Harryette Mullen's Abecedarian Dreams
If there were a poetic equivalent to the "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" category on Downbeat's annual Jazz Poll, Harryette Mullen would be found there. While her first works were more obviously, albeit loosely, autobiographical, and inspired by the Black Arts movement, her later collections (Trimmings, Muse and Drudge, and SPermKT) show the influence of Gertrude Stein, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and word association games. The older pieces—recently collected in Blues Baby: Early Poems (Bucknell University Press, 2002)—do little to prepare the reader for the fractured slogans and linguistic experimentation evident in the later, richer books.
Sleeping with the Dictionary continues Mullen's serious wordplay. Using language games like S+7 (replacing words from familiar texts with words found seven entries away from them in the dictionary), "Tom Swifties," and "The Dozens," the poems, prose poems, and vignettes in Mullen's Dictionary shake up and reimagine the language. She rings changes on legalese, safety instructions, and fables. Shakespeare's sonnet 130 gets translated for tastes both colloquial ("My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon") and corporate ("My Mickey Mouse, when Walt waddles, trips on garbanzos"). She realigns phrases from popular culture and advertising, transforming the familiar so that language can regain its freshness, making the overly familiar strange and illuminating. Her concerns about the place of women in society and race have not disappeared—"This system needs your moral fiber like a bowl of X brand flakes," she writes in "Resistance is Fertile"—only now they are conveyed by what seem, at first, to be more indirect methods.
Many of the poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary also have an erotic edge. Mullen, who once defined poetry as "Words playing with each other," declares in the title poem:
Retiring to the canopy of the bedroom, turning on the beside light, taking the big dictionary to bed, clutching the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers, smoothing the thin sheets, thick with accented syllables—all are exercises in the conscious regimen of dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages. To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet's nocturnal mission. Aroused by myriad possibilities, we try out the most perverse positions in the practice of our nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body of the work.
Not all of the entries in this Dictionary work as effectively. At times the words and phrases Mullen strings together, while humorous, go on too long after their initial point is made ("Baa baa, Baba, Bambam, Bebe, Berber, Bibi, blah-blah, Bobo, bonbon, // booboo, Bora Bora, Boutros Boutros, bye-bye" indeed!) or their meaning is too hermetic to be easily deciphered. Overall, however, Sleeping with the Dictionary contains more than enough light, heat, and sheer pleasure to bring Harryette Mullen the attention she so richly deserves.