Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary

plastic-bag-in-tree-600x400.jpgHarryette Mullen, a poet and UCLA English professor, does a lot of walking from her home in what I’m guessing is Mar Vista, Venice, or Santa Monica. When she walks, she brings along a journal and writes a tanka, the 31-syllable Japanese poem conventionally written (she says) in one column, usually translated in five lines, but here divided into three. In her introduction, she confesses that she’s not fastidious about form: it’s 31 syllables… more or less. Nor is she insistent that the collection focus only on L.A. – she adds to it while traveling. The point is to compel an economy of observation and a directness of speech. No time for lyricism here: “The purpose of the tanka makes it suitable for capturing in concise form the ephemera of everyday life” (ix).

The kind of ephemera she’s after becomes clear once the title is decoded, several pages into the collection, with a poem that describes a wind-borne shopping bag as an “urban tumbleweed.” She’s interested in what’s commonplace and, therefore goes unnoticed.

Many of these poems could be written by beginners – gradeschool students, even. But the simplicity of the poems misleads. Mullen brings several qualities to the work rarely found in beginners. The first is persistence. There are three poems on each of 126 pages. That’s 378 poems between the two covers. Sustaining any project that long without repetition or exhaustion requires skill, clarity of vision, surrender to form, patience, and serenity.

Equally important is Mullen’s immigrant eye. Born in Alabama, she’s been an academic nomad, educated at UT Austin and UC Santa Cruz, and teaching at Cornell and UCLA among other institutions. Those of us born to the city take much of its strangeness for granted – and, anyway, we drive by it too quickly to really look at it. Mullen does look. She reminds me of Reyner Banham, another foreigner who saw Los Angeles afresh.

These are “risky” poems, but not in the conventional sense. Mullen risks being banal. She writes (51):

Deferential to the stern blustering wind,
slender blades of grass and pliant stalks
of flowers, bowing their heads in their presence.

Taken on its own, this is evocative, but in a familiar way. If I read it by itself, I don’t think I’d notice it (although: what if it were stapled to a telephone pole, anonymous? maybe then?). The reason it succeeds – rather, the reason I respond to it – is that there are fifty pages of such brief evocations before it appears, and more than fifty pages after. If you’re brave enough to write one of these and then write another, you end up with a collection that does more than just describe a place.  It defines a place.

She has a sly eye for L.A.’s weirdness, but also for the generosity available to those who resist the rush and, at the edges, some of the horror. A few I lingered over while reading:

Adorned with snakes around his neck
like jewelry, he knows that the most beautiful
reptiles are not always the most venomous. (31)

And:

Would have said this purple clustered flower
looks like a burst of fireworks, but of course it’s
the fireworks that imitate the flower. (30)

And:

Here we imagine how we might perish: by lightning
strike or snakebite, drowned in a flash or
parched and shriveled in withering heat. (88)

And:

“Do you hear me?” Yes, I turn my head.
A stranger talking on the phone. “Listen to me.
Stop saying you’re going to kill yourself.” (116)

I took a walk after reading Mullen. I did not write a tanka. But, while waiting for the light to change on a Lincoln Blvd. crosswalk, I watched for the one thing that, were she beside me, would have caught her eye.

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