Response/Analysis for Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary



In Sleeping with the Dictionary, Mullen becomes a libertine of language and explores it the same way she might explore a physical relationship with a lover. The language is her love: Mullen approaches it with both aggressive deliberation and spiteful abandon, and engages the reader in a blossoming of linguistic possibilities through unconventional, rich, and tantalizing word usage and play. Mullen's mastery of the word makes her playful, sensual, and sexual relationship with the English language almost seems real (as boldly reflected in the poem and also the title, Sleeping with the Dictionary; and more intimately in "Present Tense": "licked all over by the English Tongue"). Mullen succeeds at creating a collection of works that deliver a strong awareness of this dynamic relationship.
Mullen is well beyond her own poetry: language is sitting on her lap, and she writes with both authority and attitude. The reader gets a sense of Mullen's bite in several of the poems: for example, in "Kamasutra Sutra", Mullen writes a short, sharp stanza about a man boasting of having achieved enlightenment: but then follows it up with an equally short, sharp stanza about his female lover tiredly begging for another minute to achieve it, too. In "Wino Rhino", Mullen uses language that evokes images of nature, the wild, a safari, insects, animals you would think that these words would be used to describe a jungle, and not life of the street: the challenging existence of a homeless man who struggles to live in a world of where people choose to brashly ignore his suffering (and resorts to tippling). She uses sets of words in unconventional ways, and uses her critical attitude to charge them even more. The piece finishes sharply: "Why, when I charge you with my rags, I won't overturn your sporty jeep." Other poems, like "Bilingual Instructions", and "We Are Not Responsible", seem to be manifestations her same critical attitude towards some aspects of life, and of the American culture.
In "Once Ever After", Mullen uses words that evoke images of a medieval fairytale (princess, bed, mattress, hair, complexion, chessboard, royal, enchanted, knight, jousting). The way that Mullen weaves it together, though, leads us to understand a situation that is actually a tragedy, and not a fairytale. The language evokes a sense of duality between fairytale and tragedy ("Was she enchanted, or was she drugged?"), which leads us to realize that the border between the two is not definite; the morbidity of the last line clues in the clueless: "It remains that she be buried alive, knowing that a kiss is smaller than a delayed hunger." In "Wino Rhino" and "Once Ever After", Mullen effectively explores a subject in a new way through describing it with a different set of words, much like she might she might experience a lover differently after you change things around a little bit: meanings are transformed, and things even everyday, commonplace things -- are illuminated in new ways. Mullen's collection of poetry is absolutely compelling in this way: Mullen's synthesis of very familiar ideas with radical wordplay provides simple cognitive pleasures, while her attitude, authority and awareness seal the deal, making this collection absolutely satisfying.
The token example of this is in the poem, "Sleeping with the Dictionary". By use of words and terms like lips, partner, stimulating, bedroom, groping in the dark, nocturnal mission, perverse positions, and lover's name, Mullen effectively transforms an interest in language and vocabulary into a preoccupation, or even obsession: something powerfully personal, sexually-charged, passionate, and very much alive. This is a strong example of an unconventional choice of vocabulary (a set of words that hint at intimacy and sexuality) used to describe something (interest in language and vocabulary) that would not be ordinarily described in those terms. The set of words she uses, and the actual subjects she is describing with those words, are brought together and synthesized to effectively create a unique awareness of both language and subject.
"Blah Blah" and "Jingle Jangle" are curiously carefree in their flow, form and content, reminding us of the lighthearted aspects of her relationship with language. (These are not free from mentions of contemporary culture, however: for example, "Jingle Jangle" contains many allusions to modern society: Duran-Duran, Etch-a-Sketch, Cat-in-the-Hat, Loony Toons). In "Zen Acorn", Mullen playfully jumbles the syllables "A frozen / indian acorn ; a frozen / Indiana corn ; afro zen / Indian corn" to create new words and new meanings. Zen, Afro, Indiana, Arizona, Canadian, Narco, Indian Corn, and Faze an African are some words and terms that arouse thought about society and culture. Just like in relationships, sometimes the meanings of things are not clear -- and sometimes there may not be any particular meaning at all. In "X-Ray Vision", readers are reminded not to become too consumed with finding meaning ("You don't need X-rays to see through me." / "A sturdy intuition could give you the strong impression that my logic is flimsy." / " You knew that my story was thin."). Mullen reminds readers that some things are meant to enjoy just as they are; not every poem demands time and commitment.
Mullen uses contemporary objects and subjects as her titles and in her poems (for example, "Junk Mail", "Black Nikes", "Resistance is Fertile"), which suggest that even the most everyday things can be transformed through unconventional word usage. Furthermore, it is intriguing to think of what meaning these personal everyday subjects and objects can take on when described in a new way. Mullen breathes new life into things through charging every poem with rich and tantalizing vocabulary, leading the reader to discover new possibilities, and she succeeds in evoking the feeling of having a passionate, personal, biting, and almost human intimacy with the English Language throughout the collection.

Winter 2007