Tyler Mills’ “Tongue Lyre” is a book full of large poems—sweeping lines and full pages, yes, but these poems contain worlds, the beginnings of myths (and sometimes the endings), a hundred years of building, pink-skied love affairs, and, as the title suggests, music. It’s not only embraced by the language on each page and in the bodies of the violins being built and played, but it’s also in those myths—continually mined out of the earth and lingering throughout each of these poems like a haunting, unforgotten refrain.
As the book begins, music and the voice can be taken by force and exist outside of the realms of the body’s control: In the myth of Philomela, “[The King] had taken her tongue. Its stump throbs in her mouth/ while the tongue itself murmurs somewhere.” But there is always that tension between the dissolution of the body into something transient like music and the way music can keep the body grounded.
The narrator gravitates always towards her violin in its black case; she returns to the orchestra, to the violin shop, to Stravinsky’s Fire Bird where the fire that holds the power to destroy her is turned to smoke when she opens her mouth. The narrator in this book is faced with everything that is elusive: the sea, the myths that precede her, the “people [that] show others how no one is still there…And how the more a thing is proved, the more it burns. O it burns.” Despite the lack of stability and fear that can come from a world that seems out of the body’s control, these poems are filled with resilience. The speaker acknowledges that “Accepting your own body is knowing anyone at any time can stand behind you,/ wrap hands below your jaw,/ the weight at your throat/…/What will you do, What will you do?/ Whip around, break his hold against both your forearms?/ Or, freeze, accept your naked body,/ and separate some ancient self from this?” There will always be these questions. But like Philomena, who “stays awake/unwinding shadows from an image, preparing its threads for a textile: half-sketch, half-song,” so the narrator finds herself “already the pigment” of her own myth, already the voice unearthed.