Poems by Rick Mullin
Review by Dennis Daly
Most good poets content themselves with exercising their godlike powers of creation and concomitant megalomaniacal tendencies with little miracles of artistry that we ooh and aah over or perhaps in rare instances (if we share their ink-stained inglorious propensities) our visages simply turn a bright envious green before fully combusting in despair. Rick Mullin in his new book Coelacanth goes one step beyond these other Babel builders. He raises the dead.
Coelacanths were thought to have been extinct for millions of years until a living species was discovered in 1938. In his poem Under Glass Mullin brings the resurrected coelacanth up for observation. As the living fish burps, the mythology and legends fade into a fossilized background. The Chupacabra mentioned is a legendary blood-sucking animal thought to live in South America. Some scientists have since debunked the animal as wild dog with a bad case of mange. The poem starts off this way,
Mythology has reached a sorry pass
when “-ologists” start bringing out the dead.
The Coelacanth is burping under glass
expressing common bottom-feeder gas,
and look at this—a Chupacabre head.
Mythology has reached a sorry pass.
Leviathan? That looks more like a bass—
a large mouth cast in aldehydes and lead.
The Coelacanth is burping under glass
Notice that the poet has chosen to use the throwback poetic form of the villanelle. He does it well. And by doing it well he has, at least for his purposes, un-fossilized the form.
Mullin summons John Paul I from his tomb, dresses him up with irony and personal memories in a poem of the same name. After setting us up with irreverence and the mocking of his subject, the poet startles us a bit with the pathos of the poem’s ending,
That famous smile does not come back to me
and thus I tend to substitute my father’s
heavy features—But there’s holy water
on the plastic flowers. Sons and daughters
frolic in the dormitory lobby
and, to tell the truth, we’re kind of sorry
that a namesake and successor, holy
Karol, is in place. From what we saw,
a jutting smile across a Popeye’s jaw,
there’d be no frills or flowers anymore.
If you’re going to call people up from the dead you better the hell have some good lines or something bad will happen: either the dead will ignore you or your critics will pillory you or both. Mullin delivers his incantatory lines in the aptly named poem, Rise. The poet brings forth Lazarus, or mankind, if you will, from his dreams and deathlike room into a rather uncomfortable light filled with dread. It is a longish poem. Here’s a taste of it,
…in the maelstrom of your tousled bed,
you countenance the old commandment: Rise!
One day a dream will end and all shall rise,
a universal dream that holds all dreams
and ties all dreamers to the dream of dreams.
And it will end. And everyone shall rise
and come into a vast cerulean room.
But now, the universe is in your room.
And every corner of the waking room
turns over in the ricocheting “Rise!”,
enfolding books and boxes, making room
for daylight, an intrusion needing room
to breathe. There is a monster in the light,
inanimate as dread, it fills the room
Before raising a new world it sometimes helps to annihilate the old world. Mullin seems to consider this in a poem entitled If What You Want Is Fire. In the process of this meditation he comes up with a new and appropriately named creed. Consider this selection,
…Let it bleed.
Be ready for the atom to get split.
You have the very world! It’s gone to seed,
but that means all the radicals are freed.
And that means no one really gives a shit.
If what you want is fire, what you need
is time to burn, to pray the Goner’s Creed,
the red ink math and promise on that chit
you have. The very world has gone to seed
Okay the poet performs miracles and has adopted a creed. Next he needs a focus—a godhead of some sort or, dare I say it, an idol. The poem The Post Modern Prometheus fills this bill. Mullin explains,
The kitchen of my empathy’s on fire.
Its atmosphere a carbon thunderhead,
My range a galaxy of gaseous blue.
The corpse of my devotion is undead,
Conspiring with the ghost of my desire
To cast a Golden Idol. Something new.
Even the poet’s emotional state has been raised from an undead status.
The texture of art provides something constant that this artist needs—immortality. The poem In The Killer’s Studio takes us into the madness of the artist’s unsettling world. Here crimes of the heart happen and the dead are never quite dead. Resurrection becomes almost a default mechanism on the painted canvas. Here the poet describes that world,
He stalked the image like a madman, like
A sulfur-breathing monster on the heath.
On seeing what he’d done—on stepping back
Against the table—he would curse and strike
Like the human skull on the cover of this book and the skeletal coelacanth introducing each sectional divide, Mullin never lets us forget what he’s about. The passion and life coursing through these pieces stagger. This is great poetry.