Harryette Mullen, Urban Tumbleweed: Notes From A Tanka Diary

Publisher: Graywolf Press

2013, 122 pages, paperback, $12

WALKING. EVERY DAY, we walk. And we see things. We stroll through the grocery store, the park, a Target parking lot, and we observe the phenomenal. We typically let these fathoms of the world and people hang in our subconscious brains like a quick–clearing fog. In Urban Tumbleweed: Notes From A Tanka Diary, Harryette Mullen challenged herself to notice these ordinary sightings and hold them in her hand. For a year and a day, Mullen wrote down what she saw. After reading her diary of a book, it is evident that what is happening around us is not only meaningful, but far more connected than we might think.

Mullen’s experiment was to walk and keep a diary of what she saw, however random, all in the form of tanka verses. Tankas are a traditional form of Japanese syllabic verse that are not nearly as complicated as they sound. The tanka is one of the simplest ways, I believe, to write a poem. Each tanka is 31 syllables and traditionally five lines in length, but Mullen departs from the convention and uses three lines for each. Although most of the diary takes place in southern California, part of the diary is from Mullen’s one-month residency in Marfa, TX, and some parts are from a visit to Sweden.

I am a native of West Texas, where the tumbleweeds run rampant and the wind is merciless. Despite spending two summers near L.A., I never made a connection between West Texas and the West Coast. Mullen does this with just three lines, reminding the reader of the connectivity of America:

           Urban Tumbleweed, some people call it,
           discarded plastic bag we see in every city
           blown down the street with vagrant wind.

One theme Mullen strongly suggests in this work is that even on the urban streets of California, she came face to face with nature every day. The way she links city and country is often subtle, and this is what makes the connection ring so true. Mullen does not need to force the point—she just writes about the squirrels she sees along the beach and the “elegant butterflies” gathering around city garbage.

For me, Mullen’s poems bring about a question of purpose. I’ve been inclined to believe that humans hold all the purpose and are above nature. But are we? It seems as though we act just like those butterflies. Often, we are beautiful and free, our colors bright. Other times, we are attracted to garbage. Mullen walked for an entire year, and there are just as many tragic scenes in these poems as there are beautiful ones.

Mullen has a way of capturing humanity in a humorous and surprising way:

           A man disguised as a baggy cow
           steals twenty-six gallons of milk from Walmart,
           then gives it all to strangers outside the store.

She sometimes depicts utter chaos, yet I still cannot help but feel compassion in each line:

           Sirens in the distance, voices of
           two men arguing, the unmistakable sound
           of someone vomiting in the alley.

We don’t have to be any sort of masters of poetry to benefit from this collection. Mullen’s narrative tankas read like paragraphs or even tweets, if you will. Her collection is 122 pages of tanka puzzle pieces. Each piece is its own story, but collectively, they are one.  Even if you don’t read at all, the content in these lines is universal. These poems are for the everyday grocery shopper or full-time mom or single guy in his apartment. They are multifaceted and enjoyable on a human level.

I love to walk—the serotonin wakes me up and fills my mind with creative energy. I’ve been practicing walking and writing since reading Urban Tumbleweed. It’s not nearly as shocking to realize that this smart piece of literature is filled with strange, beautiful, gross, and breathtaking sights and sounds as it is to realize that they are constantly right in front of me.

—Casey Winters