Sarah Mumolo’s Mortar

Mortar-Cover-200x300-Pixels-RGBThe title of Sara Mumolo’s collection Mortar suggests the spaces in between, the cement that holds the structure of brick together. The epigraph also, by Barbara Guest, expresses sorrow for the “blank moments,” and I wonder upon first reading if there is a connection, a shared sorrow throughout the book, for these blank moments and for the liminal, connective spaces and characters of existence and experience.

 Upon close examination, I notice these blank moments in almost everything Mumolo writes. Often they arrive quietly, as unspoken connections or linguistic unravelings. Lines fall off into silence or fray into wordplay like “break the blank” or “Last glass of champagne before your lie.” The book’s heartbeat seems to be a continual exploration and affirmation of these blank spaces, lifting them up, acknowledging and examining them from all sides, as dimensional and active.

 Mumolo applies tense and perspective as her primary tools, purposefully shifting between past and present in the voice of a speaker who addresses herself reflexively as naturally and as often as she addresses others or takes more distant refuge in third-person observation. It is her flexibility, especially with point of view, that I believe emboldens her to suss out an identity for these blank spaces, both individual and collective, and to make empathic but detached observations of both self and other, moving among states of matter in a world where objects and concepts play alongside the human voice.

 From this prismatic perspective, one of Mumolo’s central messages seems to be that at one time or another we all try to be what we’re not, either for ourselves or for others. The result is a canceling out, a blank. Early in the collection, she adopts various perspectives in an epistolary form, addressing first, “Dear you,” then “Dear I,” and “Dear first principle” in turn. Mumolo confronts ideas of “right” and “virtue” alongside memories of bodily and earthly experience, as in the lines following, from the poem “March:”

First principle of the doctrine of right:

When dancer makes a puppet of her

breasts with invisible strings

Revolt sees redwoods

a cleft where

empire stops:

trucks wasted with goods or trees.

Dear first principle

we should’ve made you

Caterpillars bristling,

cocoons recede from feet:

You pretend to be a wave

I try to seal into a jar

A fascinating ambiguity lives in the perspective shifts of this passage, especially in the last two lines, which by turns give off airs of command, resolution, frustration, and mistaken identity.

This book also concerns itself with habitation; the voice inhabiting the body, the body inhabiting the world, the lines of a poem inhabiting the confines of a page. Mumolo intersperses traditionally-lined lyrics with experimental arpeggios and prose meditations, often fixating on the naked body, or the snake shedding its layers of skin. I also find in her images and attitudes a delightful blurring of ontological lines, embracing objects and ideas as independent, vital agents of being.

Often it is difficult to assign antecedents to Mumolo’s pronouns, which contributes to the prismatic effect of her perspective. It’s not always clear when her “you” is another, whether intimate or removed, or the speaker herself. I find that pondering various possibilities changes the shade and tone of the poems and definitely enhances my enjoyment of the added nuance. Indeed, on one of the final pages, one of three left blank but for words at the bottom, Mumolo seems to acknowledge the deliberateness of this choice:

our cipher-eyes

—impotent antecedents—

do not survive to ration

a real that happens.

This stanza seems to point out that assigning any antecedent, or perhaps by extension any ownership or causality, is a fruitless exercise, since all of existence is so integral as to render our specific assignments powerless against the real.

The book’s second half lives under the heading “Money On It,” which implies a wager of some sort, and which recalls the spontaneous compositional forms of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day or C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining in its ramblings, sans titles, from page to page, and its periodic blank silences. It turns from exploration of the blank spaces to a pronouncement of their value, beginning with a sort of surrealist manifesto that opens from the point of view of a rock:

I can’t hide you—the rock cried out.

Because the mechanism of surrealism is an activity

not an image—I find embrace in description.

Where a staging of hours counts closer stars

and fails capitalism.

There are more lines that I love for their subtle irony and wit, which have to do with exposing and overturning established perceptions of bodies, nature, and politics:

the main ability of a nude is how her figure triumphs

when earth rehearses her irrelevance

***

I step into your voice, its outfit. I watch you wear your voice as an outfit. . . .This one has a body to zip up. This one is a reel around the baby. A bird’s wingspan in a museum, its echo on my tear.”

***

a nation’s shoulder

makes a profession of mute things.

Throughout this entire collection, Mumolo develops and perfects a style that is at once spare and sprawling; carefully-wrought, but confident of itself and its liminal, traveling vantage point through seemingly sorrowful and abandoned “blank spaces,” which she proceeds to throw into assertive and triumphant relief.

Buy it from Omnidawn: $18

Heather Brown lives in Portland, OR where she moved after graduating from Oregon State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She’s been a high school English teacher, and now she writes poems, reviews manuscripts, works part-time at Powell’s, and helps to develop instructional and promotional materials for the Portland-based press, YesYes Books. She also manages social media for the Vinyl Poetry Journal (periodical arm of YesYes Books) and for Tavern Books, a nonprofit poetry press specializing in revivals and reprints of works in translation.

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