Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary
by Harryette Mullen
Graywolf Press, $15 (paper)
In Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002), Harryette Mullen deployed a variety of often-playful compositional methods in a wide-ranging exploration of sociocultural divides. In the gentler Urban Tumbleweed—her first collection of new work since then—she addresses a different divide, asking, “What is natural about being human?” Primarily in a city that doesn’t walk—Los Angeles—the poet walked each day for just over a year, recording what she saw, heard, read, thought, or remembered, paying special attention to how the urban encroaches on nature and vice versa. Though constraint and brevity are central, the poems may be of interest less for their adoption of the Tanka—the thirty one–syllable Japanese form Mullen lineates nontraditionally in tercets—than for the way in which, taken together, they document the errant progression of a beginner’s mind as it seeks to revise its connection to the sensory world. The beginner does learn, acquiring names for formerly anonymous flora as well as the trust of a fellow pedestrian: “That homeless woman who hated my shoes / last week—now she lets me buy her / a cup of her favorite mango frozen yogurt.” But, wayward though the beginner is, she also is never left behind, only revealed: the book opens with a plastic-wrapped morning newspaper tossed on asphalt—markers of the civilizing urge—and ends with a truce: “Never learned your name— / and to you, bird, I also remain anonymous."