On the convergence of war and wedding (PoemTalk #70)

Laura Mullen, 'Bride of the New Dawn'


Amy Paeth, Michelle Taransky, and Steve McLaughlin met up with PoemTalk’s host Al Filreis to talk about one of the poems in Laura Mullen’s book Enduring Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides (Otis Books, 2012). Enduring Freedom is a coherent project; its poems constitute a series — a number of approaches to the problem of war’s strange but also surprisingly obvious and true convergence with weddings (and wedding planning in particular). The poem we chose is “Bride of the New Dawn.” Our recording of Mullen’s performance of the poem comes from a reading she gave in October 2012, in Berkeley, as recorded by Ross Craig; it was a reading in which she read fifteen of the Enduring Freedom poems.

The poems — including ours, to be sure — strip bare the idea of the wedding as auratic life-moment. This concept — and the book’s subtitle, its allusion to Marshall McLuhan’s 1950s take on industrial folklore, the connection between Mullen’s performance and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, and much else — suggests a relationship between this poet’s twenty-first-century project and Marcel Duchamp’s modernist “bachelor machine,” The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923). The wedding industrial complex has wrought its lasting post-effect on the home front. The poems in a sense are PTSD sufferers. Is the wedding traumatic? As you read Mullen’s prose poems you become caught in the fog-of-war confusion of lexicons, never quite able to discern, one line to the next, whether the figurative registers come from wedding planning or military strategy (or natural disasters). The wedding ceremony, “a ritual meant to extend a magic present,” can be seen now as a martial quagmire. “Enduring Freedom” is of course the name given to the US war in Afghanistan. “Well, on to the slaughter,” reads the book’s epigraph from the clever Goodrich-Hackette screenplay for Father of the Bride at the time of the Korean conflict, its “well” being a sigh of horrid-yet-plucky inevitability. Typically, in American life and language, bride and soldier complement each other, but here, in Mullen’s performance of cultural languages, romantic and martial, the two roles become strikingly the same. “[H]ere to hear the I do as a couple of hard blows: that flesh-blunted sound of bone on bone dislodging as cough a caught morsel not thoroughly chewed. Back out, back out, quagmire …”

PoemTalk is produced by Al Filreis. For episode 70, our engineers were Zach Carduner and Chris Martin. And our editor, as always, is Steve McLaughlin. Next time on PoemTalk: Salamishah Tillet, Herman Beavers and Kathy Lou Schultz join Al to discuss Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.” In the photograph above, from left to right: Michelle Taransky, Steve McLaughlin, Amy Paeth.

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Bride of the New Dawn

She appears to be recognized as herself and not herself, new because endlessly recycled, not what she was but not what she will be — see? Not married and not not married, the processional’s a ritual meant to extend a magical present, until the head of this pin is the size of a rented hall and all of us angels stepping out on the long blank train of her on-going gown. To go in single and come married out is easy enough, what matters is to enlarge the interstitial, to live as long as we can in the not exactly no longer and the not quite not yet also. Where organ music drowns the ill-digested vows and the empty stomach growls. Hesitant. The BND goes down slow as a pill we can’t really swallow, stuck chunk in a stalled gulp between yesterday and tomorrow, at one and the same time belated and punctual. It’s the system itself we’ve come to see (open the plug of that rubber-edged rose window), not me and not you, but we: the marriage of church and state made visible, audible, available. Here Dearly Beloved’s an embarrassing gurgle, and the costly gown so much densely crumpled bathroom tissue backing up one overworked way in and out of the usual world. From the mouth to points South, scrawl that in soap on the vehicle? From “will you?” to “why don’t you ever?” on the march to “irreconcilable.” Hey — whoa! Away with you hand-wringing nay sayers: be here now now now now. … Cheeks are flushed and eyes overflow as we grasp her new handle, here to hear the I do as a couple of hard blows: that flesh-blunted sound of bone on bone dislodging as cough a caught morsel not thoroughly chewed. Back out, back up, quagmire, circle: proposed solutions involve the usual budget expansions, extended tours of duty, and additional troops.

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Laura Mullen has kindly added the following context: My version of “cut piece” (a homage to Yoko Ono – & Helene Cixous) is not directly connected to the book or concurrent with my readings from it. The “cutting of the wedding dress” was done in the context of a multi-media performance (created for AdFemPo in 2009 and done last at &Now in Paris in 2012) which involves a nonfiction meditation on class and race situated in the early days of the Obama presidency. There’s a film of the piece (known as "White Inc.") up on Vimeo:  https://vimeo.com/46107108.   But the “bridework” involves multiple layers: I see that Jacket has posted a picture of the “Trash Bride” piece done for/at Naropa in 2011 (again, not a reading from the book), and there is extensive documentation of the way the “bride of big oil” was mobilized here in Louisiana (2010) as a part of political actions in response to the Deepwater Horizon incident, as well as related videos on my Vimeo site ("The Veil" and "Bride Journal").   While I have read from Enduring Freedom in a wedding dress twice (at the book launch in Baton Rouge, where the wedding cake had soldiers on it, and at Otis, on Halloween), the dress I read in is specific: it's the gown that was cut up in Paris (for "White Inc.") and then, with friends, “up armored” (“up-amoured” is my joke) or “Frankensteined” (as we say of the vehicles which were sent into battle in Iraq with inadequate protection and had to be patched up). The marks of vulnerability, damage, and love are upon it.