Protected between translucent sheaths of tracing paper
Who would want these?
The specificity of the portrait of the speaker’s mother, particularly when considered in the context of Mills’s use of mythic figures, complexly underscores and undercuts the question that ends this passage: Who would take this woman’s self-portraits? Well, one might answer, speaker of this poem, for one. Perhaps the speaker has considered her mother’s story a cautionary tale, her mother’s selves rendered translucently in pencil, too easily pulled away. But in conveying it, she aligns her purposes with those of the thief. Like the thief attempted to do, the speaker uses her mother’s self-portraits for her own inscrutable wants. The speaker, then—as in much of the book—becomes the hero and anti-hero of this tale, powerful in a way she might not necessarily have chosen.
These poems are propelled by the precision of their descriptions and their syntactical thrust—both of which work to create a thrilling and terrifying sense of cruelty and confusion. In “Cyclops,” Mills’s speaker pronounces across a stanza break, “The more a thing is investigated // the more it burns” (25). That stanza break contributes energy to the sentence’s already highly charged first clause—and adds emphasis to the powerful ambiguity of its second clause. This moment comes in the middle of the book, in the middle of the poem—burning with pain and clarity, a lamp and a wound. Another example of Mills’s masterly use of syntax is “Violin Shop,” which ends with a stunner of a sentence that torques its way across 15 lines, enacting the grand span, across time and space, of a violin “that spoke out loud long than you / or I ever will.”
Tongue Lyre bursts with descriptive moments that act as re-visions—recasting daily or familiar objects, actions, or sounds with more power or danger or surprise, enstrangements that makes the real feel more real. A violin being tuned sounds like “weak chairs creaking underneath guests” in “Violinist”; in “The Sirens,” Mills writes, “I remember / braiding the hair of a friend’s doll by myself in her bedroom,” elegantly and simply stated, yet also terrifying, locked inside childhood.
The precision of craft extends beyond the book’s individual poems, to the structure of the book itself, recurring themes of which include the speaker’s identification with the myth of Philomela, violin as lyre, and truth (or lack thereof) in confession. Poems wink at each in exciting way—late in the book, “Performance” offers up a Johnny Cash line, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” recalling an almost parable-like moment involving Cash in the poem “Bluff,” near the beginning of the book. “Bluff” follows one of the book’s most narrative, traditionally confessional poems, “Wandering Rocks”; its title evokes the sound “liar” in the book’s title and complicates our artful speaker’s confession. So, too, do the wide variety of forms here: there is the funny and miserable “Water Ballad,” the anxious and beautiful prose poems like “Spoken from the Maze Daedalus Made” and “Penelope’s Firebird Weft,” poems arranged in couplets, stanzaic poems, even an erasure made from a chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. With such formal variety, Mills perhaps makes an implicit parallel between form and myth—two traditions to which we turn to reflexively for consolation, even after we have learned they cannot give us what we want or need. But by turning to them, Mills shows again and again in this gorgeous and accomplished book, we change our worlds.
Lucy Biederman is a doctoral student in English Literature/Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana and the author of two chapbooks, The Other World (Dancing Girl Press, 2012) and The Hardest Part Is Done (Grey Book Press, forthcoming). She has poems in recent or forthcoming issues of RHINO, Parcel, Handsome, The Literary Review, Gargoyle, The Tusculum Review, Word Riot, and other journals.