Book Review

Before getting too deep into Mortar, Sara Mumolo’s first poetry collection, you run into a familiar yet disarming question: what am I doing here? The trick to reading Mumolo’s book is to wait for her to answer that question for you. She explores individuals and groups, how one belongs to and behaves in each of those identities, from an art class drawing a nude to someone crying in an airport food court. In the poem “I can’t hide you—the rock cried out” she writes: “Variety is the plastic we make invisible, industry /  is everything, even gardenias.” She responds to “industry” here, and throughout her book, as both a machine-like thing and a process as natural and productive as flowering plants. Mumolo and her speaker take care of the reader throughout like guardians: while I feel detachment and even dissonance reading Mortar, I never feel totally alone.


One way Mumolo takes care of her readers is by dividing her book into two intriguing and approachable halves. The first section regards the individual, and the second half addresses individuals in public. In the first untitled section of her book, she concentrates on mostly sketch-like poems that vividly exhibit an individual’s thoughts when alone. For example, in “Locale” she writes: “A whole life doesn’t seem enough / to own a body.” Here, she introduces both a dissatisfaction with the length of a “whole life” and the exhaustion it takes to “own” a body in that life. In the first section’s poems, she frequently presents the female nude, as if showing us a drawing she’s made of that overwhelming body. Mumolo’s writing in this half of Mortar is alternatingly angry and calm. This dichotomy creates a sense of tension. For instance, she writes in “March”:

Revolt you ate
when decency unscrewed.

Dear you   we pretend to be attentive
because we like detail.

These two lines in proximity form a voice both hard and soft; it is tempting to both trust and quickly distrust it. I hear the speaker’s anger, but I also hear, in the second couplet, an intimate narration still capable of shrewd observation.

In the second half of the book, the author takes us away from individual thinking and into the public, which Mumolo and her speakers associate almost solely with money. The section’s title, “Money On It,” draws us there first, followed by Mumolo’s description and embodiment of moving crowds and their (our) obsession with and obedience to money. In “I am subject to voice,” the speaker admonishes the power money has over our values. She writes:

equations without tending emotional desperation
rids us of values such as hindsight.
Not cash itself…
Knifed tree.

While this portion of the poem addresses money in a more matter-of-fact tone, the majority of the poems in this section swim toward and away from making broad claims about capitalism. Mumolo’s reluctance to posit a firm view one way or another is an advantage—you get to read the work like you would view a painting, deciding for yourself what you want to see.

Despite all the pieces of this book’s content being at your fingertips, Mortar’s substance is often murky. Vague lines make me think of these poems as small chiaroscuro paintings; we see the outlines of people, tables, fingertips, faces, and bright bursts of light, but the rest is dark. The bright, clear moments in a few lines (“If math continues, prospects for my life are poor”) contrast the dimmer moments:

Beside droplets of unconfident irony
your smell arrives on the wind.
Gravity and rain
satirize windowpanes

Mumolo wisely contrasts darker, obscure moments like “beside droplets of unconfident irony” with clear, concrete ones—“your smell arrives on the wind.” Maybe “gravity and rain” isn’t the clearest line, but we “get it” enough to appreciate how rain dripping down the window glass like tears seems to “satirize” the windowpanes. The chiaroscuro effect in Mortar functions mostly well, but for those who want absolutes and clarity, this is not your book. If you like hearing dreams and piecing them together because you really want to know what’s in them, then Mortar is for you.

About the Reviewer

Mollye Miller received an M.F.A. in poetry from The New School, where she won the 2010 Chapbook Award for Shade Particles. In 2012, she won the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for her manuscript What Was Done. Her poems have appeared in elimae and Stop Sharpening Your Knives (SSYK), a UK anthology of poetry and illustration, and are forthcoming in Paperbag. She lives in Baltimore.