Poets, I guarantee you, never spring fully formed into their craft. We are all deeply in debt to the writers, thinkers, artists who lend us shape, structure, language; who make our own work possible by broadening our idea of what poetry, and art, is capable of. In this space, I’ll be exploring texts from writers that I consider foundational or important to my own practice. No matter what craft or path we are in pursuit of, I believe one of the strongest acts of community is to talk openly about who you’ve been influenced by, who has helped to carve out the territory that your practice now inhabits. This space will be my attempt to do just that.
The poets that I return to, that I seek out in moments of creative struggle, are the poets who generously lend the tremendous gifts of their craft and spirit in each line of their meticulous work. These poets have the ability to turn every image into a craft lesson, every turn or formal conceit into a worthy template. Of all these poets that I treasure and require in my life, I’m not sure if any has a greater presence than Harryette Mullen. When I came to Mullen years ago, I would have told you that I disliked prose poems on a spiritual level, that cleverness is the antithesis of what poetry aims to accomplish, and experimental poetry is masturbatory pabulum—the rapidity with which Mullen disabused me of those notions in her collection Sleeping with the Dictionary could probably have solved a few energy crises if a windmill or two had been nearby. Her experiments possess such a gravitational pull of heart and emotion that I could not deny their effectiveness; there is such purpose in her probing and prodding of language, in her rattling of the very bones of English, that I had to attend to each poem, each formal innovation and move, as a framework in and of itself, worthy of deep consideration. Mullen isn’t merely experimenting for the sake of experimentation. Strip away the neat tricks and inventive devices, and there’s a fleshy, beating heart in the chest of these poems. Experimentation and playfulness are the means, they’re the chassis, but they are not what’s actually moving the reader through Mullen’s words. Sleeping demonstrates Mullen’s mastery over the marriage of experiment and spirit, which elevates her efforts into the rarefied strata of the poems that are both work and play.
Mullen’s tone throughout the collection could be described as an earnest deadpan. It’s never garish, never kitschy—it’s funny and poignant and sincere without trying too hard. Mullen walks the line between inventiveness and emotive power without misstep. I don’t necessarily return to every poem, and I’m not perhaps blown away by every concept, but I respect each poem’s place in Mullen’s abecedarian construction because they all have weight and conviction, they are all doing a specific kind of labor. Her deft movements within and between the poems help balance the demands that the experimentation places on the reader and the inherent restrictiveness that comes from adhering to the A-through-Z predictability of an abecedarian collection. But, through sound, inventiveness, and emotional honesty, Mullen ensures that her reader encounters a lovingly created work. Mullen also demonstrates the ability to make language new, to turn clichés inside out, to take hackneyed phrases and subtly subvert them via kinetic techniques. This ability to contort language keeps the reader alert, reading closely, and hunting for the next meaty inversion or distortion, anxious to see what comes next. In “Kirstenography,” Mullen takes her ability to twist language to an even more ridiculous level:
for K. M.
K was burn at the bend of the ear in the mouth of Remember. She was the fecund chill burn in her famish. She came into the word with a putty smoother, a handsewn farther, and a yodeler cistern. They were all to gather in a rosy horse on a piety sweet in Alligator Panorama.
When her smoother and farther wrought her chrome from the hose spittle, her cistern fought the piddle ably was a girly heeded bawl. A bawl that dank silk, booed, burgled, rabbled, fried, and tweed in wipers. This was not a bawl that swept in the joy blocks with her rather joys. This was a giving bawl that wasn’t a joy like a fluffed fan mail. Oh no! This was her grand blue piddle cistern that cold knot talc for a song time, but lonely fried and braid rather voices that the yodeler one cold knot rubberband.
It shook a few ears until they cold talc to gather, tall yolks, shear sacreds, heave a conversion or a dish cushion. That was laughter they kissed their handsewn farther who wind sway to Cheap Cargo, Ill Annoy. Mum and gulls made their mauve to Foreword Text. As swoon as they cold they boasted fetters in the snail to him and he relied as mulch as he cold.
Their inelegant smoother was a reacher who muddied lard, learned debris, and wept them upon the prosper pat. Reaching them fright from strong was her per rental doodly. They threw up and wind soft to mercy rule and hinder guardian, then on to sedimentary, fecund dairy, and slide rule. They were wood in all those paces, and waded to knowledge at Cutie Ostentatious.
The smoother and her dodders all learned debris to gather. Evidentially, two quirked as proofs in the loony varsity. K was quirking for the slate of Taxes Hysterical Remission. Laughter a schmaltz fart with a wanky lurk, K fond her Sanity. A proof of reckoned comics. K quirked to learn her nastier debris and later she rave burps and becalmed herself a smoother.
Now she does her writhing ghostly a tome. Quirks at the muse, um, that’s in Chapped Apple Milling Sea. Enduring, she has her Sanity and they becalmed the prod parentheses of Adenoid and Williwaw. They all loved shapely over laughter.
Mullen is at her best in Sleeping in her narrative prose poems, when her devices can sneak up on the reader from their hiding spots in the thickets of her paragraphs. In “Kirstenography,” though, the mondegreens are standing on their own; they function like a layer of distortion over a photograph, and the brain has to work double-time to process the words as they are on the page and the words that lie beneath the sound shift. Also, because it’s a sound shift, the reader is essentially forced to read the poem aloud (a good thing) or risk losing their mind trying to decode the underlying narrative strictly by sight. Mullen’s decision to not constantly search for new mondegreens for the same words/phrases is an important one, as it allows the malapropisms to form their own meta-narrative—one that functions well in its own absurd way—by becoming metaphors for the words they’re “standing in” for. “Smoother” as mother becomes a rich word; associations of the mother as one who makes rough situations navigable. “Handsewn” as handsome adds the connotation of careful/focused creation resulting in beauty. “They all loved shapely over laughter” defibrillates the de facto ending to a fairy tale with some lovely specificity, and so on. Mullen could have used an automatic technique to produce the mondegreens randomly (perhaps she did, but I doubt it), but the heart in this poem gained through Mullen’s intuitive decisions would have been lost. It would still function as an experiment—and an engaging one—but there would be no weight to the imagery or to the associations. There are interesting patterns in randomness, but little love. The way Mullen sets the language in motion, the experimentation is certainly there, but it’s in service of the poem and not vice versa. So much of my issue with experimental poetry is rooted in the experimentation being lauded the more it subordinates the power and interest of the poem. Mullen has little desire to do that, it seems. She appears to be interested in the story experimentation tells us about the thing that is being experimented on.
Despite all the devices, though, the most instructive parts of Sleeping, for me, are the long narrative poems, namely “The Gene for Music,” “She Swam On from Sea to Shine,” and “Transients.” They feel like the lynchpins of the collection, holding the wild, varying explorations together. I enjoy the anagrams in “The Lunar Lutheran,” the interplay between sociology and etymology in “Denigration,” the flip of Goldilocks into a riff of our hyper-litigious/rigid culture in “European Folk Tale Variant,” the dark but hopeful interpretation in “Eurydice.” The inventiveness and wordplay mixed with a bit of story is dazzling—it would take an entire book for me to cover it all properly—but I find the counterbalance of story mixed with a bit of inventiveness a necessary inversion to preserve the weight of the collection. The long narrative poems do not feel like departures, but rather extensions of a very well-developed milieu. “Transient” begins:
Vines through the roof of the tool shed. Water leaked in. Where would I sleep. Three square meals: brunch, brown bag, potluck. Hold my hand while we talk. Trees like transplants from Mars. Nooky in the bandstand. Sticky sunshine. Sections of orange. A cut and another. Some snail trail. Trickle of salt. Wets and cries. A hand, sometimes a fist. Lolling toward rhythm. A buzz that kept me awake nights. Burning triangles. Every sound coming through the wall. Dream of elephant. Dream of braiding hair. Who wears those shoes with cutouts? In my next lifetime learn to play guitar. She can bend her tongue both ways but can’t whistle.
Brought cactus to a housewarming. We sat on a mat with cups of jasmine tea. They slept on a thin straw petate and ate off stolen plates. Cheap, plentiful rolls of foam. No one I knew owned box springs or a sofa. Futons help the spine like yoga. Cleopatra’s barge. Massage with oil to music of flutes. It penetrates. The door left open. Someone peeked into the dark. She checked out her blind dates from the want ads at a bar called Crow’s Nest. Kind of a scene, I guess. Big picture window with a view of the bay. Hearing them giggle and moan. Those barking dogs were sea lions on the rocks offshore. I’d never wear that swimsuit. I couldn’t get to sleep at all. My mind kept circling. They all have different fathers. Some had green eyes. Genetic lottery or slot machine. Lab rat seeks reward. Advice for my face. Once I turned it on it wouldn’t turn off. This man I didn’t know was stroking my foot without saying a word. He felt free to stare at strangers on a bus. Frijoles borachos. Mestizaje. Hasta la pasta. U.S. flag in neon on the ceiling of a Chinese restaurant in Texas. Good jukebox. Dollars pinned to her dress. Ready to light the sparklers. The handsome candidate dropped out of the race. Euphoria resulted in a moving violation.
Mullen’s long narratives are carried by her heavy use of parataxis, which creates a rolling rhythm that builds a sense of movement. Content mirrors form in these poems as the narrative often jumps and leaps through associative wormholes, but because of the manner in which she’s telling the story, the reader rarely feels lost and/or disappointed by the conclusion. Parataxis allows Mullen to narrate in a non-linear fashion, bound more by sound and the need to impart a sense of movement than by narrative detail. As someone who came to Mullen struggling to find a way into narrative poetry, it’s an approach that I’ve found extremely effective. In many ways, these poems function in the same way a picture mosaic does: the careful arrangement of smaller thoughts and moments to depict a larger thought and a larger moment. It’s amazingly organic; sections of our lives (especially ones spread out over time, as described in “Transients”) are built on tiny experiences and moments that combine into a greater whole. By reducing her large experiences back into the small, generative happenings that created them she’s taking the reader along the formative process, which can be infinitely more interesting than a summational/distanced account. If I had to choose one thing I took (and continue to take) away from Sleeping, it would be Mullen’s strategy of putting narrative in motion to see what’s behind/in front of/surrounding it. It’s easy for us to get stuck in/overwhelmed by the sum of an experience, but Mullen’s ability to retrieve the nascent, formative moments from her experience is revelatory, and offers us all a way to get at giant, looming experiences that can seem inaccessible.
Quenton Baker is a poet, educator, and Cave Canem fellow. His current focus is anti-blackness and the afterlife of slavery. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He is a former Jack Straw Fellow and a former Made at Hugo House fellow, as well as the recipient of the 2016 James W. Ray Venture Project Award and the 2018 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust. He is the author of This Glittering Republic (Willow Books, 2016).