“URBAN TUMBLEWEED”: The Signature Fragrance of Harryette Mullen

Thursday, August 11, 2016

In the past three years, I have written about poetry, music, painting, theater, and politics. I don’t see these topics as being particularly separate subjects, but one thing I’ve learned from studying the careers of “successful” endeavors is that a “focus” on one particular subject or theme increases one’s chance for public recognition. It would seem to be the case that people prefer to know ahead of time what might be in store for them if they “tune in.”

Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not interested in strict predictability. If I want to write about the problem of increasing the use of mass transit in Southern California one day, and then write about poetry the next, then I am going to do so. On the other hand, I may write about the current presidential election several days in a row; and readers who have dropped in for a while might wonder what happened to “Poetry Loves Poetry.” Let not anyone fret that I have decided to jettison poetry in hopes that a blog focused primarily on politics might increase my readership. I have recently begun to average 1,000 hits a day, but I have little interest in surpassing that figure.

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on Jack Grapes’s new collection of haiku, I have chosen “URBAN TUMBLEWEED: Notes from a Tanka Diary” by Harryette Mullen, which was published three years ago by Greywolf Press; I confess that I didn’t know about it until I picked up a copy at the Graywolf Press exhibit booth at this past spring’s AWP convention in Los Angeles. The juxtaposition in my blog of two Los Angeles poets who are writing in forms primarily associated with Japanese poetry is a matter of coincidental acquisition. I had Mullen’s book on my nightstand when Grapes’s volume arrived in the mail, and they paired up together in the tidal shift of that stack of books, which also includes a superb collection of poems by Michael Hannon as well as a thick volume of Andrei Codrescu’s slightly whacky verse.

One tends to think of haiku and tanka as balancing acts of reconciliation. For both Grapes and Mullen, the gritty edges of the personal and impersonal within the turbulence of ever intensifying modernity generate a degree of uncertainty that makes Keats’ “negative capability” seem like a vacation cruise. Both poets mount a not-so-camouflaged challenge to their onlookers, though Mullen puts it the most bluntly:

When I am blazing ghost animated by motion
capture and you the wind inhaling words
then how on earth do you read me?

That tanka serves as an example of how Mullen makes existence crackle with its original temporality of displacement. Nor do things yield easily in her imagination to the pressures of metamorphosis. Here is the one “preceding” the one above (you’ll understand the scare quotes soon):

A green streak swooshed across the sky
with a shower of brilliant blue sparks. A boulder
hurled from heaven breaking apart in earth’s air.

There is an asymmetrical, bristling energy fusing the disintegration of things in Mullen’s poems. It is not quite violence operating an agent of a malevolent domain; rather, some alien subterfuge, awkwardly coming to age, is propelling the outer world that these tanka inhabit. Fortunately, Mullen’s tanka remind me to breathe deeply as a way of keeping my balance; perceive things as they are; and thereby dispel the seductive trance of nihilism. It may not be satori, but it’s close enough to do the job. Don’t expect a smooth ride, though: there’s an abrasive bounce to the inner gravity of Mullen’s peregrinations, and she spares no one in the journey, least of all herself.

There I went, leaving only my footprints.
Returning, I brought back nothing but
the dust that clings to the soles of a wanderer.

(One hears an echo here of Weldon Kees, whose poem “Back” is one of the great minor lyrics of the 20th century.)

The most surprising part of reading Mullen’s book happened after I read the final entry and suddenly thought to myself – what if the book began here? What if there’s a secret chiasmic passageway in this labyrinth of castings? What if the entrance and exit share the possibility of retracing each other, in a kind of mirrored simultaneity? And so I began reading the book again, starting with the final tanka and working my way back to the first one. The sequence seemed to flow with more inner illumination when read in that reverse procession, though this might be just an idiosyncrasy that no one else will ever share.

I am not in any way suggesting that Mullen should have published this collection of tanka in reverse order. I rather like the undulant indeterminancy of this sequence, and how it loops in an affirmation of hard-won pleasure. No matter in which direction you start, upon picking up “URBAN TUMBLEWEED,” you won’t go wrong if you had back to Grapes’s haiku and enjoy the buoyancy of his sauntering wit as a way of easing back down to the wide road of your own life.

Finally, in this review, it should be noted that I have reversed the order of the tanka that appear on page 91 of “URBAN TUMBLEWEED,” and I hope that Harryette Mullen will accept this presentation as a genuine homage to her nimble imagination.