Laura Mullen: Enduring Freedom
Review by Jill Darling
(OTIS BOOKS/Seismicity Editions, 2012)
One might want to say that contemporary American wedding culture is akin to modern warfare. That, however, may be too straight an analogy. Laura Mullen’s Enduring Freedom dives into a critique of the contemporary by way of wedding culture and military operation language, and by asking: how did we come to this? How have we arrived at this situation in which narratives about weddings and military operations have obfuscated our claim to common-sense thinking, have distracted us from acting as responsible and socially productive citizens in an ethical world? In Enduring Freedom, Mullen does not push an overt political/ethical commentary but, in fact, leaves that to readers to pursue beyond the comical-critical scenes and observations on the page. This compact little book is dense with language, acoustic impulse, and references that point us beyond the text, the accumulation of detail encouraging the reader to engage in commentary on the state of our world.
The book begins with a “Seating Chart” table of contents, and includes titles such as “Shower,” “Bride of the Detail,” “Bride of the Lists,” “White Bride Made of Breath,” and “Bride of the Theater (of Operations).” Front matter of the book includes references to the concept of the Theater of Operations, the military space in which action takes place; to the movie, Father of the Bride; and to Marcel Duchamp’s Mechanical Brides. One can’t help but notice the tone set by these references, the play between emotion, the absurd, and economics. One thinks of the magnitude of military structure in relation to its economic footprint, for example, on the cover of the 1950 film that shows Spencer Tracy pulling out his empty pants pocket, giving away his daughter and his bank account in the pursuit of her happily wedded bliss. The absurdity of wedding planning and implementation is accentuated—if also further made strange by Duchamp’s image of mechanical domesticity—through details readers recognize if they have witnessed any American woman planning a wedding. Although the word bride is used in nearly every title in this collection, Mullen never uses the term Bridezilla, thereby placing the critique into the realm of the structural or social (through which we are all implicated) and away from personality or identity (or yet another form of woman-blame). Even if this is read as a particular bride from poem to poem, we can read her in this larger sense as the figure of the bride in culture.
“Bride of the Detail” takes up the minutiae of the wedding day, from folding napkins into “love knots,” to keeping the roses fresh, to hoping for a full moon for effect. “It should look as if you can command the kind of dedicated labor that built the pyramids, only there shouldn’t be even a whiff of sweat about it, if you know what I mean,” some mysterious narrator, who may be the bride’s inner anxiety, explains (20). The details are a bit absurd, the focus on the obsession with detail itself. And slipped in here also is an “invasion” of war/military language:
Between the exquisite blue feathers we’re pinning jade flowers studded with tanzanite, and then we’re adding a variety of little trophies. This is the kind of attention to detail that can really set the tone for you invasion, I mean conflict, I mean occupation. It should look as if it came from your own garden … it should look as if you pillaged the wealth of the east, but there shouldn’t be a touch of anything slavish about it, if you know what I mean. (20-21)
There are two pieces titled “Bride of Some Operation Names” placed in the first and last thirds of the book and that break up the continuous series on brides and weddings; one is A–L and the other M–W, and each consists “simply” of a page-full list of military operation names. Although the “Bride” pieces often slip into war or military references, these lists of Operation Names stand on their own. Of course, one thinks, a wedding is like a military operation in detail and planning, and in the ridiculous naming of things. And while brides obsessively consider flowers, decorations, and the inane details of wedding planning in life and death terms, the military stages operations (some of which, by their names, seem completely fabricated) for all manner of places and situations, making up operations for every flight and fancy. Still, reading the list of operation names has a powerful and sobering effect that resonates forward and back throughout this book, and any simple reading of wedding culture or modern warfare is continuously come undone.
Personally, I love the “Bride of the Dream of the Perfect Day,” which begins, “As if good weather meant, no, were wedded bliss … dark clouds can swirl like dirty tissue in an overflowing toilet somewhere else for all she cares but here and now Fine is the only forecast” (24). The poem is an example of the merging of subjects, at the level of the sentence itself; this syntactic critique challenges the idea that we can separate our contemporary lives in the world into discrete categories (or even into separate sentences).
So much of what comprises the world as we know it must be heavily, sometimes clumsily, packed up and hefted off-stage “just for today”—her special day. Luckily it’s not far to the wings where wars and storms are contained and every kind of disaster (from the assassination of a country’s leader to a chipped nail) is stashed helter-skelter … The number of lives lost yesterday in that marketplace bombing and the overthrow of an elected government? It’s all stacked back here somewhere with global warning oops warming, and the fear that the divorced in-laws will make a scene or just refuse to be photographed. It’s not that she doesn’t understand that a stain from the unbound stems of her garden bouquet on the hand-beaded duchess satin of her dress is of less importance than not only genocide but also the fender bender that may or may not have given grandma a little whiplash on her way to the church … But—just for today—all the signs should drown in light, a dazzling compress meaning everyone’s blind to everything except her beauty and happiness. (24)
Sadly, there is also a piece, “Dark Matter (PTSD Bride) (Bride of the App)” which begins, “She doesn’t know what to do anymore, she’s so lost: she’s just sitting here at her computer, crying. She doesn’t know what’s keeping her from killing herself. You trained us as killers…she writes: no friend, no family, no job…nothing…The tentacles of the technoworld infiltrate her home” (ellipses Mullen’s 67). We don’t know who the subject of this piece is, whether a post-wedding bride harshly face-to-face with the non-magical reality of domestic life or a soldier unable to recover from military action. But one gets the sense that it doesn’t matter; there is little therapeutic treatment for anyone caught in the contradictions between the myths and realities of patriotism, war, civilian life, social engagement, depression, and the domestic. We are continuously mediated by the outside world giving us messages and commands, constructing our realities, until we see the break in the screen, the disruption that puts the responsibility of the “real” firmly on our shoulders, and from which there is no retreat. Certainly the violence of war and PTSD are not to be understated; this is one extreme consequence among others within a depressed and manipulated social body. But this poem also points to other effects, namely, how we are not living the stories we wanted to believe.
The final “Bride of the Theater (of Operations)” is longer and more abstract in presentation than earlier pieces. Still, it begins by bringing sentiment into an articulation: “This contraption … is The Memory of Hurt: a movable proscenium, most of the action takes place in its confines. The shattered glass on the floor is absolutely necessary to the mood we’re trying to set here … you’ll just have to learn to be careful” (71). This little book, powerful in its language and keen sense of observation, asks readers to take care, to pay attention. The mechanical bride may be a persona, but she is one we can recognize; she is us, caught in the details, lost in the planning, traumatized by the cultural expectations for “Potential Happiness” (72).