By Clark Fair
In her poem “August Lament,” Mary Mullen conjures the faces and places and touchstones of her old home in Soldotna — but she does so from her current home more than 4,000 miles away, in Ballinderreen, County Galway, Ireland.
Both locales figure prominently in her recently published collection of poetry, “Zephyr.” Although Mullen has lived in Ireland for the past 14 years, she spent most of her first 43 in Alaska, and the assembled poems in this slim volume explore her early and later years through a variety of poetic forms and styles.
In “August Lament,” she dreams of fireweed blooms and canning salmon, quaking aspen and changing summer light, her sister grating cabbage and boiling potatoes, and her mother employing a tea towel to shoo a moose from the garden. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the images cause Mullen, who loves the life she has, to awaken and to ache with a longing for what she does not.
This poem and the 43 others in “Zephyr” are rife with such imagery and passion. They are poems about her childhood on the Kenai Peninsula, about life in her adopted home in Ireland, and about the unexpected and delightful entrance into her life of her daughter, 12-year-old Lily, who was born with Down syndrome.
Mullen, a single parent at age 57, does not shy away from her feelings about motherhood, about Lily’s biological father, who walked away from their relationship, and the challenges of raising a disabled child.
In her prose poem, “First Response,” her clever use of color helps guide the reader through the anxiety of her discovery that, at age 44, she is about to become a mother for the first time. In “Pint of Milk” — which Mullen calls a “revenge poem” — she metaphorically sands away the existence of her former lover, turning his absence into something more useful. And in “Love Sonnet,” she pours forth her affection for her daughter into 14 well-crafted lines that reveal the tenor of their life together.
Mullen, who is currently on vacation in Alaska — in part to help celebrate the 90th birthday of her mother, Marge Mullen — said that raising Lily has taught her much about herself and about love, and was one of her inspirations for her writing:
“I grieved her extra chromosome and all the complications in life that her disability would mean for both of us for a few years, while at the same time being extremely smitten by her,” Mullen said. “And I gave myself to her completely. When the nurse with the Brothers of Charity came to our home to give me suggestions about what to do to bring Lily on to her fullness, we did everything, and more. When the speech and language therapist gave us homework, we did it all, plus more and more.
“I was motivated by a powerful love. I was determined that she was going to be the most competent person with Down syndrome in the world, or at least in the West of Ireland, which of course did not happen. She is just Lily, a 12-year-old girl who is very busy being herself — perfectly herself: moody, lovely, charming, sassy, stubborn, bright. She is a handful.
“Giving so much of myself to Lily’s early childhood helped me take my writing more seriously. In fact, writing the poems for ‘Zephyr’ not only gave me a big kick in the arse; they kicked me toward my own life and grounded me as a writer.”
Mullen also said that putting time and distance between herself and her long past in Alaska has helped broaden her perspective on the people, places and occurrences from her own childhood. She relates some of those experiences in her book, particularly in the earlier poems, and often with deft touches of humor and affection.
“Oolichan, Hooligan, Spring,” a brief reverie involving Mullen and her brother amassing as many of the small oily fish as they can find ways to carry, reverberates with the joys of children awash in discovery. “Swanson River Oil Field, 1959” relates the time that the Mullen family drove their “purple-doored Chevy” 25 miles through the wilderness out to the oil field, where they were awestruck by the signs of progress.
In “Beluga Days,” Mullen re-creates some of the sensations of the old Kenai Days celebration, including beluga burgers. Elsewhere, her verses cover boating on Cook Inlet, the building of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Soldotna (in sestina form, no less), a summer as a teenage cannery worker, and the possibilities inherent in a town named Hope.
Later in the book, in a poem called “Boomerang” that is really a paean to her father, Frank Mullen, who died in 1992, she rues his passing and yet finds joy in the possibilities that follow his death. Frank Mullen contracted polio in 1953 and spent the majority of his adult life in a wheelchair. In “Boomerang,” Mary Mullen imagines her father kicking up his heels and watching proudly over the granddaughter that he never got to meet.
Mullen moved to Ireland in 1996 and now lives in the house in which her father lived in the later years of his life. She said that she moved because she was “just really burned out” and had a desire to do something different, something just for herself. She wanted to write a novel, she said, and she thought about moving overseas, in part, because the move would take her away from a lot of distractions.
Two months after she arrived in Ireland, however, she met the man who would become Lily’s father. “I fell madly in love with him and felt sure he was the man of my dreams, and I was pregnant 10 months later.”
Despite the pregnancy and single parentage, however, she found the time and means to begin writing, and her poetry collection is the result.
”Zephyr,” with its colorful abstract cover from a painting by Irish artist Aoife Casby, was published on May 15 by Salmon Poetry in Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland, and Mullen is pleased with her accomplishment. Although she has been published in numerous magazines, literary journals and newspapers, this poetry collection — which she said took her four years to write — marks the first book of her own. She hopes it is not the last.
“For every poem that’s in (the collection), there’s about 10 others that didn’t make the cut or are still waiting to be written,” she said. “Once I got this manuscript together, I did feel real, real driven to get it published. And I thought, I am really what they call pushing 60, and I want one book, maybe even two, under my belt by that time.”
Although she is pleased with “Zephyr,” Mullen said that she believes she has a lot of growing to do as a writer.
“I feel very honored to have an ISBN number connected with my name for eternity,” she said. “I feel very humbled by it, and I’m enormously proud of this book, even though I know in the world of poetry I’m just a toddler, that this book has kind of elevated me from Baby Poet to Toddler Poet.
“And part of poetry’s wonderment is that it’s a lifetime thing. You see poets getting better and better and better as they do it more and more and more, so it’ll take me probably decades to get really great.”
“Zephyr” is available at River City Books.