- Voice and Silence
Tyler Mills’s Tongue Lyre (2012), winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, begins with an epigraph from Ovid’s Metamorphosis spoken by Philomela: “Imprisoned here, my voice will fill the trees.” In the original story, Philomela is raped by King Tereus, who cuts out her tongue to keep her from speaking about her rape. Defiant, Philomela weaves a tapestry that tells her story, enacts revenge on King Tereus, and eventually is turned into a nightingale to keep her safe from her tormenter. In Tongue Lyre, Philomela’s story frames Mills’s lyrical exploration of voice and silence, of violence and fragility, and of the ways we connect and distance ourselves from others.
The richly lush poems in Tongue Lyre come alive with dense description, frequent reference to music and musical instruments (particularly the lyre, violin, and harp), and vibrant color (particularly red and orange). Bringing ancient Greek figures into contemporary settings like a hardware store (“Circe’s Notes”) and a coal mine (“Kalypso”), Mills infuses our everyday experience with a look to the past. This is a collection that must be read slowly, with mindful attention to myth, to carefully parsing description, to the unexpected places associative leaps can bring us.
Indeed, Mills’s poems move with the same imaginative quality of Greek myth, refusing logic and leaping, instead, where language and sound take us. The book’s opening poem, “Tongue,” one of two poems that explicitly mentions Philomela, begins with the couplet, “The problem is not night—people gathering in booths—or a game / where you select who to save from an apartment that’s on fire.” From here, we move to “silver bathroom stalls in the Multiplex,” then on to digger wasps, “solitary insects that excavate // nests from the soil and then straddle their prey.” The hermit thrush appears next, which leads us to Philomela, who “weaves what happened: images in a bolt of cloth, a kind of flag.” This flag returns us to our contemporary life and to “flickering paper flags” printed in newspapers. Mills concludes, “Again this year, before dawn, the truck door slammed—I heard / someone cross the street. When I woke, flames were mouthing the air.”
Although we begin and end with fire, Mills has taken us on quite a journey, from a thoroughly contemporary setting to the natural world to an ancient Greek myth and back to our contemporary life. Even so, the leaps don’t feel forced or showy, but necessary in order to explore the continuing importance of Philomela’s story and the lingering effects of violence. We understand the digger wasps as imparting their own kind of violence on their prey, and there are hints of danger in the night, in the car door slamming before dawn, in flames “mouthing the air.”
This movement between the contemporary and ancient world is a central aspect of many poems in Tongue Lyre, which draw on Greek history and myth for many titles and backdrops. Three poems in the collection invoke the Greek chorus as a way to comment on our contemporary lives: “The Chorus Rubs on Children’s Sunscreen,” “The Chorus at the Pit,” and “Chorus: A Museum Is Under Construction.” In “The Sirens,” the mythic Sirens who lured sailors to shipwreck with their beautiful songs are transformed into “suburban wolves” that warn of tornadoes. Athena even makes an appearance at a thrift store (“Disguised, Athena Says…”), trying on jeans that won’t zip and watching a mother and daughter in the changing room. The daughter’s interest in a pair of yellow slippers that Mills describes as “banana-sized” and “soulless,” looking “infectious” leads us eventually to Athena’s own gold-dusted shoes; the poem ends, “As someone would write about me, // she bound upon her feet the fair sandals, / gold and immortal, that carried her over the water.”
Also like Greek myth, Tongue Lyre is suffused with an undercurrent of violence and attention to bodily fragility. The lengthy, multi-part poem “Rose,” for example, contains such lines as “Behind...