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Harryette Mullen, Urban Tumbleweed

URBAN TUMBLEWEED: NOTES FROM A TANKA DIARY, Harryette Mullen. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 2013, 127 pages, $15 paper, www.graywolfpress.org.

In 2020 I mentioned to a friend that I had been writing poems about my daily walks, and she dug around in her bookbag, pulled out Urban Tumbleweed, and gave it to me on the spot. At home, I read a page or two, here and there, and then put it away “for later.” I am really, really glad that I took it down this morning. Although individual tankas can delight—

The determination of a turtle
clambering out of a pond, up the slippery
side of a rock to rest in the sun. (p. 18)

—I discovered further pleasures by reading it all the way through at one go.

At the entrance to the botanical garden,
a sign hung on the gate forewarns: “Slow down.
Watch for turtles on the roads and paths.” (p. 47)

Mullen explains her project in the foreword:

My tanka diary began with a desire to strengthen a sensible habit by linking it to a pleasurable activity. I wanted to incorporate into my life a daily practice of walking and writing poetry. As committed as I am to writing, I needed a break in my routine, so I determined to alter my sedentary, unconsciously cramped posture as a writer habitually working indoors despite living here in “sunny California.” (p. vii)

A professor of creative writing and African American literature at UCLA and the author of seven more conventional poetry books (notably, Sleeping with the Dictionary, which was a finalist for the National Book Award), Mullen adapts the traditional form of the Japanese verse of thirty-one syllables (originally printed as a single line of text, in English generally broken into five lines of 5-7-5-7-7) to suit herself. Each of her tankas is close to 31 syllables, but rendered in three lines. The main point was to walk, pen and notebook in her pocket, each day writing a single observation:

Another goal was to address the question, “What is natural about being human?” While Mullen’s observations are often about the natural world, they don’t stray far from newspaper stories, bus riders, and trash.

Along the roadside, someone has spilled
pink Styrofoam peanuts. They add color
to the grassy green, but I still prefer flowers. (p. 13)

Ha-ha-haw-haw, the dark bird’s rowdy laughter
as it flew over the heads of earthbound
pedestrians who didn’t get the joke. (p. 115)

In The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice, Tony Hoagland asks a question I’ve been pondering this month:

What do we want from a contemporary poetic voice? One good answer to that question is that we want to feel that we are encountering a speaker “in person,” a speaker who presents a convincingly complex version of the world and of human nature. When we commence reading a poem, we are starting a relationship, and we want that relationship to be with an interesting, resourceful companion. (p. 5)

I find that this is also true with an entire book of poetry. And even when I start out with some reluctance, I find that if I keep going I inevitably begin hearing the poet’s voice, maybe trusting it, definitely glimpsing the world through new eyes. At least, that’s how I felt this morning, reading Harryette Mullen’s 366 tankas. I have a feeling that her journey, in writing the poems, was much the same.

Although I don’t expect that I will soon burst into a book-length experiment with the tanka, I have decided to start carrying a notebook on my walks.

To read more about Harryette Mullen, follow this link.

Carl Dennis, Earthborn

EARTHBORN, Carl Dennis. Penguin Books, 2022, 128 pages, $20 paper, www.penquinrandomhouse.com.

A friend told me to please, please read this book. It is dedicated to my friend’s mentor and dear friend, the late Tony Hoagland (1953- 2018), and includes passages from his Sweet Ruin and a poem memorializing him. So, I found a copy on-line and I read the whole book this morning.

I should mention that my initial impression was that this poet was not my cup-of-tea. But I got up early today and drove one of my daughters to work, and for about 26 minutes (our entire drive), she recounted in excruciating detail how much the boys in her senior high school class hate the novels they are reading in English class. How they gripe constantly, tell her she’s stupid for choosing the books (she didn’t choose them), plagiarize their assignments from Spark Notes, etc. So. Even though Dennis’s poems didn’t seem — at first — what I wanted to read, I decided to set aside all pre-judgment and lose myself in the poems.

The magic worked. I ended up being engaged — even charmed. I found myself wanting to write a Bethany-Reid poem “in the style of Carl Dennis.”

Earthborn is brand new, published just last month, Carl Dennis’s 13th volume of poetry. I believe I read his 2001 Pulitzer-winning book, Practical Gods, but it’s been a long time since I sat down with his poems. Poetry Foundation helped educate me about Dennis’s philosophy and approach to poem-writing (and I recommend reading that, too), but — in my own words — each poem in Earthborn is like a thought-experiment. “Nothing is improved by being praised,” begins the first poem; another: “Once the seasons were gods…” Another addresses Socrates. The Puritans turn up, and Columbus. And Tony Hoagland. Not that any poem is the same as any other.

In the first poem, Dennis writes, “I want to be one of the witnesses of the familiar,” and that, as much as anything I read about him, helped me to understand his voice.

The opening of his poem, “Primitive,” offers an example of what I think I mean — a sort of address to a religious idea:

It wasn’t a conviction that life is holy
That kept me from drowning the spider I found
In the sink this morning, that caused me instead
To cover it with a cup, slide a postcard beneath it,
And carry it out to the patio. It was more
The thought that it seemed unfair to kill it…

I had a sense of him, picking up each idea of a poem and turning it, one way and then another, like a faceted stone. What if I hold it this way? What if I set it at this angle in the light?

Here’s one poem that got me thinking about how some novels are thought-experiments (maybe they all are) — what if the character made this choice…what if she made this other choice?

Art and Life

It’s no surprise that in fiction the central figures
Tend to learn more by the end than people
Commonly learn in the actual world,
Where many keep making the same mistakes.

Novelists start with their own experience,
Which includes going to bed convinced
That their current project is almost finished,
Only to find, in the candid light of morning,
That it still needs many more months of work.
What better proof that learning goes on
Even in sleep, that one’s sense of fitness
Grows in the night like corn or bamboo?

Is the newest version truer to life
Or simply more shapely, more charming?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
The hero before was recognizable,
A man, say, liable to fritter away his life
In random pastimes. But now he does more
To resist his temperament, so readers,
Instead of looking down from on high,
May be willing to stand in his shoes awhile.

As for the heroine, the revision suggests
She is still a woman who hides,
Beneath her apparent warmth, a seam of coldness.
But now the coldness conceals a wound
That makes trust a challenge.
Now she wants to know where her courage
Is supposed to come from
If she can’t find it when she looks within.

The more they learn, the truer they are in spirit
To the fact that every draft of the novel
Is another chapter in the single story
Slowly unfolding in which the author
Learns by trial and error what the work
Needs more of to be complete.

In the meantime, it’s clear that the hero’s remorse
Near the end of the manuscript for the grief
His want of direction has caused the heroine
Is more convincing than it’s ever been.
Instead of giving a speech that seems
Too polished to be spontaneous,
He seems to be groping for words, not sure
What he’ll say until he says it, and then
Not sure if he ought to be satisfied
Or open to one more try.

–Carl Dennis

When I Googled Dennis, I found a number of videos on-line, and poems at The New Yorker. I hope you’ll take a deeper look.

Karen Whalley

MY OWN NAME SEEMS STRANGE TO ME, Karen Whalley. Off the Grid Press, 2019, 65 pages, $16 paper, www.grid-books.org.

I have known Karen Whalley for at least 30 years and consider her one of my dearest friends. All the more amazing, then, that her poems continue to surprise me, and make me swoon. But don’t take my word for it. To quote the late Tony Hoagland (himself, a national treasure) from the book’s cover:

These beautifully clear, meditative poems have it all; dexterously situated in daily experience, they meet with the difficulties of lived life, with a deep, often heartbreakingly honest and humane insightfulness. Fluent, full of breakthroughs and surprises, these extraordinary poems never seem to falter; Whalley is an extraordinary poet, and this is a book in a thousand.

I had a terrible time trying to pick out just one poem to share. This is the first poem in the book:

Naming It

Before dawn, from the gully where the creek abides
A bird whose name I do not know practices
Its five-note song, and I am a girl again
Sitting at the piano repeating a simple scale.

The bird sings, the sun rises, as if there were a connection,
And my feet do not reach the pedals as my hands
Spread, like wings, across the keys. The wound

Is easier to name: the father did not love,
And after that it was the husband, but the bird and the piano
Remind me of that man who read the same book
For thirty years, memorizing each sentence

As a way to perfect his understanding
Of the book whose name I never learned.
I would see him each morning on the corner
Waiting for the bus, the book spread

Across his hands, like wings at rest, peering into the pages
With his glasses slipping farther down his nose
So he had to tilt his head back as he stood there–

Dissolved into his book, like the bird dissolving
Into morning, the way the piano dissolves into the box of memory.