Laura Mullen - In revising the detective formula, she invents a hybrid form that releases the gothic horrors of the present

Laura Mullen, Murmur, Futurepoem Books, 2007.

“Laura Mullen floods the confines of the 'detective novel' with all possible events, all murderers and all murdered so that, at any point in the narrative, everything has happened and everyone has done it. Murmur is a further-fiction of displacement and testimony that calls us to the task of deciding not only whether we would or would not do a thing but also whether we even know the difference between the two. A gripping exploration into the brutality of our time that you will not soon forget.” — Renee Gladman

Murmur collects an astonishing array of sorties into language as a terra incognita occasioning the uncanny and always troubled confluence of the subject, the bodies it inhabits and the linguistic remainder. Mullen animates narrative at the level of its basic semantic pulse. You’ll meet a talking corpse, a severed head, a heart drawn on an open palm and the gradual destruction of a face. Mullen is as much an expert in the comic and grotesque, as in the restless and anonymous. With a majestically controlled impatience she constructs a textual space both unnerving and familiar. These are splendid texts of the nameless ones (a ‘messenger,’ the ‘caller,’ the ‘reader’) who interrupt and witness the murmur of the linked deictic shadows of a recurring ‘she’ and ‘he.’ Never since Beckett has the unnamed been so chilling precisely because it is unnameable.”— Steve McCaffery

“Laura Mullen’s Murmur finds the crime in the moments between actions, in language overheard, doubling back, in a style both unnerving and comforting; always midsentence we feel death never dying, ‘real despite or because of the staging,’ and in the background, Duras, Hitchcock—the passions of mundane horrors always ready for our pleasure, discovery. Murmur stays the mind like an unforgettable dream.”— Thalia Field

“Wildly absorbing, Murmur is a gorgeous genre-bender: detective novel, film noir and memoir (and the autopsy of all three), tricked out with bloody mirrors, blue murder, mutable coffins, loopy interrogations and a dead bombshell's shoes. This is one fabulous book!”— Rikki Ducornet

“Just This” is the title of one chapter (or is it section, division, segment?) of Laura Mullen’s Murmur, and if “Just This” is the resolution of any detective novel, the mystery of the murder, the aim, for that matter, of the writer, it is never, finally, “Just This.” The book always escapes its resolution. The writer stops writing it because he cannot make it “Just This,” if even, by the end of the book, he no longer attempts to do so anymore. The completed book is only the place where he stops. The reader reads it her way. Her story has also been written by her husband who interrupts her reading, by how tired she is, by her rush to finish before she goes to work or sleep. “What you have hold of,” the reader thinks in Murmur, “is always, in short, a little less than complete.” “Never again will a story be told as if it were the only one,” John Berger argues, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the detective novel. In this one, there is the wife who reads detective novels and may be the woman she reads about who is murdered. There is the husband who asks her questions about the murder mystery she is reading and offers comments and suggestions. There is the detective who may also be the woman’s lover. To help the reader, one section tells us how to read murder mysteries, which is of no help at all. “There’s this woman,” begins every chapter of Peter Esterhazy’s novel She Loves Me, and it might be the beginning at any moment of the narrative in Mullen’s Murmur. There’s this woman. There’s this reader. There’s this corpse. There’s this husband. There’s this detective. There’s this lover. There’s this... The last sentences of this reflexive metafiction reads (without a period to end the sentence)—“a text which changed at every instant, which never ceased moving, held open as if.” Maurice Blanchot gives Mullen’s title its reading (and ours): “A traceless murmur that he follows wandering nowhere, residing everywhere.” - Robert Buckeye

«You know how when Belle and Sebastian sing that Bible Study and S/M aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, and you’re all like, “oh come on, S/M and the Bible totally go together.” Well, Laura Mullen might complain that Murder Mysteries and Language Poems aren’t everbody’s cup of tea.
Laura Mullen is really smart. Laura Mullen is a really good wrier. This book is a disorienting exploration of the Murder Mystery genre blended with an exploration of those who love the Murder Mystery genre. How does one explain wanting to read about bodies washing up on the shore? Wanting to read about mutilated bodies and necrophilia and decaying corpses? “It actually happened, of course, But not (ever) exactly like...”
The speaking voice in this book is never stable for long. As soon as you’ve settled into the voice of the mother, the murderer, the corpse, the daughter, the detective, it’s time to move on. Every prose/poem stanza/paragraph ends in fragmentation. “The report should include the actual bottle or broom handle, he muses, not just a list of items forced” for instance. The voices of the book keep dropping off a cliff, disappearing just as you get used to them. It’s not quite a collage or a quilt, but the overall effect is remarkable. A disorientation you get used to, like being inebriated.
For a while my husband has been watching endless cop shows about sexual predators with incredibly convoluted desires. As the cops track down the pervy perps, they keen a chorus of “What kind of a sicko thinks of these creepy scenarios?” “What kind of a sicko wants to see this kind of thing?” Hey guys, it’s the writers and the audience. Laura Mullen knows this better than I do. She wrote a whole book about it.
I want to hear more about the mother and the daughter. The mother hates her life, and the daughter hates her life and her mother for making her live that life. The mother escapes into Murder Mysteries, but then we’re inside the Murder Mystery, and then the mom is gone. Get it? It’s better than identification. It’s being. Our attention shifts to her attention. It’s brilliant. “In early anatomy illustrations the dead often reach down and part their own flesh, exposing secrets they seem no longer impressed by or still can’t face.” The mother wants the daughter to accept the tedium of the domesticity of womanhood, even as she teaches her to escape into the exciting extremity of the Murder Mystery. “He put the bodies in an acid bath. How did the night pass? We must have had homework.” The daughter (young Laura Mullen?) may or may not be writing the book, but she is certainly speaking the book. Or she is holding the book together. All of these quotes were in a footnote.
The book is long for a book of poetry, short for a murder mystery.
Futurepoem makes gorgeous books.
In “Narration: Lecture 2,” Gertrude Stein asks “Is that prose or poetry and why.” Laura Mullen answers, “both.” The first sections of the book feel more like prose poetry—and when she gets to the conventional poetry (left justified, line breaks, etc), it gets really gross. “When she laughs / A bright bib of blood gleams wet / Down the front of her black dress.” The conventional poetry section is entitled, “Killer Confesses to Unspeakable Acts” and the murdered wife is alive/dead/imagined/decayed/abused/loved. The section comes with an epigraph from Gertrude Stein: “There’s no such thing as being good to your wife.” Is Stein including herself as having a wife, or excluding herself from heterosexuality? Mullen raises a similar question. If the killer is generated by her imagination, or for her imagination, then is she killing or being killed for?
My favorite passage is the opening of the book. “The roll of double-strength paper towels is printed with images of trees, she notices, tearing them apart as she uses sheet after sheet in the effort to swab up the mess. With any luck, she’s thinking bitterly, well be getting burgers in Styrofoam packages stamped with palm fronds and the rapidly vanishing species of the rain forest.” (no page number, it’s in the front matter, before the pagination starts—you can’t even count backwards to it, or it would be on page negative ten, and obviously there is no page negative ten)
Emotionally engaged. All risks pay off. Eight stars.» - Jason Schneiderman

« Do not think of revenge, or anything of the sort, at present. I think that we may gain that by means of the law; but we have our web to weave, while theirs is already woven. The first consideration is to remove the pressing danger which threatens you. The second is to clear up the mystery, and to punish the guilty parties. - Sherlock Holmes, “The Five Orange Pips” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891).
I remember watching the trailers for Pulp Fiction and thinking, oh, this looks like it might be interesting—some sort of crime movie with Bruce Willis and John Travolta? That could be fun, and I suppose I liked Reservoir Dogs a lot and then you watch the movie and everyone’s favorite ex-video store clerk warps and tangles time and narrative and Uma Thurman’s all bleeding out the nose and then suddenly we all like not only surf music but also the Statler Bros. I mean, what the hell, you know?
Writing about Laura Mullen’s latest book, Murmur, is like those perilously, almost laughably one-dimensional trailers for Pulp Fiction: or like trying to explain to your uncle why people time traveling aren’t supposed to talk to the younger versions of themselves or kill Hitler or stuff like that, or how you felt that one time you were sixteen and your car skidded off the road when you were changing the station and you thought you were going to wreck (for the first time). No matter how much you feel it in your guts, language fails.
So then, Murmur is a detective novel, a murder mystery, inasmuch as there are cut-up bodies and suspects; and it is poetry, because the words play with each other but they don’t have to act all stuffy like a Times op-ed. After that all bets are off. By far the greatest treasure is Ms. Mullen’s constant and effortless reinvention of familiar phrases and words. This delicate jostling of language suffuses the book: it wants you to read it sideways, just like a detective novel, looking for clues through the words on the page.
Nestled alongside the wry joys of A Noun’s Meant, the Gravida Loca, and the invocation Fail tarry lull efface is often revelatory insight about writing and relationships. There are echoes of process philosophy in the chapter The Evidence, where “The road slick with gore,” we see the narrator struggle to change time: “(so swerve),” she tells us, even as she again and again “drive[s] through the dismembered remains of a deer.” “Try to change the ending,” she says, “Try to change the ending earlier.”
That’s the constant lament in our fiction and our lives: “if I could just go back one more minute, I could stop him from pulling that gun/I could stop her from reading that letter/I could stop myself from picking up the phone/I could” &tc., &tc.
The murders in the chapter The Forensics were the hardest. Maybe it’s because the idea of a stranger pushing my head beneath the waves, kelp encircling my bruised neck is a galaxy away, but the detective-novel obsessed wife and mother who slowly kills herself and her daughter is a real fear, a known fear, with dreary, real detail: “My brother learned to stay out of the sound of her voice: he came in, ate, joked around, left.” The struggle to know and love a mother who demands knowing, demands love, but prohibits both:
'In my memory every gesture seems tight, fraught, acted out theatrically as evidence of how you were oppressed: slamming the shovel into the earth, grinding the point of the pen across the page, burning a black crust on the bottom of the pan, as if to make us all sorry... ‘Cooking isn’t fun,’ you sneered, ‘but you’ll have to learn to do it!’ Because I was a woman, I would also be trapped (but you wanted children, you insist).'
That is real murder, American suburban murder, more real than any Black Dahlia and played out in fifty times a day in one million 3BR/2BAs from Baton Rouge to Baltimore.
I have promised myself not to forget two things: first, the cover, sumptuous and mysterious, soaked in shadow, perfect for the book and looking like a record album for a sleepy type of British electronica:
And even before the first page there is a tremendous present for lovers and defenders of the South. “The wife of the famous dead writer” notes that
'The thus and such review arrived today, full of the usual stories about upper-middle-class white people (in which the deepest emotional experience available to the characters is dismay), and lower-class types, the preference being for Southerners, who feel everything, intensely. (Southerners being allowed feeling as women and certain specific ethnicities are—in exchange).''
That’s the funniest and most dead-on jazz written about the way we Southerners are used as props in fiction and movies that I’ve ever read. It is, as we said growing up in Alabama, so awesome.
As an essential caveat to this adoration I am compelled to add that it has been my great pleasure to make the acquaintance of Ms. Mullen; indeed, she is the legendary host of the annual Prettyfakes Spanish Town Extravaganza. It is in her home that the Screwmosa was concocted, her porch where we catch the beads, her living room where we drink the bourbon, her kitchen where we eat the king cake. She is an extraordinarily gracious hostess, much more than just a little bit Southern herself, now, and I can never tell her thank-you quite enough (I do realize that duct-taping up cardboard over the windows as to guard against beads—my annual job—is a step in the right direction).» - gorjus at prettyfakes.com

«...Whereas Lerner composes his bafflement, Laura Mullen abandons all such effort in her fifth genre-swapping collection, Murmur. "Approach in the admission that you have no idea where or how to start," she offers. This advice could be from author to reader, author to self, detective to corpse, corpse to detective, and so on. Get it? Murmur is a crime story with no beginning and no end. But is it readable?
'You only needed the right equipment, you said, though mostly, once you had it—the husband you often seemed to despise bought what he could of what you said you absolutely had to have—you stopped.'
One reads murder mysteries both as an escape and to discover who perpetrated the crime—the satisfaction of closure. Murmur thwarts each of these desires. It's easy to dismiss Mullen's walls of words—the flip-flop between poetry and prose, the wordplay, the asides and lists—as one more inscrutable postmodern interrogation, but the way in which the murder, discovery of the body, evidence, and ongoing investigation recur and continually alter the narrative creates a psychosocial monster story: "She looked up from the book she was reading: corpses littered every page."
This one sentence unlocked the book for me. I stopped reading from cover to cover and started reading it as poetry: Begin wherever, obsess, overhear, worry, swoon. In revising the detective formula, Mullen invents a hybrid form that releases the gothic horrors of the present, exposing how they intrude into and mangle our private wars. Dip into it and revel; read it and unravel.» - Emily Warn

"The reader’s intelligence has always been central to the genre of the detective novel. Whether the author follows the convention of keeping the reader’s knowledge equal to the detective’s at any given time, or whether the author breaks that convention, the reader is constantly being courted, thwarted, and led astray. Laura Mullen’s book Murmur takes the detective novel as its subject, weaving poetry around the genre’s typical characters, evidence, and moments of revelation. Everything is here: the discovery of a corpse, the interrogations, the hard-boiled narrator, the evidence labeled and categorized. But by reordering and interrupting these stereotypical moments, Murmur moves against the grain of the genre’s inexorable logic, working with the reader’s ability to make sense of the text in a playful and surprising way.
Even as it unravels the genre of the detective story, Murmur’s own genre remains ambiguous. The book is divided into fourteen sections that contain mostly prose poem blocks interspersed with the odd short line. At times, Murmur relies too heavily on the ruptured line as a device to move the text forward, and the cadence of an interrupted sentence becomes a too-expected rhythm. Nevertheless, I found this book compulsively readable, perhaps partly because it seems to work as a book-length poem with recurring images among sections—a body on the beach, say, which may or may not be the cover image of a mystery titled The Body on the Beach.
Mullen’s appropriation of detective novel language is spot-on, and when in the section “I Shadow (Private)” she blends her own language with the rules of the genre, the results are weird, witty, and insightful:
'There simply must be a corpse, and the deader the corpse the better. But what really happens in relationships is that desire and even romantic love cycle: people bear with the bad times, hoping there will be A) a sequel; B) a face “in the misty light”; C) a submarine nuclear and protective like a mother. This was all ocean once.' » - Hannah Faith Notess

«Murmur is a complicated text to categorize, consciously evoking multiple genres. The text seems to simultaneously be fiction, poetry and memoir, while it also functions as a detective novel, literary prose, and a meditation on language. Would you explain how these multiple angles cohere into your vision?
- The book started as a playing with the genre of the murder mystery, but it was always also ‘about’ a whole bunch of things that start with the letter “m”: the medium itself and memory, marriage, murder, etc.. I called it M for a long time. But in Michel Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” (at least in the translation) he discusses intertextuality as a “murmur.” Hearing how that word holds “murder,” “mother,” and “memoir” helped clarify the project. I’m not sure it’s helpful to categorize the book, though watching how it gets categorized is very revealing.
Tell me a bit more about the elements of memoir.
- “Forensics” is memoir, and a lot of this book is about me trying to deal with my mother’s depression: her desire seemed dead, and her happiness, her sense of possibility. I wanted to know why she had faded and whose fault it was. Frankly... I worried I had killed her: I always was afraid that she maybe could have been an artist (she wanted to be an artist) but that having children had deferred that dream.
You’ve said that this book is part of a trilogy, beginning with the Gothic, The Tales of Horror. Murmur is the murder mystery. Finally, the trilogy will be completed with a romance.
- Yes - all three come out of the books that I read with my mother. The books mostly written (and read) by what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “the damned scribbling women.” I’m interested in the relationship between genre and gender, and the fact that we are drawn, again, and again, to the same stories. Why do women want to read about women being murdered?
Complementing the multiplicity of genres, there is a multiplicity of voices... no (at least in my mind) singular protagonist or villain. Can you discuss some of the voices?
- I deliberately undid the crucial fact about this genre: it is immensely satisfying to know who done it. I removed the singular, individual guilt. Our problems occur within the context not just of a family, but a society/a culture/a moment. In Murmur the people who are trying to solve the case (maybe even the victim) are among the guilty. And the criminal may be trying to be caught. The collage technique enacts this diffusion of responsibility.
Misogyny is evident in a lot of “boys’ club” type scenes in the book: the legal system, the crime scene turned locker room. Not all of the men are misogynistic, but they do all seem to exist in this universe of misogyny.
- I’m a feminist because I’m a humanist. I want to open the possibilities for men as well as for women. The man on whom I based the character of the detective was someone I loved very much, someone who had real difficulties negotiating with his own creativity. I wrote and rewrote trying to understand not only a woman’s situation, but a man’s. The ways we try to know the world decide what world we come to know. I wanted to find more ways—for myself, and others.
“Demonstrating Bodies” considers the fragility of human memory, the limits of language, and the false authority of the artist. We are left to wonder if there was ever a body on the beach or only a body on the cover of a book being read on the beach. Ultimately, it raises the question of what is real. Does it need to be tangible to be real? Do we need evidence? Witnesses? Can you expand on the concept of reality, especially as we process it in our minds, through our language, and in art?
- This section cites the 1927 Brancusi Trial, which put the definition of art (abstract art) on trial in the United States. It’s an extraordinary case. I think what we’re coming to understand is that there is a complicated relationship between our fictions (and of course that is what our definitions are: fictions) and our realities. There are some basic physical realities, but even those are constructed imaginatively in the way we represent them to each other: our decisions about what we will allow into the field of representation and how we will categorize it, determine what’s possible for those who come after us.
With the “Killer Confesses” section of poems, there’s this fundamental disconnect. I don’t get a sense of the woman: did the speaker even know she existed, except as the unequal half of the power dynamic?
- It’s another way of killing someone. You can kill them literally; you can also kill someone by treating someone like a cliché. Because she’s so restricted by his idea of her. But then, in one poem--in a dream (an alternate way of knowing)--she tells him he can’t proceed this way and she reaches out and bloodies his shirt. She becomes the writer at this moment. She reaches out and makes a mark--but it’s only temporary.
I’m going to get a little personal with this next question. About halfway through the book, I felt like the text told me what it was all about. Not just what the book was all about, but you know what it is all about – life, language, relationships, the journey. I’m going read you this brief section and ask you to comment.
All of this in the most extraordinary of silences: so dense with what hasn’t been said, what needs to be said, what should have been said, so loud with what you still think are secrets you can’t
I wanted to know who you were really. I wondered if you’d ever been happy. I wanted to know what your life was like before us.”
Isn’t this the human modus operandi: always trying to figure out what happened before we got there, so we can figure out where we fit, where we go next?
- Absolutely! I tried to write a text that was true to the uncertainty. In a murder mystery we not only know “who dun it,” we know why. But in reality it turns out that there is this fact or that fact or a certain point of view left out. I let that state of uncertainty be an experience: spending time with questions not answers. So almost every passage comes to an unpunctuated end in the middle of a sentence: sometimes a voice cuts off because other stories ride over the one being told, or thoughts trail away, or the person we were listening to falls silent, or we become distracted, maybe we’ve moved off—or moved on, as we say. We impose neat endings, but essentially every encounter is unfinished and impossible to categorize. And many other possible other sentences—and their endings, which are also starting places--still exist, along with what we did do or say.» - Interview with Colleen Fava
Laura Mullen, After I Was Dead, University of Georgia Press, 2008.

«This powerful collection of poems from Laura Mullen is the edgy, unashamedly experimental, and formally inventive book of a poet who has found her way to her own voice or style--or rather voices and styles, for there are several. The poems of After I Was Dead develop harmonically rather than melodically: they leap from one register, one voice, one tone to another in deft juxtapositions that carry narrative only incidentally, destabilizing traditional notions of development. These poems are honed by a fine intelligence into elegant, sometimes funny art, as in “Autumn”: “Her hair, brown. / Her specialty, damage. / Her specialty, becoming / Something else. Her hair, falling / Leaves, leaf rot, and then soil.” Through her rediscovery of the freedom Emily Dickinson located in being “dead” (in writing from over the border of an already recognized erasure), Mullen increases the territory of the contemporary poem.»
Laura Mullen, Subject, University of California Press, 2005.

«Subject holds the mirror up to language, attempting to find out (and find ways out of ) the limits of the wor(l)ds we are sentenced to. The lyric impulse exists, but the surface is rough, reflecting the violence of the effort to see into seeing itself: the voice is ragged, syntax is torn, words have been broken into syllable and sound, images dissolve, the page holds out alternate visions and versions (in double or triple columns), leaving any would-be univocal truth always in doubt.»

“The poems in this collection are interested in making the elusive palpable, or, as Mullen writes in the poem ‘Assembly,’ with putting ‘a pressure on the actual to reveal (betray, both senses) its meaning.’ And she never shies away from the difficulty surrounding this endeavor.... ” - Julie Reid

"The obsessive force of this poetry, ruptured by caesura and stanza, is remarkable. Despite the considerable intellectual torque, the poems, concerned always with identity, the borders of the I and the Here, are quite funny in passages. The drama of this work is gripping, convulsive, and intense." - Forrest Gander

“To write today in English means using an idiom that is hegemonic, ‘globalized,’ no longer national. Vacated. A human, though, is necessarily sited, and here we find Mullen’s Subject. Its movement open to both “(gone) and suture,” it grasps an anxiety in American speech too often covered over by Americans, though it’s visible in the world. To cite Agamben” ‘the ethical subject is a subject that bears witness to a desubjectification.’ Mullen’s ‘subject’ is not one of triumphalism; it articulates the ‘no-one,’ the ‘not-even-who’ that generates being’s fiber, its viscosity, presence. In Mullen, ‘Belonging to a body / To itself unrecognizable’ is followed by ‘Open the doors. Here.’ Her ‘here’ is poetry that American English needs.” - Erin Moure

Read it at google.books
Laura Mullen, The Tales of Horror, Kelsey St Press, 1999.

«A brilliant, utterly original, fully realized work that wickedly out-tropes horror's clich s and devices, Mullen's third book follows with surprising speed her After I Was Dead. The standard tale of a haunted house replete with stock characters speaking formulaic lines is disassembled to become an exploration of sexual roles, francophilia, literary decorum and the limits (if any) of quotation, modern icons, ancient archetypes--and our ways of knowing anything about any of them. Mullen swoops in and out of metaphor to poke fun at the gothic genre, and celebrate its astonishing versatility: "I had begun to feel I had to find a beginning or/ To `find my way back to the beginning,' not,/ Of course, la m me chose. `But none of these people,'/ She sobbed, brokenly,/ `Seem real at all to me.' I picked them up, one by one/ And gave them a good shaking./ `We'll get that ticker working again in no time.'/ Thinking, not saying, I hope not." The book is clearly the product of an astonishing amount of reading (and indeed several reader's reports grafted into the text bespeak time spent at the slush pile) with the choicest textual morsels lovingly altered and grafted into loose, propulsive verse-sentences. Mysterious fluids, blood curdelling screams, inappropriately all-caps sentences--they're all here, and wonderfully immediate, making an exaggerated, rollicking introduction to many of the pre-occupations, rhetorics and methods of experimental poetry.» - Publishers Weekly
Laura Mullen, The Surface, University of Illinois Press, 1991.

«On the basic physics of surface plasmons propagating on smooth and corrugated surfaces. Subjects: physics of surfaces, light scattering, diffraction gratings. Of itself the greed of the livingep For grief, for the hoardedep Sorrow, knows no bounds.»

"I first encountered Laura Mullen’s poems in 1983, in an issue of the late lamented Ironwood. Their music sang itself to me for years; they made a model of what poetry should be and do, what I wanted my poetry to be. Those poems, and her first book, The Surface, published in 1991 as a National Poetry Series winner, embodied an almost perfect and perfectly precarious balance between what Charles Altieri calls lyricism and lucidity, enchantment and disenchantment: they walked open-eyed through the illusion, not taken in, but not willing to cast it aside either." - Reginald Shepherd

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