FOUR (OF MANY) REASONS TO PUT SARA MUMOLO’S ‘MORTAR’ ON YOUR BOOKSHELF

1. SHE FILLS UP BLANK MOMENTS WITH WHAT YOUR MIND COULD BE THINKING BUT MAYBE ISN’T BUT MIGHT NOW AFTER YOU READ HER POEMS

I love epigraphs.  Epigraphs are awesome.  If well-chosen, they indicate to the reader an inkling of the space the book will fill.  Well, on the first page of Mortar (Omnidawn Books), we find a quote from Barbara Guest: “I feel blank moments / and I feel sorry for them.”  What follows is a quiet, thoughtful group of poems, that although are each excellent in their own right when read individually, weave in and out of each other to create sequence and consistency.   In elegant, controlled language that is nonetheless occasionally fraught with danger (“In a sleep / you invent the weapon I touch you with,” from “Repose”), Mumolo establishes: 1) the existence of a self (this should not ever be taken for granted), but in this case a ‘self’ whose understanding of its own position alters in the face of an examination of its own standing (“privilege”): and 2) that perhaps the only possible cure for the blankness Guest invokes is to begin the occasionally arduous task of examining what else besides the self does exist. Throughout Mortar, Mumolo, as the poet, pushes and pulls her speaker, in the process pushing and pulling language across the space of the page to create tension between content and ‘blankness.’  Her speaker finds meaning even as she questions, sometimes stumbling against boundaries: “What mattered was / I was practicing life / then land stopped thinking” (from “March”).

2. THE SPEAKER EXAMINES WHAT MIGHT BE A TREND AMONG MEN/MALE ARTISTS/MALE WRITERS TO APPROPRIATE THE EXPERIENCE OF WOMANHOOD FOR THEIR OWN PURPOSES

(I was going to say “nefarious purposes,” but I realized that would be projecting and therefore not fair to the work in question.)

A couple of key examples: In “In Regard To,” the speaker states, “It is popular for me as a man / to introduce himself / as a woman in this feeling.”  Interestingly enough, the next two lines read: “When my fingers make an L figure / a gun on a temple.”  Although Mumolo’s poetry doesn’t necessarily follow logic as I learned it, there do seem to be a lot of what I would call associative leaps.  Is it so hard to imagine that the thought of a man presenting himself as female for the sake of popularity might irk a member of the female of the species, whose own experiences as woman have so often been marginalized in life and in art?  How many of us haven’t pretended to blow out our brains by placing two fingers to our temples on occasion or another, out of distress or irritation?  But I would argue that there’s far more going on here in the juxtaposition of these lines.  There’s an absorption of shock taking place, as a result of the appropriation of experience and narcissism on the part of the male in question that actually threatens the continued existence, the veracity, of the female speaker’s existence.  Here, the shock is expressed in mimicry, the creation of a flesh-and-blood gun.   Elsewhere, for example in “Decentralization of Easement,” a taut, crisp prose poem, the speaker remarks upon, “Men having babies in their paintings.  Babies history arrests outside of my museum, which is her museum.  I sing into its building, unharvested with echo.  Tone on sleeve.  She’s as lonely as the rest of us, she says.  And wears it, disdainfully.”  While reading this, my brain makes its own associative leaps, and I can almost imagine the “tone on sleeve” as ink toner, as the byproduct of ‘manning’ some gigantic printer that spews out predetermined and contorted images/versions of femaleness.  In fact, the speaker address this in the lines that follow: “I put my cheek on the frame to cool my eyes.  You say you’re writing this one as a woman uncomfortable with failure.  I am breathing this one as a failure comforting her.”  (Emphasis in the original.)  In the end, the female viewer refuses to accept the image that the male artist has proffered.  One might argue that even the female image disagrees with herself (“And wears it, disdainfully.”).  This sense of disagreement, of questioning image, segues nicely into a discussion of another great thing about Mortar.

3. THE NUDE SERIES

As Brian Teare has suggested in the introduction to phrases/fragments: an anthology (Sustenance Press, 2011) where some of the Nude poems first appeared—full disclosure, I also have poems in this anthology—“When a woman writes a series of “Nudes,” she participates in an explicitly feminist epistemology, given that a ‘nude’ invokes both the long misogyny of art history and women artists’ and theorists’ recent interventions into that history.”  [ Series is a loose word though.  These Nude poems–a mere five in total, but they pack a punch–are scattered through the book’s first section and serve to thread the section together as a whole—for example, right before “Middle Nude,” there’s a poem called, “Not a Mask of Immodesty.”  The connection here is almost tactile.]  “Third Nude” comes first, and perhaps appropriately begins with the lines, “We could be nothing but interruptions / moon-colored snow  / if class can belong to a body…”  Motherhood and childhood are discussed, the Nude as mother / daughter / child (archetype?), but the voice of the poem remains fully adult.  [Later in the series, Mumolo invokes the first nude (and, I suppose, the first mother) of all, Eve, and later Eve’s temptation, which of course then caused her to grow ashamed of her own nudity after eating from the Tree of Knowledge.]  In “Left Nude,” the poet writes:

“Flexible architecture of belonging    to someone /we disinter ourselves           as the moon / what does the moon do / where illusion reigns / my body is BOOMING / the main ability of a nude is how her figure triumphs / when earth rehearses her irrelevance”

[The actual text floats across the page but thanks to an ill-bred combination of my idiocy and some formatting issues, I was unable to convey that here–could this just be another reason to get hold of the actual book?]

This nude is planetary, heavy.  Also, “what does the moon do” [the moon so often allied with the feminine] begs us to answer the question it poses.  If I remember correctly from elementary school science classes, the moon reflects (light).  Reflections make me think of mirrors, which do not show us what we really look like, but rather switch our left and right sides.  [Hence, those of us with asymmetrical faces look slightly different in a mirror than we do in a photograph.]  And yet despite this reflection, this illusion, we continue stubbornly as we are.  “BOOMING,” if you will.  Mumolo’s nude is claiming something back for herself. As a whole, these nudes reject their own commoditization even as they wonder just how possible it is to step out of the frame.  The effect is eerie, ethereal.

4. ‘MONEY ON IT’

Money On It, the second half of the book, also begins with a really cool epigraph from a William Bronk poem called “Memorial” that reminds us “how quickly the world changes. / The land and life are too interrupted / by the indomitable fantasy of extreme violence…”

What follows is the poet’s epigraph (memorial even?), written, perhaps, to grace the tombstone of our century so far.  We find here an examination of the intersections of capitalism, power, protest, the personal importance of literal cash money, language, beauty, and art, all as they are interrupted by images, brevities of the every day.  (As for the latter, the poem sequence includes nearly blank pages that consist entirely of fragments centered at the bottom of these pages that seem to come and go as they please, almost as if they move freely within the structure of the more sentence-based poetry of the series as a whole.)

Rather than quoting a longer passage within this review, I’m going to refer you here, to Comma, Poetry, an online journal edited by Pablo Lopez where you can get a feel for a few of the poems.

Happy reading!

Advertisements
1 comment
  1. Kristen said:

    I have got to get my hands on this one. Thanks for reviewing it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: