Kay Mullen, Homecoming (Fithian Press)
Homecoming is an emotionally powerful collection of poems that explore the most difficult and most joyous experiences of ordinary life—dark places that are illuminated; bright places that are shadowed. The poet goes all over the globe, observing, understanding, participating. Throughout the book runs a fine hum of yearning for home—the abstract, the particular, the immediate, the ultimate. Joy and grief turn out to be stands of the same cord pulling us homeward.
Kay Mullen has received recognitions, including the Washington State William Stafford Award and many Pushcart Prize nominations; she is the author of Let Morning Begin, A Long Remembering: Return to Vietnam, and Even the Stones. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. She makes her home in Tacoma, Washington.
It is hard to find poems in which the people and events are not sentimentalized and yet the work remains somehow positive because the frame, the scheme that encloses us, is not meaningless. These poems have an untethered spirituality that glistens through them. I say “untethered” because although the wellsprings of the vision presented here are clearly Catholic and Christian, the poems are not locked to any dogma and they never preach. They simply share, and in doing so, add a wash of color to the reader’s vision.
Each of the four sections begins with an evocative epigraph about home. My own favorite is the Basho quotation at the beginning of the last section, “The Country of Home.” Matsuo Basho said, “Everyday is a journey and the journey itself is home.” This statement seems to carry the theme of the poems. Through all journeyings, all wistful yearnings and memories, the life traveler is at home—that is, at least as much at home as it is possible to be in this world. There is always a larger perspective implied, in which all homes are only way stations. Thus the poems radiate peace, even when their content is anything but peaceful.
Their medium is often nature. Highly specific and sensuous natural images that carry immediate and remote images dominate many of the poems, which describe learning and seeing experiences all over the world. The imagery is reminiscent of Mary Oliver’s, and so is the almost emblematic use of some of the surface pictures. Mullen’s knowledge of nature is both encyclopedic and intimate. You walk with her in poems such as “A Wild Order”:
Dark holes, those empty spaces no eye
can see into, the kind a fallen cedar makes,
or a nurse log, its branches bent under ferns
and mouse-ear chickweed as if leisurely walking
a treadmill of wind…
More imagery quietly introduces a figure, “the woman/ who peers between yellow curtains…”
The poem concludes with a sense of the meaningfulness of life’s miscellany:
For a moment the sun seems hooked
on a cedar as it stitches its way into morning.
The spruce blues its smallest branches
when no one sees, the shy tick of the fox sparrow
choosing shadows. Everything
the way it is, chaotic order in the wild. (75)
Powerful poems evoke the writer’s childhood, world travel, religious life, life with her late husband, and leaving that life behind. Whatever the subject, the poem makes you visualize, participate in a scene and make the automatic connections to memories and parallels of your own. Poems seem to be arranged chronologically by subject. The childhood poems reveal a harsh life (mother dead, father unreachable) that still seasons the mixture of character. “Snow Blind” begins
Father, word I had no meaning for, your eyes
screening me invisible, ears deaf, voiceless.
My found words finally ask from what
ancestral glacier did you flow, wedge
out of reach of warm winds, splintered floe
shattering our innocent years? Forced upward,
snow banks blocked finally collapse. (32)
Yet the poem goes on to suggest that his absence fills her presence. Another poem, “Summer Storm,” again suggests the correlation between the interior and exterior landscape, ending on a positive note:
to be endured, to run its course like
all rage does. As quickly as the chaos
swells, earth swivels a notch,
the storm rolls over the horizon,
turns the knob of its spent door
to a scene of calm, wet macadam
steaming like morning horses. (34)
It is so rare to find a book of poems that leaves you feeling better after finishing than when you began to read. Homecoming is a book to share.
Janet McCann’s work has been published in numerous literary journals, including Kansas Quarterly, Parnassus, Nimrod, Sou’wester, America, Christian Century, Christianity and Literature, New York Quarterly, Tendril, and others. A 1989 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship winner, McCann taught at Texas A & M University from 1969-2016, and she is now Professor Emerita. She has co-edited anthologies with David Craig, Odd Angles of Heaven (Shaw, 1994), Place of Passage (Story Line, 2000), and Poems of Francis and Clare (St. Anthony Messenger, 2004). Her most recent poetry collection is The Crone at the Casino (Lamar University Press, 2014).