"Mortar" by Sara Mumolo
(Omnidawn Publishing, 2013, $17.95)
Sara Mumolo's "Mortar" is a succinct and daring collection of poetry that critiques the centrality of money in the modern American mind.
She achieves this by simultaneously analyzing what it means to be a "self" in relation to a world governed by the complexities of contemporary need. The poems sparkle with the observations of a self-aware speaker who is both public and private. The book in its entirety solves the postmodern dilemma of how to be an individual while constructing new realities and fresh perceptions. These poems are bright and original without being self-indulgent. Mumolo sings of our multi-faceted humanity in simple phrases that bite and sting so adroitly that we are moved to a new level of consciousness about the world we inhabit together.
The book is divided into two parts. Part I is untitled and contains individual poems with short titles. Part II is called "Money On It," and the individual poems do not have titles but are identified by their first lines. Both Part I and Part II reflect on the relationship between a vulnerable self and the somewhat baffling modern world.
In the opening lines of the first poem, "In Regard To," the poet addresses the idea of individuality with regard to a booming world population: "Trying to avoid a billions-/of-people-type perspective." Next, she approaches the notion of gender with a workable concept of androgyny: "It is popular for me as a man/to introduce himself/as a woman in this feeling." She mentions the homeless before again professing an androgynous solution: "Listen Chekhov was a woman." The poet then establishes a geography for the activity in the poem by firmly placing us in an urban environment: "Bouquets of buildings,/so what if the city wilts around us." The poem concludes with a defense of collective humanity from those who would conquer the world in general: "In regard to your wish to trap a world/we are not here, not dead."
In "Current," she criticizes money by describing a highway as "a moneyed wilderness." She elaborates as she defines money: "Money is what happens/when one turns to luxury/for solace."
Mumolo expresses the fragile relationship of self to world in several poems that utilize nudity as their central metaphor. In "Left Nude," the nude subject triumphs in her vulnerability: "the main ability of a nude is how her figure triumphs/when earth rehearses her irrelevance."
In "Landscape with a Calm," she again describes the overwhelming presence of money in our collective life: "I transfer money from one imagination to another." In "Nudes at Dusk," the monetary relation becomes one of commerce: "so spoke the voice of trade/money's defensive dignity."
In Part II, the poet situates life in the cities of San Francisco and Oakland as well as public spaces as disparate as a rock concert and the San Francisco Zoo.
In "I haul my lungs to the road, unharvested with echo," she unearths the origins of Oakland: "We built this city on graves and stone: Oakland nuances."
The poem "I am not a school on fire" describes the relationship of youth to money. The young are "young doves" (who) "all have obvious names and role-play." She continues by stating: "skinny-legged jeans/go where money is."
In "Earth, our unlived life," Mumolo suggests that an individual finds no outlet for self-expression except at a public event: "No body can be, except when at a concert,/hands flailing. A communal art/where we fail to examine."
In the later poem, "I put on cooking music," she describes how rush hour really occurs in slow-motion: "What we call Rush Hour is a skill/and its product is that nothing feels rushed:/running through water."
The volume concludes by acknowledging humanity's perpetual engagement with strife: "Rolling over onto backs, we're conflict's mascot."
As a whole, Sara Mumolo's "Mortar" is a book that leads us to act on behalf of a humanity that is crippled by the darker aspects of a money culture. As such, her poems incite us to rebel against even darker tyrannies such as war or our own mortality. These graceful and elegant poems of humanity's potential to refuse that which limits us are not to be missed. Mumolo deftly teaches us to redefine what it means to be human and to persevere in a world that threatens to engulf us.
Sonja James is the author of "Baiting the Hook" (the Bunny & the Crocodile Press, 1999), "Children of the Moon" (Argonne House Press, 2004) and "Calling Old Ghosts to Supper" (Finishing Line Press, 2013).
Poets are invited to submit recent books for review consideration. Contact Sonja James at [email protected].