Sleeping with the Dictionary
Fun, in poetry, when it isn’t simply an attention-getting device, has been demoted to the position of Prelude to Sincerity: something to be brushed aside—under the rug, into the closet, quick before the company gets here—to allow warm feelings in. Often poetry’s playfulness serves to distract us from the fact that we’re being delivered yet another sadness routine, yet another ironic romp in the fertile fields of alienation. Or, in the case of some comedy vets, a nearly patented formula, the practiced patter of self-parody. Harryette Mullen’s latest, Sleeping with the Dictionary, however, revisits the traditional role of comedy: to flay our nature to the bone.
All the recent talk about play in language seems academic or anemic when set beside Harryette Mullen’s latest work: scrappy imploring incantations that put the crack back in the quip. The book opens with “All She Wrote,” a dazzling feint at writer’s block: “Forgive me, I’m no good at this. I can’t write back.” Yet write back she does; the poems in this book take clear positions—they speak to readers with rare intimacy and a tactical variety of agendas. The title poem, an ars poetica, takes “the big dictionary to bed,” and its language dreams an erotics of wordplay, where words conjugate conjugally. It professes that “To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet’s nocturnal mission.” Mullen both notes and embodies process just as language is both her subject and medium. This claim has been made for so many books , so many times, that it reads like lip service. Let me assure you, Mullen manages this self-reflexivity with such persuasive force, it feels like she’s invented the idea herself. Her task is “to record the meandering of migratory words,” and so to allow the Mother tongue to remain in process, viscerally working its frisky slips and absurd mondegreens. Mullen shows us what’s coiled inside our language—she makes our assumptions spring and strike at us; what’s more, she shows us language’s flexibilities and generous capacities. Voice in this work is a figure of hybridity, born from a mongrel American culture to perform transmission between social/cultural/political divides.
Take this spectacle as you will—sassy back-talk or angry belting out or perverse music or droll intertextual litany or ludic unfixings of language—and you won’t be wrong. While Mullen cannot be contained, she is always in control. Short sentences and clipped phrasing accrete into a “hypnogogic trance of language.” Generated by sonic transpositions, acrostic reorderings, and intricate phoneme play that break open new possibilities and permutations within our usual ways with language, Sleeping with the Dictionary grafts purpose to its compelling sounds. This is a lyric that refuses to be timeless—instead it actively subverts contemporary cliché and corporate language. By bringing lyricism into the age of late capital, this work attends to language’s cultural repercussions and reproductions. Mullen dresses down set notions of gender, class, and race in America with a razor-edged wit. “Will I turn any darker if I reneg on this deal?” asks the speaker of a poem that riffs on the controversy a few years back over the possible racist implications of the word “denigration.” The book is not merely a critique—it doesn’t set its goal as avoidance of the conservative and unconsidered; it doesn’t make the mistakes of the Democratic Party by gingerly ducking the responsibilities of active policy; it isn’t afraid to assert remedies. The project of reordering—letters, words, sentences—writes large the need for social rearrangement. Structural upheavals put aesthetic and social movements in stride together—moving us out of passive regard into our capacity to respond. One method Mullen often employs, turning authoritarian rhetoric against itself, liberates the absurdities of complaisant recognition:
If you cannot understand English, you will be moved out of the way. . . . It’s not our fault you were born wearing a gang color. It is not our obligation to inform you of your rights. Step aside, please while our officer inspects your bad attitude. You have no rights that we are bound to respect. Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible for what happens to you.
Paratactic arrangements of fragments reassemble our realities—histories and futures alike—as familiar styles, forms, and techniques get recycled: parodic blazon (“My honeyhunch’s peepers are nothing like neon . . . ) and scatting abecedarius sit side by side with Oulipian procedures. “Way Opposite” emulates Richard Wilbur’s children’s book Runaway Opposites, using semantic opposition and visual rhyme (the red hand of “Don’t Walk” traffic signals echoes the red hand on the signs of fortune tellers):
The opposite of walk?
A psychic with a crystal ball
and tarot deck
who sees green
when your palm is read.
At the sign of a red palm
I don’t walk,
Opposition here includes a resistance to traditional dialectics. Mullen disorganizes this pattern by imagining other ways of being opposite (walk/don’t walk, walk/run walk, walk/palm). Opposites cannot be read in terms of dualities, the world according to binary oppositions which privilege one side of the equation (rational or emotional, public or private, white or black, male or female) over the other. Mullen often turns English against its habits as she invents new patterns, euphemisms, anthems—new kinds of doublespeak and vernacularized idiom. Sleeping with the Dictionary creates an English unmade, an unEnglish made, one that participates in a racially inflected composite culture. The poems similarly unravel and recast narrative: “The way the story goes, a trespassing towheaded pre-teen barged into the rustic country cottage of a nuclear family of anthropomorphic bruins” or “. . . our story unwinds with the curious dynamics of an action flick without a white protagonist.”
Mullen uses lyric to rev up the mind; she uses a wise wit and a ‘fools-not-suffered-gladly’ persona to enliven our response to the world. Her exuberant, excessive, exhaustive turns of language allow the culture its complexities; they turn on—that is, betray—the contemporary passion for the homespun that tends to flatten the planet with its humdrum cry from the heart, which is really an excuse for dishonest oversimplification larded over with speciously democratic myth. Why merely use the heart to cry, asks Mullen. Her new book elaborates our relations (inside and outside) without being ornate or oracular. Behold a poetry that discovers 361 degrees of serious play.