The last book of poetry I loved? I like returning to my shelves and revisiting lost loves. The search feels like the googling an ex-lover from my past that I have lost track of. I like the perverse pleasure in seeing anew what the lost love has been up to while I was away. In this way, my return to the poems of Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping With the Dictionary resembles the slightly creepy but sure surprise of seeking out a lost love.
Everything about Mullen’s agency and mine register on the census as polar opposites. Yet, in the world of poetics, Harryette Mullen, to me, feels like a kindred spirit. I do hope she has the wisdom to disavow as much. Invention is the Energizer bunny of Mullen’s Sleeping With the Dictionary. She employs nonsense and language games as easily she employs logic and rhyme.
Even the title draws me closer—as Debora Greger, my professor from the University of Florida, can attest, when I started sleeping with my mammoth Webster’s 2nd edition, my poetry changed dramatically. I used to, literally, sleep with my dictionary.
The mind at play in Sleeping With the Dictionary takes the reader through a wild amusement park of stoppages and re-starts. Mullen guides the reader on a Grand Tour of fun house antics. The gaiety of the mind, of the poesis, flitters and yet never reads as slight. Humor is employed, yes. Trickery and riddle take center stage quite often. Yes. Still, at the heart of this book beats a heart of darkness that never loses sight of its literary objectives nor its political aesthetics.
We are clued in right from the get go. Consider the quote from Breton that precedes the book, which perfectly illustrates the book: “Dark words more radiant than onyx.” Mullen’s poems are naughty rule-breaking things, messy and eclectic by design. Structured to amuse and impress. Black at the core, perhaps, but deeper and more lustrous than the blackness of the onyx itself.
She has not one but two acrostics in the same book. Not only that but both of them are alphabet poems. Here, in a line from from “Blah-Blah,” “Dada, Dee Dee, Didi, dindin, dodo, doodoo, dumdum, Duran Duran,” convention won’t do. And here in a line from “Jinglejangle,” “ta-da Tears for Fears tea tree teeny peeny teeny-weeny teepee teeter-totter telltale Temporary Contemporary tent event Texas Exes Tex-mex thigh high think pink thinktank thin’s in, but fat’s where it’s at,” the poem chirps disobedience.
Mullen has bred a slumgullion of speakers. The dominant voice sounds like the result of a genetics experiment that could have gone gone horribly wrong turning out horribly right: as if Lewis Carroll met Mallarme and had sex with Emily Dickinson producing a child that later marries Richard Ellison and produces triplets. From rant to stutter, from prayer to whisper, the speakers of these poems delight me. In “Kama Sutra” and “Dream Cycle” we get the whisper. In the title poem, we get the rant. In “Coo/Slur” we get the stutter. In “Any Lit,” we get a kind of prayer.
The book, flush with prose poems and litanies, never mistakes itself for something orthodox, precious, or fey. There are few to no poems here that run down the lefthand margin and have 8-12 syllables and pretend to metrically vary in a way that counts as “free verse” in the contemporary scene. In fact such a stereotypical structure seems programmatically avoided.
No one writes poems like Mullen. And if Mullen’s poems teach us anything about the larger context of making poems, the lesson might be that no one should write poems like her. In fact no one should write poems like anyone else, not even themselves. For Mullen, every poem seems an adventure unto itself.
This opens me to broader considerations. What happens when we are subject to our history, subject to our learned conventions, subject to the dismissals we have been educated to disregard? When we choose to agree to dismiss our formal or experimental lineage—what blind spot are we privileging over the latest veil? What ignorance are we accepting on account of a style of rejection we learn without proper examination?
I recall Mullen’s craft talk at the Napa Valley Writers’ conference half a decade ago. Mullen’s talk was not about craft at all—not because she averts talk about formal aesthetics, but more because craft as subject interests her less than the expansion of the world of poetry.
Mullen wanted to discuss “writing about poetry.” She suggested poets, the community and academia, possess a stigma about writing about poetry. Specifically, she suggested that the book review of a poetry collection might be the most contraband of forms. Contraband because poets make and accept excuses for not taking the time to rigorously explain their interest in works they read.
Contraband because academic institutions perceive published reviews as non-academic, even slight, forms of publication that lower the status of the writer of the review. Contraband, I think, because we secretly savor the myth that great critics make terrible poets. Contraband because, I’ll add, we narcissistically want to be the object of affection, not the the affectionate. Contraband because poets are afraid their opinions will offend or be considered insipid or be wrong—no one wants to be that guy who dismissed Mark Strand entirely, but aggrandized some forgettable pretentious sonneteer in the 1967 Southern Review.
Talking with Mullen is an exercise in observation and derivation. I remember sitting in on a Mary Jo Bang reading, atop some vineyard’s chateau in the foothills of Napa Valley. I initiated a conversation with Harryette about the scenic sunset. I think I was trying to be clever and commented that the landscape looked like a painted backdrop on a movie set. She paid no mind and pointed out the small sign in the flower garden. “Do not walk here,” she said. I laughed, and stuttered some sort of reply. She pointed out another sign, by a waist high settee with flowers, and said “…and Do not Touch.” She was amused.
I get the same experience from reading Mullen’s work. I get the feeling that the writer is amused. And despite the fact that I am often baffled, I find that I too am amused and laugh along. I find myself giggling along at the irony or the ambiguity or the sadness or the injustice. I’m set up to think through my tacit if not implicit support of the world around me exactly as it is: full of its predefined forms and structures and “dos and don’ts.” I’m forced to notice, to face, and even to smirk at my own insouciance.
I’ll also add that I took her call to action seriously. I saw the truth of what she pointed out about poets not writing about poetry. The evidence is in. We are a closed society. If poets who write and read poetry don’t write about poetry, who else will? Why should we expect anyone to care about what we do as poets if we don’t care enough to write about poetry ourselves?
So, a book that I read—or should I say re-read—most recently that spiked my interest? That called me to action? That drew forth from me that perverse desire to browse the googled pictures of a lost love? Mullen’s Sleeping With the Dictionary. The zeitgeist tends to insist on a short shelf-life for a new book of poems—any book of poems—yet some collections, like Mullen’s, persist for me.
The poems game-change. The poems delight me today as much or more than they did a decade ago. The book feels as fresh, and as derivative, as when it was published years ago. I suspect this will still be the case years from now. The memories my re-read broke loose remind me, “It’s good to get a rice cooker if you cook a lot of rice.” (Harryette Mullen, “Free Radicals” from Sleeping With the Dictionary.)