In 2009, Stephen Burt identified a new poetics for the twenty-first century, a poetics that insists on a kind of phenomenological permanence and solidity, on a material “thingness” rather than a “showy insubstantiality.” In his widely read essay “The New Thing,” Burt argues that there has been a marked shift away from a poetry of “illogic” and “associative leaps,” which dominated the 90s, toward a poetry of “[r]eference, brevity, [and] self-restraint,” toward an aesthetic that “eschew[s] sarcasm and tread[s] lightly with ironies.” After judiciously analyzing an array of compressed poems by writers such as Jon Woodward, Devin Johnston, and Graham Foust and after connecting the New Thing’s concern with exteriority to the documentary modes of Mark Nowak and Juliana Spahr, Burt takes a preliminary stab at historicization:
Is the New Thing—with its documentary cousins—related to 9/11? To the rise of the Web, where most texts seem ephemeral, and where short texts (but not long ones) circulate easily? To the depredations of the Bush administration, which cast as irresponsible a Clinton-era poetry of free play? Or simply to the exhaustion of the effusive, associative, neo-Baroque mode that came just before? These are questions better answered later on.
While Burt’s coinage, the New Thing, usefully identifies an undeniable contemporary tendency, his essay risks advancing the suggestion that a New Thing poetics is the best (and even most ethical) response to the unrest and catastrophes of the twenty-first century. It risks writing off a poetics of play as inappropriate in a time of war, social unrest, and austerity. Burt’s canny rhetorical move of framing his speculations as questions (and subsequently deferring the answers) inoculates him, to some extent, from the charge that he himself is explicitly casting a playful, neo-Baroque poetics as irresponsible. Nevertheless, I believe it is time to bring Burt’s “later on” into the “now” so that we can more fully evaluate the relationship between politics and aesthetics in the twenty-first century.
It is my argument that a poetry of “free play,” a poetry not afraid to revel in “associative leaps” and kitschy ironies, can not only be not irresponsible but, in fact, efficacious as a critique of the Bush administration’s depredations (and as a mode of political critique in general). It is also my argument that Laura Mullen’s delicious new book Enduring Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides (Otis/Seismicity Editions, 2012) constitutes such a poetry. Mullen is interested not so much in a “durable thinghood” (as are Burt’s “New Thing” poets) but in using a baroque sensibility to deconstruct the ideological claims of a military operation (“Operation Enduring Freedom” is, of course, the official name for the U.S. war in Afghanistan) that purports to uphold a freedom that endures. It is my hope that future literary historians, looking back at the beginning of the twenty-first century, will apprehend Enduring Freedom as, by turns, a clever, provocative, entertaining, and unsettling document that wittily (but no less seriously) bears witness to what life was like under the Bush regime. To be sure, the Bush years were for some people not a period of “enduring freedom” but of a “freedom” that needed to be endured.
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In an introductory note to some early versions of these poems (which were published in the Winter 2011 issue of the journal Action, Yes), Mullen explained that her “Brides” constitute the third work in a “trilogy of hybrid texts playing with ‘low’ or foundational genres.” If her The Tales of Horror (1999) and Murmur (2007) play with the genres of the gothic and detective novels respectively, then Enduring Freedom is, according to Mullen, an engagement with “Romance,” a way to “explore and expand structuring definitions of sexuality and love.”
Taking up where Marcel Duchamp left off, Enduring Freedom presents not a single, mythologized bride suspended above a “Bachelor Machine”—as in that great work of modernism The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923)—but a battalion of mechanized “Bridezillas” (or better yet “Mechabridezillas”) that, across some two score prose poems, bear such humorous appellations as “Bride of the Detail,” “Be Creative Bride,” and “Instant Bride.” To quote what art critic Clement Greenberg said about kitsch, these brides are “mechanical and operate… by formulas.” This is, for example, an excerpt from “Gift Bride”:
Wind her up and she hands you one more list or gestures again to the air repeating, ‘Look at this!’ ‘Look at this.’ By the end the GB runs on guilt: her hand moves ceaselessly (scratching an inkless pen across the desk’s splintering surface) to inscribe an illegible gratitude she feels she might have felt or thinks someone in her position would or could have actually experienced, once.
Many of these brides are automata, extreme figures of repetition compulsion (like soldiers with PTSD) that show how a marriage ceremony can devolve from meaningful performance to empty, traumatic ritual. This is from the “Bride of the Waters”:
Nods yes, standing in the shallow pool, rocks back on her heels, spouts a clear stream of I dos at the ceiling and then falls forward, her head a bubbling hollow: a fountain, mechanical—the sound track now the ugly glug glug glug of her secluded refilling.
Mullen strips bare, as it were, the cultish notion of the wedding as a singular, auratic event. It is not just that Mullen contextualizes the wedding in an age of mechanical reproduction (she indeed does so in the short “Bride of the Photograph” series, which gives a playful, diachronic account of wedding photography conventions from 1839-2009), but she reminds us, in the words of Rebecca Schneider, that “all bodily practice is, like language itself, always already composed in repetition” and that “repetition is, paradoxically, both the vehicle for sameness and the vehicle for difference of change.”
In “Bride of the Venue” Mullen says, “What she must be protected from is a confrontation with the wisdom she’s being infected with: what is truly singular is a perfect reenactment.” There’s the possibility that not even our own names are unique.
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Not to be confused with Laura Mullen, the poet, Laura Mullen, the wedding planner, has the following listing in Minnesota Bride:
Laura Mullen Event Design is an event design company that specializes in the planning of boutique weddings that are always festive, flavorful, and fabulous. We believe the wedding experience is a compliment to the to-be-wed’s unique personalities – from flirty to elegant to avant-garde.
Our goal is to guide couples toward a unique, timeless wedding that is reflective of their tastes and is logistically flawless…
This is from “Bride of the Venue”:
Everything here is “original,” “unique” and “special”….each wedding is completely unique insofar as it resembles all others—like this.
And this is from “Bride of the Flaw”:
In even the most perfect of days imperfections exist and the BF, going hungrily over the occasion, can give you the catalogue.
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Mullen’s intervention within the genre of romance is perhaps most apparent in the conceptual piece “Colonized Bride (Jewel in the Crown),” which is simply a series of phrases lifted out of novels by Sabrina Jeffries, the so-called “Queen of the Sexy Regency Romance.” These three choice phrases from “Colonized Bride” were derived from Jeffries’ “The School for Heiresses Series”:
As his mouth plundered hers with a hunger that answered her own
Then he took her lips with his, his blood fired with the need to plunder her honeyed
To plunder that lush, supple mouth … [and] plunder that seductive mouth
In a sense, Enduring Freedom is a plundering of romance itself as it redeploys romance’s conventions to undo binaries and challenge representational structures. In indiscriminately mixing the language of war with the language of weddings (and in creating, in the words of Burt, “random-seeming improvisations”), Mullen provocatively crosses the categories of “bride” and “soldier,” which are widely understood as complementary others (for example, the creation story of Jeffries’ “Heiresses Series” begins “after heiress Charlotte elopes with a dashing soldier named Jimmy Harris.”) In Mullen’s “absurd and almost instant book trailer,” the bride is a soldier.
“Sometimes love requires additional troops,” goes the trailer’s tagline.
In an HTML Giant review of Enduring Freedom, Kristin Sanders remarks that “a wedding is a kind of war” just as “[a] war is a kind of wedding. In Enduring Freedom, the former is more explicit than the latter. In “Bride of the Venue,” which is a piece that Sanders cites, Mullen describes the bride-solider “lower[ing] her borrowed veil as if going into battle and though she knows her skirmish is part of a larger (on-going) conflict.”
But how exactly is a war like a wedding? I argue that both weddings and wars share common ground in their participation with kitsch, with a certain theatrical tackiness and excess, and I take this to be one of Enduring Freedom’s most significant implications. A case in point would be the various names for military operations which Mullen documents and enumerates in “Bride of Some Operation Names A-L” and “Bride of Some Operation Names M-W.” Surely there is something gaudy, something extravagant, something, in the words of Laura Mullen (the wedding planner) “festive, flavorful, and fabulous” about the following operation names: Cajun Mousetrap II and III, Centaur Rodeo, Ivy Lancer Fury, Ramadan Roundup, Soprano Squeeze Play, Tombstone Piledriver. They seem like names for video games…or phrases from a Flarf poem.
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Isn’t the Pentagon, who changed the name of “Operation Infinite Justice” to “Operation Enduring Freedom,” a bit like Mullen’s “Dithery Bride of the Word Choice”? “We request no the pleasure of your company is requested to share our joy no to celebrate….Quit disregard cease dismiss. At half past surrender please RSVP.”
On May 1, 2003, a Lockheed S-3 Viking carrying George W. Bush made an arrested landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Wearing a flight suit, Bush posed for photographs with the ship’s crew. And, for his “special day,” there was a huge celebratory banner behind him that read “Mission Accomplished” while he declared—quite erroneously—that major combat operations in Iraq were over. If the bride is a kind of solider, as Mullen suggests, Bush, the faux-soldier and commander-in-chief, is a kind of bride. Bush wanted, to cite a phrase from Mullen’s “Phantom Bride of the Iron Ways II,” not “just another cookie-cutter conflict.” Both weddings and wars are big budget items that firmly belong to the society of the spectacle, and Mullen’s Enduring Freedom shows, to use a phrase from Johannes Göransson’s analysis of Mullen’s video performance “The Veil,” “the political dynamic of artifice and kitsch”:
Come up with a transportation plan that’ll get enemies talking. Maybe your war-obsessed uncle would be willing to play driver in exchange for showing off his ridiculously cool Hornet. Your oversized Chinook from Vietnam might actually look pretty cool decked out with streamers and a “just warring” sign. Even a late model Humvee—Frankensteined, uparmored—could create a memorable exit.
(From “Phantom Bride of the Iron Ways II”)
Mullen’s willful conflation of romance and war makes us all the more aware of Bush’s ill-advised romanticization of war. In a March 2008 videoconference to military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan President Bush said: “I must say, I’m a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you…in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger.” Afghanistan, framed here as a “young democracy,” as a kind of dangerous bride to the U.S. as dashing soldier-groom, is understood by Bush as nothing other than Mullen’s “Colonized Bride,” as a country to be “plundered” by Bush’s gaffe-filled mouth.
Just as Roland Barthes once suggested that myth was the best weapon against myth, Mullen’s Enduring Freedom recommends that the playful appropriation of kitsch might be the best weapon to unveil the depredations masked by kitschy political theatrics. A bomb with a ribbon around it, indeed.
Laura Mullen’s Enduring Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2012) is available at Small Press Distribution.