I first encountered Laura Mullen’s poems in 1983, in an issue of the late lamented Ironwood. Their music sang itself to me for years; they made a model of what poetry should be and do, what I wanted my poetry to be. Those poems, and her first book, The Surface, published in 1991 as a National Poetry Series winner, embodied an almost perfect and perfectly precarious balance between what Charles Altieri calls lyricism and lucidity, enchantment and disenchantment: they walked open-eyed through the illusion, not taken in, but not willing to cast it aside either.
The title of The Surface encapsulates some of Mullen’s concerns: that there is a both an apparent and an underneath, and that both are real, that to penetrate beneath the surfaces of things, including the surfaces of the poem, is a necessary endeavor, but to do so does not mean that those surfaces don’t matter, aren’t matter. Her later work, in her books After I Was Dead (1999), now apparently out of print, and most recently Subject (2005), whose title plays on the several senses of that word, moves further toward disenchantment, including most particularly disenchantment with the poem itself as a vessel and vehicle of feeling that it constructs and constricts as much as it communicates and conveys.
T.S. Eliot wrote that the poet should always be suspicious of language; in Mullen’s more recent poems, language is suspicious of itself. As if the lyric itself were turned against the ways in which lyric is a lie, but still loving that lie, its lullabies, remembering that a lie can still tell the truth, be the truth, Mullen’s poems enact a version of what critic and poet James Longenbach calls poetry’s resistance to poetry.
I have included a selection of her poems, among them several otherwise uncollected, in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, published in 2004 by the University of Iowa Press.
Dawn where the, where the.
Grey lifting off,
Fog rising, herons on the black mud,
Exposed, of the bay. Blue-greys and greens,
The steady shore, the knife-blade
Leaves of the eucalyptus dripping in fog,
Tic, tic, the air salt. Dawn,
Dawn, dawn; the idiot’s
The mirror slips out. Out
On the glazed mud
The vase-shaped birds make their harsh
Unvarying cries. I am.
Chalk smell, damp, of clay and the dull grey
Swelling under his hands, turning, opens
To a vase. Dawn. The shelves full,
The bisqued and the still-damp squat, O-
Mouthed, all wonder, veiled to be trimmed.
Smell of clay, Dawn, dawn, favored a deep blue
Glaze called cobalt, fired all night
At cone six, or cone ten.
I don’t know the trade. The hell
Of the kiln intact, in the dark, a brick
Removed: a window into hell. Remarried.
Up all night for beauty you could use.
I am going to explain.
Dawn the deep blue
Burns away, the fog crawls
Off the edges, exposing
The flesh color, the raw
Clay. The cries of the blue
Grey herons float back cross the bay.
Smell of clay. Dawn. Silence.
Sand Box. 1952.
—Homage to Joseph Cornell—
This is as much of the ocean as we ever wanted.
White foam sliding away from a single starfish,
Some ball bearings, and a few broken springs.
We know how to let go gracefully,
The wooden frame a little worn at the edges,
The pane of glass painted with blue lines...
These are formalities we were brought up to appreciate.
Doesn’t the window own the view?
That’s how I love you.
This is a package we don’t have to open,
Summer shipped after us, into fall.
“We found some things you forgot here.”
(The blue string knotted by spiders or sailors.)
“I bet you thought you lost these.”
The yellow sand spilled like a scarf
Under a dry starfish and two ball bearings,
Arranged by an astronomy of broken springs.
And that translucent smear of amber along one edge,
A single silk stocking
(Why bother to send it at all?)
Sheer as your shadow, smelling of must and salt.
This is a music box. The ocean breaks
Here in other ways than we know,
Casting its clockworks onto a dry shore
Of cracked white paint and sand.
It has no sound of its own. Like a shell.
You remember the life you left there.
Under glass nothing is accidental;
In mirrors and water it happens twice.
Is this turning all too easily, too swiftly into
Language? A man keeps stepping out
From behind a banyan tree
It or not....” Stopping. Starting over again. Stopping.
Of course there’s a camera.
Of course there’s a camera-
Man making it into
A movie, or trying: stopping
The speaker from stepping out
Of the frame, sending him back to “Believe...”
And the tree,
And the moving away from the tree.
What does the tree feel? What does the camera
Think about this? It’s a fund-raising movie, “Believe
It or not, last year we were ranked in...”—
You don’t want to hear this. I got out
Of there fast. “And so”: the scene’s stopped.
Incongruous, in a suit and a tie—stopped again
Mid-gesture, emphatic, between the tree’s
Green and the lawn’s—there’s some guy walking out
Of a day in Spring (making a special pitch to the camera’s
Potentially vast and yet intimate audience) and into
Something like timelessness. It’s a matter of belief.
Or beliefs? That banyan’s true, but hard to believe
In, in that dense cluster of trunks it hasn’t stopped
Adding all those very slightly differing versions onto,
Like a news feed: tree, tree, tree, et cetera—
A dark mass of leaves above the whole business—the camera
Keeps running. Don’t worry, we can edit it out.
I got out and I didn’t get out...:
Like him I was getting paid to act like I believed
In what I was selling, only language was the camera
(So I was both of them) I couldn’t stop—I couldn’t stop
This I, I, I—turning into the tree
Now (do you believe that?), turning into
Something outside, stopped....
Which goes on soliciting belief. For how long? O Tree,
O Camera. Just a couple of seconds turning into
Tell It Again (The Same Story)
Couldn’t tell it sitting in the footage lost
Couldn’t decide where it started if
Couldn’t see how to screen the silences
Too much of it voice-over oblique reference anyway “cut”
Couldn’t tell it slowed stretched damaged
Couldn’t find all five endings in the mess
Couldn’t imagine to complete the caress
Wrote the rhyme without even noticing it, couldn’t find a reason to continue to speak
Read the Bible
Read the Bible said the lecturer because there are so many stories of sex and violence in it and
that’s what we want there are only five stories the lecturer insisted everything is a story
“universal” because that is what we want
Meanwhile the formal decisions (break untie divorce)
“Couldn’t” as honesty, honesty as motivating force,
Caught under a crushed house not strong enough to lift
Pulled sound theme music “cut” (credits)
Couldn’t or wouldn’t
"Alba" and "Sand Box. 1952" are from The Surface. "35 1/2" is from After I Was Dead. "Tell It Again (The Same Story)" is to my knowledge uncollected.