In a memoir/essay collection, poet Mullen (Director, Creative Writing/Louisiana State Univ.; Enduring Freedom, 2012, etc.) explores emotional secrets and rupture.
The inability to pin down meaning in words reflects the slippery grasp of identity, and Mullen delves into “autobiography” in these brief, truncated sections, which are playful with language but often opaque. The entries evolve from the first sections’ dreamlike collision of the real (a car crash, a failed love affair) with the “completely unutterable” to a later essay called “Trust,” which explores with affecting frankness the author’s molestation at age 9 by her fencing instructor (“if I think of him his name comes back…immediately and easily: gliding up like air-filled buoys from an opaque and then translucent depth, flashing to the surface like markers for a wreck or trap, or floats from a storm-torn net”). In several pieces, Mullen reworks fairy tales by breaking down their narrative facets to create some intriguing new manifestations. In “Read,” she drastically tweaks “Little Red Riding Hood,” and we learn that Grandmother may have been sleeping with both the woodsman and the wolf (“well, we assume on different nights”). Fairy tales, she writes, often “lead us to normalize a situation both strange and potentially catastrophic.” In “Spectrograms (projected autobiography),” Mullen depicts the constant, arbitrary breakdown of projected images against memory and “strategies for containment.” The author’s deliberate structural interventions may be off-putting and arduous for many readers—e.g., in her essay on being “jilted” à la Miss Havisham, which is intended to relay the layers of unfathomable “complicated grief” therein. Yet in “Trust,” Mullen allows the memory of her shame at being violated by a trusted elder to unfold organically, later in life, juxtaposed with an attempt to heal by taking up fencing again, to marvelously poignant effect. Readers will relish such translucent moments in this prickly work.
Lyrical and tricky: for serious readers.