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Sleeping with the Dictionary. (Reviews).

Harryette Mullen. Sleeping with the Dictionary. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002. 85 pp. $14.95.

Harryette Mullen currently enjoys a deserved reputation as a writer who is developing into a major figure in contemporary American poetry. When she first appeared in print, many readers saw Mullen as one of the brightest poetic voices to emerge since the Black Arts Movement era. Tree Tall Woman (1981) gave us finely crafted works that clearly pushed colloquial expression into eloquence. A decade later, after earning a Ph.D. at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Mullen began publishing a series of audaciously unusual poems. Trimmings (1991), S*PeRM**K*T (1992), and Muse & Drudge (1995) offered prose poems and prosodic experiments that revealed Mullen's careful and skeptical study of Gertrude Stein, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other Modernist poets. Mullen's work employed innovative linguistic methods to discuss vexing issues of race and representation, hierarchy (both social and aesthetic) and gender.

Muse & Drudge, a book-length work written in fluent quatrains, is a complex poem full of wordplay and overlapping allusions to literature and popular culture. In addition to affinities with the Language Poets, Mullen's multi-level allusions resemble the practice of Bebop soloists and operate at the velocity of MTV videos. She has also noted Melvin B. Tolson as one of her influences, and attentive readers will recall that Tolson's daunting erudition was both intensified and lightened by a sly, downhome sense of humor. So also does humor frame Mullen's perceptive poetic commentary on patriarchy, feminism, racism, and America's wasteful affluence.

Mullen's newest work, Sleeping with the Dictionary, thoroughly delights and constantly surprises. Consisting primarily of short prose poems, this collection highlights Mullen's finely tuned sense of humor and sharp social criticism. Mullen's targets are drawn from every imaginable source--from ancient history to modern marketing. "Kamasutra Sutra," for example, is a funny and effective feminist statement, while "Dim Lady" and "Variation on a Theme Park" turn the tables on Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets. "Exploring the Dark Content," one of her strophic poems, recalls the incisive critique of racial stereotyping that informed the prose poems in Trimmings. Most of the works in Sleeping with the Dictionary, however, are inventive and complex parodies that will leave readers laughing out loud. Some of them will leave you shaking your head. And, like classing Blues songs, several of Mullen's concoctions elicit both responses.

"We Are Not Responsible" is a good example of Mullen at her best. This prose poem exploits the language employed by bureaucracies and corporations to issue disclaimers and self-serving (i.e., liability-limiting) safety instructions. The piece reads in part:

In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying on. Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments. If you cannot understand English you will be moved out of the way. In the event of a loss, you'd better look out for yourself.

What is chilling is that Mullen's masterfully deformed locutions sound more like clarifying paraphrases than like parodies.

Similarly, "Bilingual Instructions" exposes California's myopic and bigoted voter initiatives that dismantle bilingual education programs but "say Yes / to bilingual instructions on curbside waste receptacles" the better to serve security-gated suburbanites and their immigrant lawn maintenance crews. Mullen's poem presents the stark juxtaposition without comment, for none is needed. Indeed, one of the premises of poetry such as this is the idea that the poet's job is to show, not tell. The poet directs our attention to what she knows is important and trusts that we are intelligent enough to understand what we see. Or hear.

The desire to disable corporate jargon and political doublespeak is a mission that Mullen shares with the Language Poets, but that is not the only area of expression that focuses her interest. Some pieces here--such as "Any Lit" and "She Swam On from Sea to Shine"--build upon courtship "fancy talk," folktale formulas, and other elements of African diasporic oral traditions. In such works, Mullen continues along a path pioneered by James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones (1927), the lyrics and narrative poems of Langston Hughes and Sterling A. Brown, and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). All of these works are attempts to do in words what Alain Locke, in The New Negro (1925), hoped to see happen with black folk music: to appreciate the intrinsic value of vernacular forms and deploy them in a manner that could create a new classical (or, at least, literary) vocabulary.

Mullen is not, however, intent upon resuscitating antiquated black vernacular traditions. She is also quite willing to examine the rhetorical possibilities of very recent "spoken word" approaches (which, of course, do have antecedents). "Bleeding Hearts" might be recommended to those who want to upgrade their freestyle "open mic" skills. "Crenshaw is a juicy melon," she begins; and then proceeds to reel off a head-spinning string of anagrammatic threats and boasts such as "I'd rend your cares with my shears. If I can't scare cash from the ashen crew, this monkey wrench has scratch to back my business." Mullen swaggeringly exits with "I'm making bird seed to stick in a hen's craw. Where I live's a wren shack. Pull back. Show wreck. Black fade."

Oral traditions, of course, are not limited to postmodern conventions, eighteenth- or nineteenth-century devices, or the African formulas behind them. Some of Mullen's pieces reflect the universal forms of riddles and punning found at the origins of all literatures. She also utilizes arbitrary mechanisms promoted by the French avant-garde Oulipo school and enriches her repertoire with deliberate malaprops and spoonerisms. It is a fact, though, that some of Mullen's work here may seem incomprehensible to readers who are unaware of the Oulipian games she sometimes plays.

Founded in 1960 by the Surrealist-influenced writer Raymond Queneau and mathematician Francois Le Lionnais, the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (or Workshop for Potential Literature) devised experiments that, paradoxically, seek to liberate expression by imposing limitations. As Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie point out in The Oulipo Compendium (1998), the Oulipo theorists sought to develop techniques for writing poetry that would be even more constraining than the "highly restrictive methods" embodied in traditional forms such as the sestina. If poetry, as we all know, is not ordinary speech but language that celebrates artifice, then Oulipo is known for almost whimsically elaborate levels of artifice. Robert Frost's favorite quip was that writing free verse is like "playing tennis with the net down." If that's so, then Oulipo practitioners would make the game more interesting by demanding that Serena, Venus, and their challengers play while wearing boxing gloves and galoshes. Artifice and constraint can, of course, also be based on the subtraction of necessary elements. Georges Perec, for example, became an Oulipo hero when he wrote the novel La Disparition (1969) without using the letter e.

Harryette Mullen's adaptation of several Oulipo techniques results in a number of rather amazing texts. If you open the book at random and read any passage aloud, however, Sleeping with the Dictionary provides evidence that Mullen's art is still rooted in her delight with the sheer music of words cleverly arranged. "Kirstenography," for instance, appropriately blends Joycean permutations and baby talk to create surprising phrases that are fun to pronounce. And isn't that one of the age-old characteristics of good poetry in any language--that it is a form of speech that is simply pleasurable to hear and to say (indeed, to repeat)?

Mullen's new poems are not always texts that inspire hilarity. "The Gene for Music" is a three-page prose narrative that elliptically, but movingly. Describes--as a sort of semiotic duel--a couple's perceptions as their relationship unravels. Opening with an allusion to Eden, the text shows how each of the lovers avoids accepting the obvious conclusion from the signs all around them. Other works are cleverly disorienting. "Jinglejangle" seems to be a delightfully edgy alphabetic romp that deftly juggles euphemisms, nonsense rhymes, and dangerous phrases; for example:

Cachi-bachi caffe latte cake bake candy's dandy Care Bear cash for trash Cat in the Hat

Chalk talk Chatty Cathy cheers & jeers cheaper to keep her cheat sheet Chester the molester and so on through the rest of the alphabet. For the reader who can make the connections--and that will be a reader familiar with Starbucks, Dr. Seuss, Ogden Nash and Hustler magazine as well as the wise marriage counselor Johnnie Taylor and the acidic Algonquian aphorisms of Dorothy Parker--it will be clear that Mullen is demonstrating that language, like any other strong medicine, can have toxic as well as beneficial effects. Similarly, "Black Nikes" recycles phrases from Walt Whitman, everyday conversational cliches, and promotional brochures to create an effective jeremiad. There is more to "Black Nikes" than mere wordplay. What Mullen is concerned about is not this season's lopsided ecological policies but a political teleology that imagines this planet to be as disposable as the products of global corporations.

If books of poetry can be important, Sleeping with the Dictionary is an important book. Timely in its concerns, brilliantly idiosyncratic yet stylistically ground-breaking, this is a triumphant performance by Harryette Mullen. Not incidentally, Sleeping with the Dictionary is also a resounding challenge to those who still foolishly think--now in the twenty-first century--that the English that English-speaking African people create is not our language.
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Author:Thomas, Lorenzo
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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