Dark Archive
Dark Archive
Laura Mullen
University of California Press, 2011
On reading Dark Archive by Laura Mullen
Jennifer K Dick

I open a book and find myself. I open myself and find in this book an echo. In this book I open the self lies splayed, dissected, questioned, leavened, rising: departed presences. In the space of the poem In the Space Between Words Begin Mullen writes:

            I fear I can no longer think
            I fear I am no longer that which thinks
            Or that a certain kind of thinking’s lost (p6)
This total moment of direct thought on thinking, naked, barren, and undecorated, turns and twists after this couplet:
            Light, light, light, light. Let there be a place
            From which a way seems clear or clearer
towards the poem’s elliptic end:
            Out of the house into the golden
            And never (p7)

The tactility of the world suddenly bombards the landscape of the mind. That floating “And never” is a bridge suspended as if on a string between the two (abstract thought and the tactile world). Dark Archive (University of California Press, New California Poetry Series 2011, ISBN 978-0-520-26886-9) is, as a whole, walking that bridge, back and forth, balancing atop it as if precariously wobbling on a tightrope wire. Thus the works in this amazingly dense, rich collection bob back and forth between political/poetical lit critical prose poems, such as Interpreting Turning Things (pp 76-78) or the final text Evaporation/Condensation (pp 129-130) and poems which are more directly linked to the zone of the lived and sensory world. These poems are often reaching across various formal poetry explorations towards the other, the lost, those departed, perhaps the reader. All the while, they are Mullen speaking to the self, doubting thought exists yet proving non-stop that it does, that is it here, a deeper thinking, a kind of poetic contemplative thinking that has not been lost at all but which is found. Awakened (and awakening?).

For example, one early poem in the collection about a relative’s death, entitled The Proofs Arrive, demonstrates what much of Dark Archive will explore. Starting and ending with color, the pieces of words and objects like scraps of skin, of cloth—of a life left behind, and the horror (for lack of a better term) of the death itself, a story I have heard Mullen tell in person, weaves back and forth, in and out of a poem about writing. The reader cannot but be moved by the very restraint here. In some of Mullen’s more political poems the reader is given a space where they might disagree, rail back against the poet’s own exclamatory cries against the woes or wrongs of the system (the world) but here the woven restraint, a quilted death, dying, life, remainders of words, scraps, is so fine that the wailing, the mourning, is felt in that holding back—as simple as the poem’s start:

            The Proofs Arrive
                        (“starts” instead of stars)

            Somewhere between dark cobalt and a light manganese
            A strip of her torn backpack by “the drag marks” at the edge
            Of the trail

            In a journal brought down from the attic the single line
            She copied out “Why bother to send it at all…”
            And then her own       poem      in response
            Who seemed to think the doubts were hers alone

            (I cannot correct that impression)      (now)
            Rewrote “stars” thinking it should have ended
            “And been erased.” No further explanations Should have ended
            Earlier, before “Imagined”—these meaningless squiggles a word
            Another word             What does it matter…             Stopped 
                                                                                            (p 18)

I am again moved by the grace with which Mullen shifts the reader between concrete (color) spaces and those of the mind (doubt, worth, linguistic value, thought). I am also struck here by the way Mullen hints at the death—the backpack at the edge of the trail, drag marks, the journal brought down from the attic whose doubting thoughts can never be corrected / discussed in person again as “now” and “Stopped” tells us. The end of the first part of the poem—the internal monologue and use of the parentheses around (I cannot…) and (now) in this single line stanza also act to double the sense of silencing that death brings with it. The speaker cannot speak to the deceased, but also does not dare pronounce these thoughts aloud, couching them instead in parentheses, almost not daring to think them. Thus they contain and hold the pain. The space before “now” and “(now)” being in parentheses (re)sound like a resonant silence, one which will carry on indefinitely.

That moment, an instant where an impression might have been corrected, a person might have been shown their doubts are not unique but part of the human condition we share in, has passed. But Mullen captures it—and the message not shared with the deceased is now heard by us, by me. I feel myself here, reading into the text, sharing in a second of doubt, a pause, a self-silencing, and am suddenly less alone in that. Less alone also in the doubting, self-revising textual rewriting of thought and self, less alone in this process of being, of living, as I read these lines. For the intended listener, recipient of these thoughts, the “drag marks” by the trail head are the post mortem signs, the dying has come to its end, but the reaching towards the other, an other, remains—despite the walls that these punctuation marks resemble so perfectly.

Next to the words “‘starts’” and “stars” I think to myself “and underneath, scars”—this word which is felt, heard because of its sound proximity to the other words, is never enunciated in the poem. Mullen’s own scars, autobiographical narrative, pervade this book. Her life reading, thinking, experiencing, seeing, touching, hearing wend its way into these poems on some level—from the flooding in New Orleans near where she currently resides to this death, general doubting and the very difficulty of writing when faced with the daily disasters of the political system, on the news, or of one’s own love entanglements coming disentangled. Mullen does not so much hold onto that which has departed or is departing, revelling in the scars or scarification process, rather she speaks to the constant process of loss and of making in a realm of disintegration. 

Jennifer K Dick

Jennifer K Dick is the author of Fluorescence & the forthcoming Circuits (2012) as well as 3 chapbooks, including Tracery (Dusie Kollectiv 5, 2011). She lives in France where she teaches at UHA & curates the Ivy Writers Paris bilingual reading series in Paris & co-organizes the Ecrire L'Art French reading mini-residency in Mulhouse. She is also a poetry editor for VERSAL magazine out of Amsterdam & a regular book reviewer for Drunken Boat (USA) and Tears in the Fence (UK). Her blog is jenniferkdick.blogspot.com