On Poetry

Take me back to poet land: on Harryette Mullen’s “Fancy Cortex”

I moved this week and brought only two boxes of books with me! For a word-hoard-er, that‘s an accomplishment. Especially when around half the books were ones I really do reference and need with me as I study for my oral exams.

The other box was almost exclusively volumes of English-language poetry, my native language (English, that is—if only poetry!) These are the bodies of work that I need to incorporate into my inklings on paper’s back: it’s only poetry I rarely read in ebook form.

There’s no fetishism of the smell of the paper or the crack of the page-turn there. It’s simply a different form of reading than I mostly do now: for feeling in over figuring out the language. 

That I haven’t dived into any of the books in that second box in months, mostly years, shows not disenchantment with poetry, but a separation from the plain enchantment I felt when I first met these poets’ pages, that drove me to require their volume in my space. I can prove it (I say): they have survived a dozen purges of those shelves over seven years. Nor is their presence a plan or sign of aspiration: like friends you only talk to once a year but have not picked up the designation “former,” these poets are familiar, familiars, whose work I do not devour partly because I trust it will be there for the long haul, even at the end. There is a longing there of a rare sort for me: a stable and sustained one. There is a bond with even the yet-unread poems that only I can sever—a consolation, in years strewn with sudden loss and grief.

This week I mulled over. Harryette Mullen’s “Fancy Cortex” (read it in full here). I commend the whole volume it is contained in, Sleeping with the dictionary, into the hands of any lovers of sounds and play—and this one exemplifies the collection. 

We talk in any “Intro to the History of English” about short, sharp Anglo-Saxon words (though I would replace that term now with Early English) versus the bourgeois signifiers of too-aristocratic Latin (and French and Greek). In “Fancy Cortex,” Mullen enjambs them seamlessly, without ostentation. The contrasting sounds of these two word-sources map onto characters: the “I” has a plain brain before the crush’s eponymous fancy cortex. No hitting us over the head with a gulf of difference: a one- versus two-syllable couplet. Sound, while shimmering, is only sequel to sense, which does not yield to aural ecstasy: the brain anatomy, the evolutionary processes, the optical are all straight science, or at least the tangle of language is woven—a little wildly, but not confused. Or at least with the concepts set straighter than lots of science journalism, and more generous, joyful, inviting, exhibitionist.

The I’s hypothetical as ifs are wink-wink suggestions of truth, not the truly tortuous counterfactuals of Latin syntax. They drive us forward, don’t hang us up. And the mapping I asserted, of simple language to modest status, is not fixed: sometimes tizzy-like conglomerations of phrases are the speaker’s, whose inquisitive iris of [her] galaxy-orbiting telescope doesn’t penetrate as far or keenly as the beloved’s vision. These two characters are definitely on the word-dance floor, juxtapositioning in a tumble of identities.

The poem’s cool-down is both cosmic (featuring a divergent universification and a microcosm) and possibly intimate: maybe the speaker’s crush will “fancy the microcosm of [her] prosaic mind.” It’s all in the cards, especially when this supposedly prosaic poet can coin verses that universify.

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