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“it may perhaps be allowable to introduce a methodological nomenclature, applicable to the various forms of suspended water.... (Luke Howard 1803)


“Wildly absorbing, Murmur is a gorgeous genre-bender: detective novel, film noir and memoir... ”
--Rikki Ducornet

Murmur, by Laura Mullen
published in Rain Taxi, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall 2007 

Murmur, by Laura Mullen
Although Laura Mullen's Murmur invites many characterizations: post-noir, post-novel, faux murder mystery, etc.—it remains an enigmatic genre-bender of a book. Indeed, Murmur is awash with inconclusive self-description, exemplified by the repetition of variations of the word dismemberment and a constant return to "the body in pieces" as a kind of homecoming.  For, at the center of even the most illusory of detective stories lies a body.  In fact, without a corpse, there is no evidence; without evidence, no crime; and if there isn't a crime, there's no story.   Mullen, however, attends to the prescriptions and proscriptions of genre notably by marking their absence: "I removed the plot.  I wanted to hear what they were saying . . . . I lifted away everything necessary for identification . . . . I let go of character, working with some uneasy combination of roles, gestures, discourses."
Let's return to the body, as returning to the body is Murmur's most recursive gesture.  Usually, the body is "the body on the beach," and almost always (there is at least one exception), the body is female.  There is never just one body on the beach, however; of course, there is the corpse, often dismembered, but there is also the body of the reader—lying on the beach, one hand brushing sand off the pages of the novel she's reading, a novel entitled The Body on the Beach—and there is, finally, the mere illusion of a body, what we see or think we see, evidence that may ultimately prove to be merely an effect of tricky lighting or atmospheric conditions.  
One of Mullen's achievements is that while she problematizes a genre littered with victimized female bodies to such an extent that her victims seem to evaporate into thin air; she also depicts scenes of chilling perversity that recall very real horrors.  One such scene early in the book involves a group of men ("the experts," i.e. police, medical examiner, photographers) gathered around a female corpse that has washed up on the beach: "they're naked, goose-pimpled by the seawind, standing around the corpse in a shy circle . . . and then?  What now?"   The reader is left to complete the scene with details from her own catalog of terrors.  Rape hovers everywhere in the air of Murmur, the female body here so often the "splayed" body.  Near the end of the book, in a recasting of a scene lifted from a lurid romance novel, a woman, after "consenting" to being gang raped by her man's friends, "only asks when he'll be back, in case he'd like a hot dinner." What in another context we might easily dismiss as a cheap graphic tale here takes on weight, as it elides into the earlier scene of the naked men encircling the body on the beach. 
What motives might we attribute to readers of detective and gothic romance novels—portrayed in Murmur as the woman lying on the beach or in bed, irritated when interrupted by her children or husband, or executives on the subway absorbed in their "fat dog-eared paperbacks"—as they vicariously gaze upon the unspeakable?   Perhaps such savoring of fictional murders and rapes functions as a kind of practice, or even inoculation, similar to getting a tattoo; as if by enduring a delimited amount of pain or fear one could become prepared to endure life's "real" pain and devastation.  According to the rules of detective fiction Mullen deconstructs, "One can't go on saying how shocking it is: words seem to lose their meaning with repetition."  Such loss of meaning, however, may be exactly what readers are after: a guilt-free mixture of numbness and titillation.
So, how should the reader (and the reader is central here) approach Murmur?  There's a lot going on in this book, running the gamut from the visceral to the theoretical; from the language of autopsy and voices out of film noir to the postmodern theory of the gaze and the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas's propositions regarding ethical responsibility.  Mullen stuffs her text with all manner of clues, inviting the reader to adopt the detective's methods: "A sort of conceptual or performance piece, eh? A murder investigation without a victim, hermeneutics reading itself, forensic science turning its gaze on everything indiscriminately: fingerprints everywhere, endless clues: everything a memorandum, dripping with significance, the investigation going off in all directions at once, bird dog in an aviary, so to speak . . . ."  However, to be a detective in the gritty world of Murmur (there are palpable horrors) means relinquishing solving the crime, for the crime morphs into countless crimes; the body is not singular but plural.  As Mullen writes, "We'll use her again."  The perpetrator confesses but may not be the murderer; the victim will be endlessly resuscitated (turn the page); there may be no murder at all, and yet murders too numerous to keep track of.  Everything is known here at once, and finally, nothing is known for sure.



Subject is a richly textured treat for ear, eye, and mind; it’s a work that I never felt I got to the bottom of: like the sea, the poems kept shifting and changing with each view.”
--Charles Bernstein

The Tales of Horror

"A brilliant, utterly original, fully realized work that wickedly out-tropes horror's cliches and devices.... wonderfully immediate, making an exaggerated, rollicking introduction to many of the pre-occupations, rhetorics and methods of experimental poetry."
--Publishers Weekly, August 1999

After I Was Dead

“It may be possible to recover language in the space of poetry. Laura Mullen’s second book of poems, After I Was Dead—bound to the mad and irreconcilable desire for honesty—strives for this recovery while relentlessly questioning its own motives at every turn.”—Rain Taxi

The Surface

National Poetry Series selection