“The moment one learns English, complications set in.” Felipe Alfau (Chromos)
Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary (Univ. of California Press) is one of my favorite books to read, teach, and recommend to children, big and small. The book is genius. Where’s her MacArthur!?
Mullen mashes Stein’s huzzah! and Oulipo’s triggering restraints with the deep language of an African-American woman. Also, the poems are deadly funny.
That isn’t always apparent to first time readers. Some students mistake her verbal peregrinations for poststructuralist blague or academic obfuscating. One solution? We go to YouTube so they see her read. Once they put her words to a voice, a face in front of fully engaged, joyful audience, they get it. Mullen is singing for them.
Really it’s a book of forms and feints: abecedarians, prose poems, acrostics, N + 7s, fractured fairy tales and myths, anagrams, homophonic substitutions, automatic writing, sound poems, found poems, and so on.
There are even a few pieces written for children. “Ask Aden” is an acrostic for Mullen’s nephew:
Are aardvarks anxious?
Do dragons dream?
Ever see an eager elephant?
Newts are never nervous, are they?
In “Any Lit” Mullen extends an African-American courtship dialogue (you are a huckleberry beyond my persimmon) to wuthering heights:
You are a ukulele beyond my microphone
You are a Yukon beyond my Micronesia
You are a union beyond my meiosis
You are a unicycle beyond my migration
You are a universe beyond my mitochondria
You are a Eucharist beyond my Miles Davis
What a great wedding poem, huh?
But my choice is the book’s title poem:
I beg to dicker with my silver-tongued companion, whose lips are ready to read my shining gloss. A versatile partner, conversant and well-versed in the verbal art, the dictionary is not averse to the solitary habits of the curiously wide-awake reader. In the dark night’s insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative, awakening my tired imagination to the hypnagogic trance of language. Retiring to the canopy of the bedroom, turning on the bedside light, taking the big dictionary to bed, clutching the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers, smoothing the thin sheets, thick with accented syllables—all are exercises in the conscious regimen of dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages. To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet’s nocturnal mission. Aroused by myriad possibilities, we try out the most perverse positions in the practice of our nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body of the work. Any exit from the logic of language might be an entry in a symptomatic dictionary. The alphabetical order of this ample block of knowledge might render a dense lexicon of lucid hallucinations. Beside the bed, a pad lies open to record the meandering of migratory words. In the rapid eye movement of the poet’s night vision, this dictum can be decoded, like the secret acrostic of a lover’s name.
Is the perfect poem to send your word-drunk neonate to Dreamsville? Or would it keep them up all night? As Mullen wrote, “Resistance is fertile.”
The poem is also included in Mr. Lehman’s prose poem anthology, The Great American Prose Poems (Scribner).
I’ve always adored the cover illustration to Sleeping with the Dictionary by Enrique Chagoya—so…Chagoya.