Review by Jewel Pereyra
Harryette Mullen’s most recent work Urban Tumbleweed: Notes From a Tanka Diary captures ephemeral sightings, cheeky conundrums, and ecological concerns that many living in urban cities overlook. Her poems slow the rapid urban city and technological pace and mindfully examine how nature is interspersed in the cracks of the concrete street lines we tread on daily. Mullen’s collection includes 366 tankas, which grew from a self-motivating writing project: to write a poem a day.
The tanka, a Japanese lyric poem composed of five lines, alternating five and seven syllables and totaling 31 syllables, traditionally captures a complete thought, circumstance, or emotion. However, Mullen’s tankas are nontraditional; her lines are spare and transient with a fluctuating syllabic structure (depending on one’s pronunciation). Instead of painting a complete picture, her untitled poems pose complex questions rather than answers.
Do they lie down still in soft grass
to gaze up at a sky of roaming shape-shifting
clouds? Do children still have time for daydreaming?
As you have forgotten, so one day
might you remember how to be wild
and bewildered, to be wilder and be wilderness?
In Urban Tumbleweed, Mullen resembles a contemporary Thoreau; she is a sauntering vagabond who explores Los Angeles—Venice, Santa Monica, UCLA, hiking trails, etc.—by foot and/or by bus, and documents details of everyday life that are normally passed by in cars congested in traffic, or planes flying out of LAX. Her unnamed poems are etchings that fleet across the pages, as she documents the ephemera that surround her. Her inspiration? Cities and the natural world.
Every itinerant tumbleweed had roots
attaching it to the land, before its stem snapped
and strong winds pushed it down the road.
Along a familiar hiking trail I recognize
agave, sage, the summer-blooming yucca,
and sticky monkey flower.
Born in Florence, Alabama and raised in Texas, Mullen’s poems meditate and cycle on relocations, especially to Los Angeles. Whether they are translocated palm trees, packs of peccaries, finely primed gardens, or myriad people migrating to the city, she remarks that every living being, whether human or plant, has an origin. Her lines mimic roads and uprooted terrains that cross one another, and the urban and natural world both collide and affect one another. Thus, the streets inhabit mixtures of cultures, ethnicities, identities, and beings that contend with one another, and contribute to L.A.’s sprawled and eclectic communities.
Versed in country things and sensitive
to seasons, the poet knew that nature never
wept for us no matter how gently it rained.
Gang of Buddhist monks in the crosswalk
as yellow turns red—saffron and pomegranate
robes with running shoes and rugged sandals.
Although the majority of her poems take place in Los Angeles, she also describes settings in Waco, Texas and Stockholm, Sweden. In two standout poems, she shares a humorous conversation and an intimate memory of her mother, who inspired her first poetry collection Tree Tall Woman (1981),
A story from my mother’s girlhood:
dining with friends, she asked for her favorite
piece of chicken, was told, “Rabbits don’t have wings.”
Mom grew these leafy collards in her organic
garden. She picked them this morning.
Tonight they go well with our cornbread and yams.
With each read, I find myself simmering in her tankas, taking them in little by little, in small handfuls. Urban Tumbleweed attends to daily life, the urban environment, ecology, and the world around us. In a year’s time, we see the world through her observations: the outrageous, the harshness, the beautiful, the humorous, the simple, and the unknowable. Like the pennies in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Mullen’s tankas are gems engraved in our steps; they force us to consider simple pleasures and beauty as we walk forward into the world.
There I went, leaving only my footprints.
Returning, I brought back nothing but
the dust that clings to the soul of a wanderer.
Harryette Mullen is the author of seven previous books of poetry, including Recyclopedia and Sleeping with the Dictionary, a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She is Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.