Line / Break
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Line / Break Laura Mullen “What does not change / is the will to change” —charles olson, “the kingfishers” “If you read a poet’s line-breaks correctly,” I recall Robert Hass saying, “you’ll be breathing as the poet breathed.” Lyric poetry’s magical promise: to be in the other’s inspiration (reinvented there, aloft and steadied). Charles Olson’s announcement , my epigraph, enacts an intensity of thought and feeling in breath over time—its marked internal line-break and isolation on the field of the page open the space to inhale stasis, and exhale variation. Sentences are not emotional, Gertrude Stein famously noticed, paragraphs are—but the line discovers or creates emotion in the sentence. “Wait for it,” a gone love laughed, enticing a sharpened attention to the arriving connection: you’re going to like this. The line has always been, for me, a mode of inquiry, the venture: into shared time, and its end—that flash of white. Wake for—morning and mourning—the presence of the “unseen,” as Amiri Baraka wrote (382), or “death” (Graham 409). Silence is partner and part of the music. Historically, of course, the free-verse line is the end of the line for a regulated musical phrase (marked out by the metronome, whose tyranny Ezra Pound bemoaned). One story of the line (described through the haze of a distrust for—and love of—stories) involves just this movement: from measure and number (meant to help memorization) to a musical phrase based in the breath. This is Olson’s contention: the line gets out from under meter’s feet, freeing itself to find the heart. But when Vladimir Mayakovsky links his walk to poetic composition (beat . . . beat) meter lingers as ghost motor , and you can hear it ticking over in Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song”: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” (5). My line-breaks began as a negotiation between a heard music (coming to me) and a (careful) camera work controlling 174 | Mullen what came into view and when. At first, the work of (revised) lines seemed to be surprise, making use of time to delight a (“wait for it”) Reader Response critic, alive to possibilities that flower in hesitations of sense. Here’s an early line-break from a poem called “Greed”: “The greed of the gaping mouth / Of the grave.” That gotcha was a skill I got fast and made much of: the turn (hole in the face becoming hole in the earth) came easily, if not naturally. Now my youthful rage for inherited ideas of order (tight, fairly short lines, clear and clearly controlled images) seems gendered in overdetermined ways as well as dated. Then I thought I was getting it (poetry) right. One night not long ago, a little drunk in a restaurant restroom, I watched a young woman repairing her ornate makeup, took in the perfection of her outfit, and sighed, “We women work so hard.” “I know,” the reflected blond winced, “all the time.” “And the men,” I laughed, “they don’t work like this.” “No,” she answered, capping the mascara, “it wouldn’t be worth it if it weren’t for . . .” (wait for it) “diamonds.” “So,” I suggested when I got my breath back, “get a job and get your own?” “Oh I don’t know,” she smiled, waving the rock on her left hand at the mirror, glitter to glitter. The urge to appear a certain way—a pressure so severe it often threatened to preclude any appearance at all—is no longer in control for me, nor is it clear that recognized good behavior is worth its limited rewards. “Poetry is a way of happening,” as W. H. Auden famously put it (82), and what all else it is, “I,” as Cecilia Vicuña memorably said (at Naropa), “write to find out.” I’m interested in traced alternatives that remain available, where accomplishment (meant to be admired) moves—through attention to the medium—into vulnerability. As in the line (from “Story for Reproduction”): “Pane of glass / ‘pain of.’” Incorporating a remarked break, not made but cited, it’s as if what was written had been read, while another double exposure is troubled in the subject matter (“pane” is to look through but “pain” can’t be seen). Stein said that genius consists in talking and listening at the same time: I take her to mean that we need to stay on/with the changing edge between inside and outside as we...


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