Harryette Mullen Essay - Critical Essays


Harryette Mullen’s Recyclopedia is a collection of her first three major books of “experimental” poetry, originally published by small independent presses. Because her first two books of experimental poetry, Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, were rewritings of, respectively, the “Objects” and “Food” sections from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1914), Mullen presented herself initially as an appropriation artist, a hip-hop sampler of Stein’s stylized prose units. As with Stein’s work, the paragraph was the central organizing unit of Mullen’s prose poems. The prevalent themes throughout both books are sexual play and the sexual “work” that some female humans perform in order to become, and remain, women. At the same time, race and geography, as well as the linguistic inflections and patterns of a southern black woman, gird the poems in the structure, sound, and rhythm of phrases and sentences that are peppered with puns and neologisms.


The tension between play and work can be found in any number of lines from the untitled prose poems that constitute Trimmings, especially since the boundary between work and play is patrolled by overt and covert threats of violence—“Green thief, off relief, got into her pocket book by hook or crook,” “One saw a woman cut in half, waving incredible feet,” “Semi-automatic ruffle on a semi-formal gown,” “Gold chains, choker, ring her neck”—and the fear of being ostracized—“Hannah’s bandana flagging her down in the kitchen with Dinah, with Jemima.” Mullen uses southern and urban black dialect to show that no matter how hard or often women may try to hide themselves (“Shades, cool dark lasses. Ghost of a smile”), they are sometimes “Flushed out of hiding, pink in the flesh.” At this point, then, drawn into public view, for public display, they pay homage to self-control, as in “Thin-skinned Godiva with a wig on horseback, body cast in a sit calm,” or “Brimming over eye shades cool complexion, delicate hue, the lid on, keeps a cool head under high hat.” Throughout the book, Mullen demonstrates the way women, locked into roles in both the domestic realm and the public sphere, nevertheless find ways to express and be themselves.


In S*PeRM**K*T, Mullen continues to shuttle back and forth between the private realm, in which women serve men and society as “sperm-kits,” and the public sphere, in which the supermarket serves as another “woman’s place,” yoking together body, bedroom, and kitchen. The grocery store is simply one more site of social control (“Lines assemble gutter and margin”) and division (“six-pack widows all express themselves while women wait in family ways, all bulging baskets, squirming young”). Still, the supermarket, though another node in the network of general control over women, is not monolithic: Those things that cannot be excluded, “the discounted irregulars,” complicate the regimen of order because they are “Devoid of colored labels.” Mullen’s point throughout, of course, is that language is not merely “analogous” to modes of social and cultural power, but that language enacts and enables power at every point or moment on a scale that might, for the sake of convenience, simply be called ideology. For example, the distinction between...

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