After I Was Dead
University of Georgia Press, $15.95 (paper)
The Tales of Horror: A Flip-Book
Kelsey Street Press, $12 (paper)
In After I Was Dead, Laura Mullen proceeds from near void ("These layers / Are great: this white, off white and off off white in a dense / Application") into a powerful reconstruction of self. The book’s central crisis is represented in the speaker’s totemic Banyan, "a tree lost in the forest of itself," roots anxiously stationed between air and earth. Mullen’s afterlife is polyphonic, its chorus prismatic, from colloquial fragments to the parenthetical subconscious. The address here is often disembodied, a layer of surfaces that ghost in and out of the subject. Likewise, After I Was Dead is wildly versatile formally, restlessly roving from verse to prose to epistle and back. Taken collectively it reads as resistance of structures, a theme that pervades the book in various forms--against doorways, houses, the body. "I had a sense of things as fragile / Myself as well / Threatened, but also / Part of the threat." These are hard poems of re- entry, of a speaker returning to a former world through its fragments. Throughout, Mullen repudiates the lyric and picturesque in favor of plain and thorough excavation. No flashy surfaces or vistas here, only a steady, determined unsurfacing, especially evident in the moving "White Painting" series toward the book’s conclusion. At its best, After I Was Dead is pastiche as predicament, as in "35 1/2": "the camera / Keeps running. Don’t worry, we can edit it out. // I got out and I didn’t get out." Exactly. "‘But she exists in pieces, if she exists at all, this woman,’ he had insisted frantically. And so we were roped into searching for clues. ‘I must build her up,’ he added, ‘out of these fragments.’"
And so the challenge is laid in The Tales of Horror, Mullen’s richly textured gothic send-up. The "she" here is the specter at the center of the book, a young woman whose death and haunting follow the speaker, a poet trying to piece together the events of her life after getting a really good deal on a really spooky house. Mullen skillfully apes all the generic tropes--its breathlessly suspended dialogue, baroque detail, grossly overburdened metaphors and flimsy characters. Everywhere the resemblances are eerie, right down to the maid who arrives on cue every morning to serve brains or blood pudding. But what compels The Tales of Horror beyond irony are its poetic assertions. Like all good detectives, the story’s characters aspire to a single proof in a locked room. Instead, what we get are elliptical fragments and postmodern tactics, which result in something simultaneously short of this and greater. The book’s experimental conceits, while not new, are, nevertheless, especially apt. Limitations of language and representation, a shattered narrative, the "meta" forays of the text: it could all be the natural extension of a mind clawing for reason in the throes of terror. Mullen’s greatest achievement may be that she has made experimental poetry and the gothic horror novel seem like long lost lovers. There are plenty of clues, but the proof is seldom, and at the center of everything there may never have been anyone at all.