Laura Mullen’s fourth collection, the dense, elegiac Dark Archive, may be her best work to date. In a voice that is at once mournful and mindful, Mullen attempts to unravel our problematic Romantic inheritance: the persistent search for “meaning in this life,” despite the fact that “’understanding’” is impossible. Arranged in three sections, the book cunningly deploys William Wordsworth’s assertions about a certain itinerant bit of water vapor. “Wandered lonely in the voice of another who had no voice,” writes Mullen, acknowledging the present absence of that other, female Wordsworth, the diarizing Dorothy. Mullen interrogates the nature of the Romantic subject (its necess-ity and its failings). In writing about Hurricane Katrina, she juxtaposes the insufficient paradise of the Romantic trope against the inescapable hell of real-world disasters. Wordsworth’s poem has perhaps never seemed quite so thin nor so contrived as it does in Mullen’s parody, which is titled “I Wandered Networks like a Cloud.” Here, his daisies are morphed into Katrina refugees: “Ten thousand saw I at a glance, / Hurrying nowhere, like worried ants.” Mullen’s technical skill is impressive, particularly so in the moving poem, “Collide and Coalesce,” which comprises 36 anagrams for New Orleans: “Loners new a / No we learns / New Orleans.” Like the first section of the book, the second examines tragedy, as Mullen attempts to describe the indescribable, the brutal Texas murder of African-American James Byrd by three white men. Byrd’s killing—he was beaten and then chained and dragged behind a car—resists language, and Mullen bears witness to that resistance. Titled twice (each poem contains two capitalized words, one at the head, and one in the third line) these poems employ more white space than do the earlier poems, fanning out across the page, as if in an attempt to convey the emptiness of the vast Texan sky and the limits to what words can express. Mullen examines the positions of the spectator and the poet-as-spectator: When she observes, “torture cinematic question blank / question again and then,” she makes clear that this crime is incomprehensible. In the final poems of the collection, the speaker shifts from public loss to private, as she mourns the passing of her mother: “someone I loved slipping through my fingers, lines of vague smoke (the reality is) becoming transparent.” Mullen’s evanescent, fleeting, and mercilessly abstract cloud-symbol is nowhere more affecting than in these poems: “[R]epeated arrival,” she writes, “world blur of spill of    throughmourning.” In the recent tradition of Juliana Spahr, Claudia Rankine, and Brenda Hillman, Mullen adroitly interweaves the wounds of the individual with the wounds of the collective. At the same time, she poses key questions about the poetic tradition, ruminating about language’s capability to portray loss. Her poems act as testimony, bearing witness with painful accuracy to the dark archives we call our lives.

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