Sleeping with the Dictionary

mullen.jpgHarryette Mullen
University of California Press ($14.95)

by Christopher Fischbach

The centerpiece poem of Harryette Mullen's latest collection is "Jinglejangle," ten pages of the most fun I have read in, well, possibly ever:

Ab flab abracadabra Achy Breaky Action Jackson airy-fairy airfare
Asian contagion analysis paralysis Anna banana ants in your pants
Annie's cranny Annie Fanny A-okay ape drape argle-bargle
artsy-fartsy awesome blossom

backpack backtrack Bahama Mama balls to the wall bam-a-lam bandstand
Battle in Seattle beat the meat bedspread bee's knees behani ghani best dressed
best in the West BestRest Best Western Betsy Wetsy Better Cheddar Big Dig bigwig
bird turd black don't crack blackjack blame game boho boiling oil
Bone Phone Bonton Bony Maroni boob tube boogie-woogie boohoo book nook
boon coon Bot's dots Boozy Suzy bowl of soul bow-wow boy toy brace face
brain drain bric-a-brac bug jug bump on the rump Busty Rusty

Forgive me for quoting at such length, but it's necessary to quote entire stanzas, the above being the A and B stanzas, followed by C, D, E, and so on, all the way to "zero to hero zigzag zip your lip Zoo Doo zoot suit Zulu."

I can't determine what Mullen's exact compositional method was, but suffice it to say that she collected the pieces of this poem from wherever, using a certain rhythmical constraint, and then arranged these pieces not only alphabetically, but more or less within each stanza according to the standard vowel arrangement of A,E,I,O,U (and sometimes Y). I'm not exactly sure I'd call these constraints in the Oulipian sense of the word; they are more like loose guidelines for arrangement.

But does mere arrangement a poem make? Master word-arranger Kenneth Goldsmith might argue yes, having made a literary career out of collecting and arranging. Take for example his No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96, in which phrases which end in sounds related to the sound "r" are organized alphabetically by syllable count. But the pleasures of reading Goldsmith are created almost entirely by random combinations; the "poetry" of the text is largely incidental. While Mullen's method shares many characteristics with Goldsmith's, a crucial difference is her further rhythmical arrangement of the collected pieces into poetic-musical phrases.

Many of the other poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary employ similar collection and arrangement techniques. Others use the Oulipian "n + 7" technique or are the result of a heavily employed thesaurus on an already existing text. Prose poems coexist with list poems, restricted form with out-of-control funk.

To even the most-accepting reader of experimental or expansive poetries, such poems can seem like mere exercises in the face of dominant poetry ideologies that value inspiration, virtuosity, a semblance of narrative, or a coherent sense of the poetic self. We like to imagine a poet sweating over draft upon draft of muse-given verse. Can one overcome the desire to shortchange these poems as mere exercises and reconcile them with some kind of valuable artistic project?

I think so. One way to do this lies in placing these poems in the same realm as contemporary improvisational dance or music. It is easy enough to imagine and appreciate a dance or musical performance in which a performer acts/reacts not in accordance to a set score or choreography, but rather in reaction to the space and materials surrounding her, as well as to other performers on the stage. In such a case the artist could be said to be in collaboration with her environment.

Why not then imagine Harryette Mullen as an artist working in collaboration with her chosen environment? Why not imagine the poet's desk as a stage where she dances in reaction to and in collaboration with her dictionary?

This might seem obvious, since all writers work with an inherited palette of words. The difference is that for many of the poems in this book, Mullen takes the denotation of the words completely out of the picture, stripping them almost entirely of their meanings. What's left is the almost pure artistic gesture of rhythmical arrangement, an arrangement so strong that the words beg to be read aloud, to be sung, and to be danced along with. And somehow behind all this play lurk serious themes, perhaps best summed up by the poem title "Resistance is Fertile." This especially makes Sleeping with the Dictionary no mere book of exercises, but a singular achievement.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002