In Review

Mortar by Sara Mumolo. Omnidawn, 2013.

cover of Mortar

Reviewed April 1, 2014 by pablo lopez.

The ones that can call themselves contemporary are only those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century, and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity.

– Giorgio Agamben

Definitions of the contemporary abound. The parsing and hashing out of the term is ongoing – inevitable – and vital to the health and tenability of a critical vocabulary and discourse. Questions as to what is constitutive of the contemporary are contestable, allowing for considerable debate. The panoply of interlocutors openly and tacitly engaged in the discourse, invariably adds to the richness of the topic and the level of insight and outcome, along with its numerous implications for the arts, more generally. And yet within the varied richness of the discourse, there are contributors that bear and negotiate significant influence as the result of the practicality of their contributions. These contributions take the shape and form of cultural production, within whose ranks are those many “contemporary” artists, writers, and poets, that negotiate, perhaps, the most influence and responsibility for the discourse.

Bringing new work to bear, however, is but one aspect, albeit crucial, of the contemporary. If the question of the contemporary were as simple a matter as artists, writers, and poets defining it explicitly in praxis, then there would be little need and use for the panoply of contributions that make up the very discourse itself. And yet, critical distinctions can be made with respect to influence and responsibility within that critical framework. The case for working artists, writers, and poets maintaining overwhelming influence on what’s thoughtfully considered the contemporary, is longstanding and frequently underscored by scholars, critics, and artists themselves.

In his 2008 essay, What is the Contemporary? Giorgio Agamben stakes out some critical ground in order to hash out a version of the contemporary that not only takes cultural producers and their various modes of influence into account, but also establishes the necessity of differentiation within the ranks of those making contributions to the discourse. Agamben’s notion, then, is predicated upon the recognition that all new work (art and literature specifically, but not exclusively) is not, by definition, contemporary. For Agamben, the attention and quality of a work’s method serves to determine whether or not a work might be considered contemporary, not simply if an artist or writer is working and producing culturally “relevant” work, as determined by authoritative sources.

Agamben’s concept of the contemporary calls attention to the critical territory that is the relationship one maintains with one’s own time, and the crucial aspects of simultaneously negotiating levels of adherence and distance in order to be critically out of joint. Agamben warns that those that too closely coincide with their epoch and adjust themselves to its demands are not contemporaries, as they don’t manage to see their epoch and its manifold qualities that remain obscured despite the lights (glittering) of their time.[i] With this in mind, Oakland poet, Sara Mumolo’s recent debut collection, Mortar, is a book very much indicative of its era, as it simultaneously maintains fluency and critical distance from the various modes of contemporaneity, all the while articulating a critical approach that signals a shifting sensibility in contemporary concerns relating to a practical construct of self and poem.

♦ ♦ ♦

Endless unfolding of words of ages!

And mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse.

– Walt Whitman

To say Mortar is indicative of its era is not to say that it speaks for its time. In fact, it is to say something quite the opposite, it’s a book that keeps substantial distance from its time while it articulates a particular space seemingly misaligned with its time and contemporaries. It is perhaps more accurate to say that it stands outside of contemporariness, and remains in loose opposition to what is culturally relevant to the contemporary social and economic landscape, and actually pushes back against those contemporary forces. A mode of pushing back, in this case, is Mumolo’s articulation and formulation of a lyrical identity, or, self. Not unlike the great poet of self, Whitman, reading Mumolo is an encounter with the outlines, history, and plasticity of the self – and its many modes of formation and reformulation in relation to world and subjectivity; an old flame casting new light.

Plasticity is a critical term for this collection. Plasticity, from the Greek, plassein: to mold, in this case the poet is molding, modeling, and creating bonds between disparate elements. A plastic mortar, of sorts, is brought to use that not only binds, but disrupts present relations and combinations, as it gives and lends itself to movement and recombination of elements and various modes of articulated human experience. In Mortar, all combinations, then, are plastic, so too are divisions that exist between sense, intellect, and the various micro-facets of lyricism that are brought in and out of relation in the formulation of a self – a lyric self.

The lyrical self articulated in Mortar maintains a patient confidence; its lines engender a thoughtfulness in attitude and general fastidiousness that understands, but never overstates, the rhythm and breath of its measures. Simultaneously, this affects the nature of its lyricism, as it elaborates particular insight and color, restrained color, and in mostly muted hues, as displayed in the following poem, Current:


We hear the highway

from the window,

a sea:

a moneyed wilderness.

In drizzle’s colic.

Someone recites this city

as mortar and gulls.

Money is what happens

when one turns to luxury

for solace.

You believed when they said

the hole will reach China if

Money for the woman discovering

she can never be a sailor.

An artificial product civilization makes


When needy I’m French,

shift one word in each cliche.

The ocean builds a hospital

beyond the beams.

Again, the lyricism is forthright and confident, but with practiced finesse, and so this is no demur book of poems, it asserts, carefully and with attention to language from the most minute part of speech on up through to the line and poem. The poet’s attention to the intimacies of language allows a reader similar access and engagement with the more inward aspects of language, and with these poems on the whole. And so a reader may find herself drawn into the less immediate confines of the work by its productive sense of quiet and the quality of attention afforded them:

A figure of sound

The unacceptable way you move

Between viewer and view

Landscape seems invented

This is not cooking music

A full coatrack continues the empty house

I hope you are home when I forget to call

Weeds sieve through mulch

I hate appearing in other people’s dream

A spare key disappears in the pot

Certain aimless alarms

or, perhaps, lingering in the clefts of these lines etched out by and with provocative linguistic and intellectual interplay:


Frequencies that threaten to

A valleyscape you walked out toward

the street and screamed  staggering

under reward

Uncanny intensification of alone


I understand myself until I heed


Events are not

clear even during  their occurrence

Initial pull of the moment ripples  crests

In a sleep

you invent the weapon I touch you with

♦ ♦ ♦

I shop therefore I am

– Barbara Kruger

Indeed, and despite its thick irony, the above proclamation is an affirmation of self, even while it announces and disavows, it operates as a constitutive ontological practice, affirming and constituting actual human presence and activity. Though, of course, the nature and quality of the activity limits and determines the human presence, to the extent that it’s mired in commercialism and superficiality. Nevertheless, it speaks to the active modes of self-design and being in the world; and on the face of it, such superficiality might seem to be a contemporary way of being in world, but that, however, would be a very different mode of being contemporary, much more akin to being fashionable than that which occurs within the intricacies of eminent poetry. A more serious mode of constituting ontological presence is apparent in the self-fashioning that takes place in Mortar.

As its semantic strategies seem less geared toward speaking above the crowd, Mortar actively explores modes of self-design and differentiation within the din of contemporary voices and candidacies of subjectivity. Its strategy for self-design and assembly extends across the distances between poems as a practical approach to formalize connectivity as a modality of self. And rather than express or affirm itself within a semantic line or individual poem, this work crafts itself in the activity of articulation in such a way that departs from contemporary commodity-driven self-design that’s often predicated upon choosing prepackaged brands, titles, and products so as to fashion a legible identity. Mortar’s self-design ignores the notion of “shopping” for one’s subjective self – or affirmed subjectivity – in favor of “shopping for the end of construct (45),” as Mumolo writes. The result is a self-design mottled with dynamism and connectivity, and is productively less legible than the range of possibilities made available by the more familiarly habituated modes of self-design. And so it is precisely this mottled connectivity that reveals Mumolo’s work as an anticipatory activity of contemporary assertions of the self as a noncommodifiable entity. Too, in this wise, it sets itself further apart from so many of its contemporaries, and, contemporariness, as Agamben might have it.

An operative critical practice in Mortar appears, then, as a nexus of declarative statements made from a first-person position. Individually, or out of context, these declarations are wry, pointed, and interesting for their peculiar opinions and politically tinged assertions, yet they present little critical value on their own. And yet, due to the frequency and assertive nature of these lines, a semantic and subjective affect-induced tension is brought to the fore. Such tensions inevitably pressurize the very capacity of a poetic line to contain the multitudes that selfhood may in fact be capable of, as well as the challenge to articulate the many selves of an individual and the many ‘technologies of self,’ as Foucault put it. With respect to Mortar, the issue seems to be addressed in praxis; and to better appreciate the impact of this strategy it’s important to take the totality of its connectivity into consideration. For it’s by the very many connections made that allow it to successfully operate as a critical methodology evidenced throughout and across the seventeen disparate poems of the book’s first section. The second section, “Money on It,” ratchets up this methodology even further, for instance, 15 of the 24 opening lines of the semi-discrete iterations of the poem are initiated with a first-person declarative, and the poem’s primary momentum is sustained by ‘I’ driven assertions, possessive claims and conjectures. The speech of “I” is a speech of self in praxis. It’s full of affective force and vulnerable in the most human of ways.

I can’t hide you—the rock cried out.


I bite our swarming innards.


For this image, I cease rotting inside.


I haul my lungs to the road, unharvested with echo.


I find the embarrassing object and measure it against your absence


I liked the pomp and circumstance.


I am one tendency to demur.


I am not a school on fire.


I am trying to say without translating.


I am subject to voice.


Where I suspend the sight of death


I know to put on cooking music by Point Defiance ferry bells.


I never learn the language made for us all.


♦ ♦ ♦

Birds do not make poems.

– Robert Duncan

Importantly, Mumolo’s methodology is not the familiarly clustered, meretricious first-person proclamations that frequently attempt a deconstructive constellation of non-sequiturs, characteristic of so much contemporary poetry written by mostly younger writers. In Mortar, an admixture of self (and selves) goes on record, as the record of self accretes, extending the field of its activity. As a result, a dynamic, and sometimes awkward, nexus of affirmation and negation is formalized in its articulation of the self – what it is and is not (or, may or may not be). Contradictorily and/or completely tangentially interconnected, the self stresses the viability of the poetic form to be adequate to the charge of a self-designed formulation of a first-person construct. It’s such a construct that enables the affectively charged human presence of the poet as an actual emotive force in these poems. The poet is not simply an abstract authorial force, she occupies a presence, and is responsible for the word and line of each poem, and the litany of their affective trajectories. The particularity of experience, as it’s articulated, is the result of the poet’s disciplined approach to language and orientation toward to the truthfulness of her own experience:

I never learn the language made for us all.

Everyone’s face strapped on by collars of incognito.

How would we sign when altered by slips in coordinates…

I’m crying in an airport food court where

we construct approval of my emotional desperation,

which occurs from lack of exchange. Maybe I’ve heard

death news, the father. Peering

into this court: Here, a table

because my hand sleeps on it.

Action. Not narrative

and a napkin crumpled beyond my abilities.

—it skids. Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by Snake erects

around me—3-D resembles our world now,

only more stylish. What voice

we allow out of the house and how we leak inside it.

‘I’ asserts, and what follows often contradicts and refashions a position against that which preceded it, or morphs it into something altogether particular, and so too ‘I’ negates, but not only. It also contributes colorful notes to an articulate divertimento, part lyric, part critical assembly of the self – without seam or partition:

I am two tendencies to crack the lion-drum

As beasts you and I mount globes,

pivot by fore then hinds: jaws and lids seizure

open to gulp the street

—we forget what tour this is—

rid our village of its evil-eye

I must admit you’ve been seen

freaking in spring’s escapism, revealing

our accursed shares not as the act of

a mechanic changing a tire

but as riding inside the tire itself, wasted.

The Village kneading...St Jerome climbs

out of his pictures and gathers us as pets—

as tigers—the village lives many thorns from here.

What’s apparent then, is an active assembling of speech in a poetic field, where the first-person singular is not necessarily the privileged, centralized speech modality operating under the aegis of socio-historical conventions of poetic license (as afforded by institutionally coded norms of behavior and practice). ‘I’, while simultaneously affirming and negating its own critical value, is not rendered void, or self-voided, emptied of its various social positions, but is expanded as a field of social and cultural production itself. ‘I,’ then, is an inclusive field (not without its problematic limitations). Its fundamental activity is one of assembly – assembly of available potentialities from a slew of discourses ranging from the political, economical, sexual, ethical, and conceptual (not that these discourses can be expected to exist as autonomous discourses without considerable overlap and intersection), to name but a few.

Such a semantic strategy not only addresses the bounds and limitations of the formalized pronominal organization, it also then extends to include and assemble the formal and conceptual possibilities of the poem and the ideas contained therein, as well as those inapparent trajectories excited and further promulgated:


From the crook of my impatient disease

I unfurl

a blue breathable sky

where the snake is not afraid to sound melodramatic

I’m not that creature anymore

mourning her

own image in an archway

the knife’s mood around our edges

something I say I saw

we’re not visible  except as tokens


near context

balance between hues

air apprehends

again your loud smile

as apprehension etches us

landscapes are something to be

a more humane shake between material and idea

Without such extension and challenging of formalized norms and semantic modalities, the possibility of representing the unrepresentable is difficult to fathom. A purpose of art, after all, is to render present what is absent, or obscured.

There is something exceptionally valuable about this approach, which addresses the visceral concerns of a poet, a reader of poetry, and the relationship to language and the life it constitutes. This, and Mortar more generally, strike me as a particularly useful articulation in relation to contemporary poetry and our broader contemporary culture. What with the proliferation of books of poetry, small presses, and the real viability of self-publishing, a poet might be justifiably concerned with being heard, while more conscientious poets are surely more concerned with the singularity of their articulation and the many subjectivities mobilized by self-design. It follows, then, that to be contemporary is to be out of step with one’s peers (as is the case with this collection – to its credit and a reader’s benefit), heralding not only a contemporary seriousness about being human, but a seriousness about thinking and acting on it in the field of poetry. That may not be fashionable, but no matter, it deserves to be considered and dealt with seriously, and not necessarily as a product of our time, but, perhaps, in the making of our time.


[i] Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) 40–45.

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pablo lopez lives in San Francisco, CA, and co-edits an online journal (comma, poetry) that features new innovative work in English and translation. His recent work has appeared in Aufgabe; comma, poetry; Dusie; Jacket2; OmniVerse; Rain Taxi.