Franz Wright
Jenn Morea
Ted Pelton
Susan M. Schultz
Amanda Nadelberg
Standard Schaefer
Matthew Cooperman
Ed Taylor
Coralie Reed
Gretchen Mattox
Mark Rudman
Ales Debeljak
Simon Perchik
Bendall on Wagner
Schroeder on Mullen
Thompson on Gibson
Minor on Tran
Rippey on Hannah

Laura Mullen, Subject. University of California Press, 2005. 99pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by Amy Newlove Schroeder

There is, intentionally, a black hole at the center of Laura Mullen's new book — the void-space of subjectlessness.  It's an ambitious project: Mullen has set out to write a book that purposely functions at the edge both of subject and subjectivity. The poems are filled with language that might traditionally be considered "weak" diction — words like "To be an 'active part of' / To experience this as." This is opposite of what Pound spoke of when he demanded a "more passionate syntax." Mullen is writing anti-lyric, attempting to create a place of neutrality — a place after the tradition, after the canon, after poetry.

One of her chief tactics is to allude to familiar lines in deliberately non-exquisite language. For example, Duncan's "Often I am permitted to return to a meadow," is transliterated as, "Often I am permitted to discover myself a victim of my desire to see something else in that place." Eliot's mermaids who will not sing to him are rendered as, "I did not think that I would sing to you / he seemed to say." Basho's frog leaps into "rippled (wavered ribbons of)." And Shakespeare's love is compared to not to a summer's day, but to mere "weather." All this downsizing of passion is in the service of a clear message: Lyric is over. It's a tune we've all heard enough times to know the song by heart—Uncle Ez, in fact, was one of the first to sing it—but Mullen has not managed to make it new. Furthermore, Mullen consistently courts that most dangerous element of allusion: In altering so many famous lines, one can't help but hear the much more satisfying originals in one's head. (Another Mullen — Harryette — employed this tactic considerably more effectively in her book Sleeping with the Dictionary.)

While the book does contain compelling pieces, as a whole it does not succeed. This is chiefly due to what Mullen offers us in place of poetry. Stein-inspired, coy wordplay is part of the problem: "Demi-urge. After an interval return of the tonic (had been set on snooze): knee-deep, need-eep. Demiurgent." More problematic is a persistent flatness of affect, and the use of a rhetoric clogged by unexciting word choices. "In a binary defined by the off-center vertical black line residual sings of a frantic insistence and then — in time (roughed in) this — an equally frantic regret."  Mullen's book highlights one of the chief problems with postmodernism: We're so obsessed with the party being over that we forgot to go to the party in the first place. Furthermore, if there is really nothing left to say, why is anyone still talking? Why write? It's a contradictory stance, a hostility toward the tradition twinned by the desire to enter into it.

Much of the collection seems to function as a funeral for subjectivity, a sort of non-ritual unblessing of the dead ("Awoke a serial homesickness (the text) / for a place you lived in — off and on — for years / (yes) but never liked. Why wait? Sickness: / a visit to the morgue at night. Home: / You never lived there, never left. Lift (now): / And part the white canvas they draped"). It's difficult to understand why the place we're living in now is better than where we used to be.

Unlike Pound's rebellious desire to overturn the genuinely bad poetry of the Georgians, the turgid cadences of Swinburne, et alia., many poets writing today are motivated not by a desire to create something fresh, unexpected, extraordinary, but to translate theory into poetry.  Since so much of the language of theory is, to put it mildly, not poetic, this is a difficult task. The theory at the heart of Subject — the conviction that there is no subject — is, of course, antithetical to lyric, which is fostered in the necessarily unique dwelling places of consciousness. But beyond its inutility as a productive aesthetic, the conviction that subjectivity is dead is dangerous. Mullen ends her book with the following: "Words for / Silence / Crossed." In a time when the marginalization of poetry seems permanent, why would anyone embrace the silence of the grave?

Amy Newlove Schroeder is reviews editor for Slope.



(c) 2005 Slope. Slope is ISSN # 1536-0164.