Everyday beauty: Alaskan expatriate publishes poem book

Posted: Thursday, August 05, 2010

As a writer, Mary Mullen likes to explore life and emotions through explosive, non-fiction narratives.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Mary Mullen, formerly of Soldotna, has published her first book of poetry.

As a poet, Mullen carefully crafts her memories and experiences in sparsely chosen words, busting open her feelings like thrown snap pops.

"It's a wonder what a few words can do to pick up your heart or have your mind sail in many directions," said the Alaskan-born Mullen, now living in Ireland.

The 57-year-old recently published her first book of poetry, "Zephyr," from Salmon Poetry out of County Clare, Ireland.

The 44 poems in her book underline the universality of humanity in childhood reminisces, parental challenges, and "all the emotional hiccups of life."

"Of course I write about love and death and all that, too," Mullen said, matter-of-factly. She is currently visiting family and friends in Alaska for the summer, in part to attend her 40th high school reunion.

Mullen received her master's degree in writing from the National University of Ireland, Galway in 2006.

She said being a poet is much like being a photographer in that both artists try to capture the minor details of life.

In her poem, "Clipper" she writes about her mother's tendency to cut articles and photographs out of newspapers. In "Laundry" she writes of clothes drying on a line, "tattered by a yearning so tender it snaps under the pegs of indifference." There's also a poem, "Lemon," about giving a drunk lecher a ride home.

These subtle, everyday happenings become conspicuous and oftentimes beautiful when observed as such.

"Really good non-fiction should sing off the page and every sentence counts. In poetry every word counts, every syllable, every nuance counts," Mullen said.

Mullen said poetry should bring the reader somewhere else, and in her case that place is sometimes Soldotna and Kenai in the 1960s.

She has a poem about fishing hooligan with her brother, an old Kenai Days festival where they used to shoot belugas and about growing up on her parent's homestead.

"Although they're poetically and emotionally mine I tried to keep them historically correct," she said of her Alaska poems. She wanted to make sure to document life at that time correctly, not solely her remembrances of youth.

But the constant gust throughout the warm-winded "Zephyr," is her daughter -- 12-year-old Lily, who has Down syndrome.

She talked about watching Lily play soccer on the disabled team and how it is to watch the little athletes' theatrics juxtaposed by their tenderness.

"It's great to be a mother-poet at those kinds of things," she said.

And, poetry helps her cope with the stress of having a special needs child.

"Poetry has been a release for me, that's for sure, about saying things that need to be said about having a disabled person in the family," Mullen said. "What do people that don't write do? Thank God I have poetry. Thank God I have writing in general."

While she said she misses Alaska and her friends and family here, Ireland is a great place to be a writer.

"As a country they take writers very seriously and they take poets very seriously," she said. "They really respect it."

At Mullen's book-release reception in Ireland she said she "felt like she got married or something" with all the people who attended and brought her flowers and tokens of congratulations.

She moved there in 1996 to write a novel. While that hasn't yet happen, she still has plans for one, as well as a novel for children.

In the meantime, her mind is bursting with poems and all of their possibilities.

"I think poetry should be everywhere -- in toilets, in public buses and day care centers," she said.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

Alaskan Summer Rite, 1969

Mary Mullen

Icy hoses blasted fish guts

down the slime-line

to us cannery girls

who were high-styling it

in our brightly coloured bandanas

blue jeans able to stand by themselves--

a white oilcloth apron

which made us look like birthday candles--

and sometimes, mascara.

Sickening smell of salmon

pressurized in torts,

beeping forklifts,

metronomed machines--

canner, lidder, boiler, boxer--

and foremen who yelled in Japanese.

Wild salmon thumped

monotonously through the guillotine,

while us shameless beauties

stuck our fingers into the headless cavities

and shook ruby eggs into the slanting tray,

tossed guts onto the concrete floor.

Finally, the 10.30 whistle. Released

to the seagull-filled July air

we listened to Bob Dylan's North Country Fair

sipped coffee, ate donuts, and flirted

with college guys up from sexy Seattle

who talked of Carlos Castaneda.

Below the cannery

the mouth of the Kenai River

lay curvy and prone,

dotted with testosterone filled boats

whose captains waited for a cannery girl

who would say yes to Cook Inlet

and yes, perhaps, to him.

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