- Series: New California Poetry (Book 4)
- Paperback: 85 pages
- Publisher: University of California Press (February 22, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0520231430
- ISBN-13: 978-0520231436
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 3.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #238,790 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Sleeping with the Dictionary (New California Poetry)
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From Publishers Weekly
It's been over six years since Mullen published her last book, Muse & Drudge, a series of terse, wacky quatrains which barnstormed through plangent blues to "rhime rich" rap, from Language poetry-style minimalism to "the doubles" of the playground dis. Mullen's fifth book is no less unconventional, and more diverse prose poems, exhaustive alphabetical language-salads like "Jinglejangle" ("Mingus Among Us mishmash Missy-Pissy mock croc Mod Squad mojo moldy oldie"), surrealistic odes to her erotic other, Oulipian word-replacement poems, short stories that recall the quasi-fantastic realism of John Yau and strange rewrites of classics, such as this riff on Shakespeare's famous sonnet: "My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon. Today's special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin." Some poems expose, mischievously, the basic foibles of human sexual relations. Others, like "Present Tense" and "We Are Not Responsible," hone political realities through histrionic absurdity: "Now that the history of civilization has been encrypted on a grain of rice, it's taken the starch out of the stuffed shorts." All of the work here is full of such energy, invention and pleasure that the dictionary surely awoke refreshed. (Feb.) Forecast: Mullen's Freeing the Soul: Race, Subjectivity and Difference in Slave Narratives was published in 1999 by Cambridge University Press, and she is currently teaching creative writing and African American literature at UCLA. Poems from her long unavailable 1981 debut, Tall Tree Women, along with other early works, are due to be reissued by Bucknell University Press in April. Her three small press books from the '90s (Trimmings, S*Perm*K*T and Muse & Drudge) remain in print and oft assigned, but this volume's visibility and accessibility should make it a breakthrough. Look for some prize nominations, and a possible "new & selected" next time around.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"Harryette Mullen's latest set of artful mishearings and mis-writings gives you the queasy sense that you haven't been paying enough attention. . . . Submit to its 'Blah-Blah' and you'll be bothered and delighted by what you find there."--The "Boston Review
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An appreciation of Mullen's collection will come easier to those who have been to California, studied Spanish, been in love, and lived with a group of language poets. She writes about her life cryptically. She revives words from the depths of the dictionary, putting them in front of us like sad and forgotten children or shameful secrets. These words - they still mean something. These words could change things.
Mullen doesn't seem to be a fiction writer or a poet to me. Or maybe she's both. I enjoyed reading the book. I had to take it slow and absorb each page (in fact, I'm still reading it). The fact that the book bears the National Book Award seal on the cover doesn't surprise me at all. This is an excellent book!
Mullen ain't Frost, nor is she James Tate nor Gertrude Stein. She's Mullen, and there's plenty to her work besides "surface" euphony. If you can't see the seriousness in her play, give her another chance; there's plenty of there there.
I have found there to be a weird dichotomy in the world of poetry: in my experience, the better a person is at reading in front of a crowd, the worse their books are bound to be. I have seen some people give awful performances in front of a mike from some of the best-written books of poetry in my collection. (To be fair, my experience with poets who have both published and read is limited, and there are certainly exceptions to the rule; T. H. Cornell's Magnetosphere comes immediately to mind, as does Stan Heleva's "Palm Sunday.") I saw Harryette Mullen read on a show called Lunch Poems on one of the university-sponsored channels no one ever watches on Dish Network, and I found the experience to be such that I immediately put this book on hold at the library, figuring it would be one of poetry's enduring classics.
Parts of it, in fact, are just that. Mullen has a way with sound that comes through on the printed page, rather like Timothy Donnelly. As with Donnelly's recent release, Mullen's book is the kind of thing that should be studied, with great care, by the legions of wannabe "slam" and performance poets who get up there and try to pass off what they do as poetry week after week. Contrary to what you, the reader, will likely experience if you drop in unannounced at a poetry slam, poetry and sound do, in fact, mix, and sometimes they do it exceptionally well. The best pieces in Sleeping with the Dictionary are sterling examples of this.
The book's main problem is that sometimes the sound is all that's there. While it's a far better curse with which to be afflicted to sound good and be meaningless than to be full of meaning and sound like a gravel pit (in the world of poetry, anyway), sonic-minded poets of the twentieth century have always realized that for this sort of thing shorter is better. When Mullen gets her sonic mind into five- to ten-page pieces, it's hard not to look at the tricks used in the creation of these poems and see them as just that: tricks. It is impossible to argue that they're not deftly manipulated, and that if this were cabinetwork you'd be looking at the creations of a master craftsman, but lord knows a lot of master craftsmen have done some hideously rococo scrollwork over the years.
If you pick this up (and you should, especially if you aspire to read your poetry aloud before an audience of strangers), start by concentrating on the shorter pieces here, and absorb the way Mullen makes the sounds bounce and click off one another like billiard balls. That's what poetry's supposed to sound like. Which makes me wonder why it just didn't work in a spoken forum.