Tyler Mills’ resonant and resinous—the very quality of the reed instrument and lyre—debut collection Tongue Lyre contains sympathies beyond metaphor, past logic, into prima facie proof of poetry as both neo-epic narrative and song.
In an era when the written archive is dangerously close to being usurped by the digital cloud, the evacuation of the subject isn’t merely a political or even aesthetic problem.
Mills shows us that myth, the text, and the subject’s interiors, are “larger than life”: reflecting a world of mirrors and surfaces, themselves ghostly traces of the real.
From “Chorus: A Museum is Under Construction”:
” . . . in medieval Europe
there was no precedent
for secular interiors on such
a large scale . . .
We’ve been there, but now we’re reading books.”
Mills’ postmodern anthropomorphism of place is wry, noting “the museum’s conscious effort / at consciousness.” Suspicious of epiphany, and attentive to the opacity of language, there are imperatives here within otherwise suggestive lines, tonally open to interpretation while establishing a cycle of themes: musically, how compositional intent is preserved within a scored text, and the vagaries of violence:
“ . . . we sat listening, knowing from school that when / the storm comes, you have to let the wind in” (“The Sirens”).
“All those nights breathing in that one dark room, / remembering blood on the thighs/wet as tongued / saliva, blood staining the skin— / do not enter . . . Go back./ Get the woman out. The men want/ to fuck the angels. A sheep’s on fire now, / running. Turn back and get the woman / out of the room” (“Lesson”).
This question not only of historic representation, but the process by which art, genre, and the artist herself become forms to be named, is one of the collection’s deepest wounds.
“ . . . No-
thing. And what exists continues blandly
with a longing
to collect the pink clouds
smearing a liquor store window—
my ID in another’s hands,
the silk almond opening
of my wallet, and inside, blood.”
The urgency arising from this paradox of subject-turned-object; epic-turned-contemporary, is a Romantic and modernist trope of self-invention—an invention that requires human, not divine, intervention. From “Penelope’s Firebird Weft”: “It is not the dust, not human ashes in vessels heavy with gray teeth / and a chip of bone. Bring out the pencils and remake a self.”
Through invocations of the gods of classical music—their overtures, habits, and masterpieces, the lyre is reunited with the contemporized singer, the infinite drift foreclosed. Beethoven is here, and Stravinsky, “who wrote forte, forte, forte, forte, / five times in the end of L’oiseau de feu, louder than any voice, loud enough / for the trumpets to crack their pealing calls / look—look at the wings . . . ”
What came first, speech or song? Does the score append the text, or the text, the score? What is a singer without her lyre, or a lyre without song? These urgent plumb lines are underscored by the primary violence that is silencing, in the tragedy of Philomena, whose words provides the collection’s epigraph:
“Imprisoned here, my voice will fill the trees.”
And yet, as the speaker figures it, Philomena’s imprisonment (reminiscent of Dickinson’s confinement in “They shut me up in Prose—”) is the prophetic source of lyric enchantment. Bound metrically by the lyric tradition, and to her lyre, by history, “freedom,” for the embodied voice(s) of this collection, is conditional upon escape not just from the emperor, but the cage. One trope, in the collection, can thus be read as formalist constraint, as a poet or musician, or simply the impetus to seek a different form of utterance, or music, whose origins are freedom of composition, and not silencing, compulsion, or captivity.
The importance of establishing and enforcing one’s own metaphysical truth (“Your hair is red in the sun. No.”) as well as obeying the laws of measurement established by Seshat, Egyptian goddess of writing, mathematics, measurement and architecture, remind the reader of the importance of accuracy—the right words in the right order—in (re)constructing a world.
To create shelter, for the lyric body, the exiled body, or roving language itself, is a vocation and art, whether of survival or salvation; it is to sing the body electric, to awaken the creatures of labor, or displacement, and dignify their lives.
This is the art of myth-making—a unifying force tantamount in power to song:
“Violinist”: “This is why I spend years building stables/—finger-joints measured, solid,/ strong enough to protect all the horses.”
Nietzsche’s eternal return was a nightmarish vision. Yet obeying the summons of recall suggests, instead, a mode of lyric recursivity.
A call, unanswered, returns us to the body, mute, without resonance, and without the voice’s reliance on projection to be heard.
If answered, the counterpoint between souls, or instruments, is felt as a volta—a sympathetic vibration, making musical form out of emptiness.
That disquieting harmony, as it weaves its haunting refrain through centuries, masterpieces, the quotidian, voices, and terrors both contemporary and ancient, might—in fact it does—read, and sound, like these poems.
Author of Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (forthcoming, Noctuary Press), Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Republic, and Verse, and her criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, and Jacket2. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.