Notes from a Tanka Diary
-Book Reviewed by Kendra Bartell–
A pink snake racing across the desert
hardly needs explanation, unless
you believe it is only a trick of the mind.
In Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary Haryette Mullen presents to us 366 variations on a tanka, a cousin of the haiku form of Japanese poetry. In English language translations or writings, usually the 31-syllable form is split into 5-7-5-7-7 lines, but Mullen improvises, creating a 3 line form with variable syllables between each poem. Most stick to the 31 syllables, but all are 3 line snapshots of an urban pastoral experience.
Mullen’s introduction to the collection describes how the project made her “look forward to this daily reminder that head and body are connected.” The walks she takes, without any distractions of companions or ear buds, allow her to both connect with her body and allow for the brain and body to talk to each other, through her. The 366 poems are compiled from a year-and-a-day’s worth of walks through Los Angeles, Texas, and Sweden, presenting condensed images of each locale. The visual presentation on the page is 3 tankas per page, with considerable white space in between. This design presents readers with a choice. In their precise imagistic feel, for many, it will be difficult to resist reading through the book quickly, trying to piece together a uniting narrative structure or discover thematic links between the poems. Other readers, however, will enjoy patiently considering each poem individually. A reading strategy that bears relevance considering each tanka was composed on a different day.
The pastoral has been a form in poetry dating back through centuries and continents, so it is exciting to see a poet such as Mullen take on the form in an urban setting, while applying interesting formal constraints to the poems as well. Some of the book’s compelling imagery demands pause:
Blast of hellish breath, infernal scourge,
parched wind that whips and scorches. Green
torches, oily eucalyptus trees, bursting into flame.
In this poem readers hear the echoes of Mullen’s previous work. Each line is marked by an incredible awareness for sound and rhythm, any and all connotative and denotative meanings of words that can be pulled into the poem. But Mullen’s sense for play feels less present in this collection than in her other works, Sleeping with the Dictionary and Muse & Drudge. While Sleeping with the Dictionary, a finalist for the National Book Award, was similarly engaged in working with constraints, it did so with an eye towards L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and more procedural poetics, working towards showing language as its basic form: building blocks to tinker with. Here, in Urban Tumbleweed, the constraint seems to be working to focus and rein in the poems, to distill them to one pure moment. The book solidly holds on to its meditative tone, even when playing with humorous moments like a hummingbird mistaking Mullen in a red dress for a giant hibiscus.
Ultimately, this book is admittedly working in a different vein. Urban Tumbleweed is not packed with allusions, riddles with sound and procedural poetics, or layered denotative and connotative meanings of words. Instead, the book presents focused meditations. Despite the temptation of a quick read, readers will likely profit most from this volume of poetry by slowing their pulse and accepting the mood cast by the sparse pages. Spending time with each tanka is rewarding. Each stanza unfolds like the very flowers Mullen has labored to present in their most concise form:
Caught a quick glimpse of bright eyes,
yellow feathers, dark wings. Never learned your name—
and to you, bird, I also remain anonymous.
Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary by Haryette Mullen, Graywolf Press (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Post Photo Courtesy of: NPR.org