Might as well admit it from the outset: Harryette Mullen’s “Urban Tumbleweed: Notes From a Tanka Diary” (Graywolf: 128 pp. $25 paper) is my kind of book. Spare, playful and yet ultimately quite serious in its implications, it blurs all sorts of lines between contemporary and traditional, urban and contemplative, off-the-cuff and deeply, movingly engaged.
“I wanted to incorporate into my life a daily practice of walking and writing poetry,” Mullen explains in a brief introductory note. “… Merging my wish to write poetry every day with a willingness to step outdoors, my hope was that each exercise would support the other.”
Mullen is an established poet; a professor at UCLA, she has written seven previous collections, including “Sleeping With the Dictionary,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Yet “Urban Tumbleweed” represents a departure, not least in its intention to map the relationship between form and content — or more accurately the place where content emerges out of form.
Gathering 366 tanka — “a traditional form of Japanese … verse,” Mullen tells us, comprising 31 syllables, here broken into “a flexible three-line form” — “Urban Tumbleweed” is something of a daybook, the account of “a year and a day of walking and writing … a record of meditations and migrations across the diverse terrain of southern California’s urban, suburban, and rural communities, its mountains, deserts, ocean, and beaches.”
The effect is transcendent: fleeting and rooted at once. As we read, we follow the poet through the seasons, from summer to winter to spring. We share her experiences and observations, from the superficial (“Seafood restaurants called Something’s Fishy / and Killer Shrimp. An actor wearing / a frog costume waves a sign for Ugly Sushi”) to the profound. “My reckless shadow,” Mullen writes, “landing on the twelve-lane / freeway down below this pedestrian bridge, / playing chicken with oncoming cars.”
This is poetry as living practice, not rarefied, exclusive, but directly woven into (or out of) the fiber of the everyday. At its center is not egolessness, exactly, but a sense of presence, of awareness, of the transformative powers of the concrete.
Here we see the beauty of “Urban Tumbleweed,” that it never veers into abstraction, that its interiority is an expression of the poet’s movement through the world. What this suggests is that nothing is too insignificant for poetry, or too significant either: that we can make poems out of anything, any interaction, in precisely the same way that we make ourselves.
That, of course, is the point entirely; “The brevity and clarity of tanka,” Mullen suggests, “make it suitable for capturing in concise form the ephemera of everyday life.”
Or, as she puts it, in a particularly revealing moment: “There I went, leaving only my footprints. / Returning, I brought back nothing but / the dust that clings to the sole of a wanderer.”