The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, by Helene Mullins (1970)

nb_0623On the few times I get to spend in a used bookstore, I find myself increasingly depressed at how often I can tell in a glance that there’ll be little chance of finding something I haven’t seen before. Which is, obviously, something of a natural consequence of running this site for over ten years. When this happens, I give it one last shot by heading for the poetry section.

If they have one. If they don’t, it’s time to abandon all hope.

If they do, there is a better chance of finding something hitherto unknown because by God there are a lot of skinny books of poetry that have been published over the last hundred-some years. A lot of it is pretty forgettable, as a growing stack of skinny books of poetry in my “To Donate” box attests. But there’s a good share that was doomed to neglect simply because it’s from too small a press, doesn’t include anything that got pulled into an anthology, or has some hideous design or amateur artwork that screams “Stay Away!” to all but worshippers of one of the poetic muses.

Or, as in the case of Helene Mullins’ collection, The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969 (1970), so boring that it could easily be mistaken for a review draft. Except the one I found earlier this year was in immaculate shape, protected in Brodart, included an inscription by the author (“To Bob Adams with good wishes”), and sold for just $4. The Mirrored Walls came from a moderately well recognized publisher (Twayne) and included blurbs from John Hall Wheelock, Louis Untermeyer, and A. M. Sullivan, so it indicated that Mullins had made it under the mid-20th-century American poetry Big Top, if not quite into the center ring.

So who was Helene Mullins? Of the few online sources, the short bio sketch on the Yale Library page devoted to her papers (and those of her sister Marie McCall, who published a few novels) offers the most information. Born in New York City in 1899, she spent most of her life in the city. Married twice, began publishing poems in the early 1920s, including regular appearances in FPA’s (Franklin Pierce Adams) “Conning Tower” column in The New York World newspaper. Along with poetry, she wrote two novels early in her career — Paulus Fry: The History of an Esthete (1924), a quirky, elegant little jeux d’esprit in the vein of Carl Van Vechten and James Branch Cabell (“a flutterby-butterfly book,” one review called it), co-authored with her sister; and Convent Girl (1929). Convent Girl was an apparently autobiographical account of a girl’s life in a city convent boarding school for three years that was praised for its “clearness of vision” and “calm, well balanced prose, free of all flamboyant sentimentality and flashy brittleness, written frankly, and undoubtedly without prejudice.” She published four collections of poetry: Earthbound and Other Poems (1929); Balm in Gilead (1930); Streams from the Source (1938); and The Mirrored Walls. Married twice, she was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1935. She spent several weeks in a coma and it took her several years to recover. She lent her support to a number of liberal, human rights, and peace causes over the years, and died in 1991.

Mullins was one of the younger women poets to come to notice in the 1920s, when Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie reigned, but she quickly gained a solid foothold, publishing in Scribners, Commonweal, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular magazines. She was among the more frequent contributors of poetry to The New Yorker in its first ten years.

Irony to the Ironical

Accept from me, at least, an admiration
Not cultivated too laboriously.
Most delicate shall be the situation,
A matter of wit and wine and poetry.

You need not give me caution in exchange,
For I am self-sufficient and content.
I think that you are beautiful and strange,
And willingly I yield to sentiment.

Passionate Beyond Belief

Passionate beyond belief
Is the crisp and dying leaf.
Watch it whirl through clouds of dust,
Determined not (until it must)
To yield and be forever still.
What a brave display of will!
What a glorious, futile fight!
O gathering dark, O waiting night,
Few such do you absorb when all
The casualties of autumn fall.

I like the fact that this last little ode to death appeared alongside ads for Peek Frean biscuits, the National Horse Show, Kauffman for Riding Togs (since 1876), and Alix’ Famous Collarless Wrap from Bloomingdale’s. You can see why at least one acquaintance called her “a mix of Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay.” On the other hand, Mullins managed to rub Southern poet Allan Tate wrong in a big way: “I’m in favor of rejecting all verse henceforth by this piece of baggage! She’s the vulgarest, rudest wench I’ve yet graced with my presence. She also has a voice like the taste of a persimmon.”

Mullins’ basic style changed little over the years. Of her first collection, Earthbound and Other Poems, one reviewer wrote, “She is content to let the theme develop with practically no ornament; she delights in harmony but rarely employs counterpoint.” Of Balm in Gilead, another wrote that her verse “is honest, admirable, and wise”: “Constant war is being waged between her high heart and the lesson of bitter resignation she thinks we all must learn.”

A significant shift in perspective, however, can be detected in the poems found in Streams from the Source, the first collection to appear after her accident and convalescence:

She Marvels Over What They Say

It cannot last,” they said to me,
When I with Love went dancing.
“The end is always ruthlessly
And quietly advancing.”
But I knew better, being young.
And I would not endeavor
To understand a dismal tongue;
My dance would last forever.
Now that with Pain I’m lying prone,
“It cannot last,” they tell me,
And in a calm and soothing tone
Endeavor to compel me
To be assured the end will come.
But though it chafe or grieve them,
I find their comfort wearisome;
I still do not believe them.

“Her lines are no longer founded on self-pity or self-preoccupation,” wrote Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review. “It is not an austerity so much as a gathering of intellectual forces, a translation of the fanciful in terms of the philosophic.”

Her subjects also shifted to social issues: unemployment, justice, and, with the start of World War Two, the fight against totalitarianism. “Interview with a Dictator,” for example, asks “What is it to be in power, a ruler of men/To advance beyond the humble of the earth/Who strive and suffer, and fall to rise again/Begging their fellows to recognize their worth?” These would remain a major focus of her work, at least as reflected in her last collection, The Mirrored Walls. In “How Forgive the Power of Rulers,” twenty years after “Interview,” her question remains essentially the same: “How forgive the power of rulers/waging wars with borrowed breath/of entertainers who copyright/our dramas of life and death.” (You can hear Mullins reading this and other poems, along with fellow poet Henrietta Weigel on a KPFA show from 1964 on the Internet Archive (Link).

These are not, however, the poems to remember her by. They remind me a little of the Red flag-waving poems that Genevieve Taggard wrote during her New Masses phase. You do have to give credit for hanging in with her causes, though. Rounding the corner on seventy, she still managed to feel the fire of comradeship with the Flower Power generation: “We march and sing and demonstrate./We are the rebels who extol/the equal rights that cry for peace,/the liberty which keeps man whole” (from “Hippy Song”).

Instead, if there is anything to be remembered from The Mirrored Walls, it is Mullins’ poems that deal with the personal, not the social, the intimate and not the public:

My Mother’s Final Gesture

Before she left, my mother,
trying to make it easier for us,
by slow degrees erased her identity.
Shedding the meretricious ornamentations,
the perpetual hopes, the outworn new beginnings,
she covered with the tenuity of old age
her beauty, grace, the poor remains of a gaiety
hoarded against a need that might arise.
So intent was she
on divesting herself of all familiar lineaments,
she did no heed a word of what we were saying:
that we were glad she soon would be released
from the tremors of our menaced civilization,
the fears and horrors seeping through our walls.
Barely recognizable at the end,
except to us who knew her as she was,
she slipped away
with a reassuring flutter of her hands.
We watched her go toward her unknown destination,
then turned to face our own.

Dynamic of Life

Everything changes, everything passes away,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.
The joys impatient to leave me I try to delay,
None of them pause, outlast my clumsy embrace.

New flowers bloom and new songs come into fashion,
The hair of my love is black and then it is gold.
I shrink from the touch of an unfamiliar passion,
I reject the strange and new, I cling to the old.

Everything changes, everything passes away,
Nothing will heed me, nothing remain in its place.
The warmth I will need tomorrow goes from me today,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.

I wouldn’t say that any of what I read in this neglected collection were great poems. But as someone about a block away from rounding the corner on sixty, whose mother is going gently into that good night, I will say that these two were tough to read without feeling a chill down my spine.

The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969, by Helene Mullins
New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970