Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Harryette Mullen is a dexterous wordsmith who enjoys toying with the mutability of the English language and its sounds, syllables, and sense. Like James Joyce (1882-1941), an Irish novelist who transformed the English language through experimental wordplay in Finnegans Wake (1939), Mullen, in Sleeping with the Dictionary, both creates new words out of a malleable alphabet and suggests new understandings for standard words. Because Mullen imbues language with ever-expanding connotative possibilities, her poems simultaneously create and destabilize meaning.

“Kirstenography” (the title itself is suggestive of both biography and iconography) exemplifies Mullen’s proclivity for constructing layered meanings through the use of clever homonyms, nonstandard syllable breaks, and inventive spellings. Of Kirsten’s birth, the narrator notes, “When her smoother and farther wrought her chrome from the hose spittle, her cistern fought the piddle ably was a girly heeded bawl.” Each word Mullen places in this passage evokes others. “Piddle” connotes “little,” “pity,” “puddle,” and “piss.” The newborn is able to “piddle”; she is also pitiable.

Mullen’s most experimental poem in the collection is “Jinglejangle,” a celebration of the flexibility and musicality of language. Words are sound patterns mutating into other sound patterns in a series of stanzas devoted to each letter of the alphabet. Visibly and aurally, the transformations occur through fast-paced wordplay as exemplified in this excerpt from the “N” stanza:

namby-pamby name game nature nurture near beer nice price  night lightnig-nog niminy piminy nitty-gritty nit wit  no finance, no romance

The poet engages in linguistic improvisation throughout the poem. Within the word lists of each stanza, vowel sounds progress from A to E to I to O to U, adding another layer of subtly shifting sounds. Remnants of children’s handclap games, street raps, advertising slogans, nursery rhymes, and nonsense words are inserted into the poem, making “Jinglejangle” a veritable collection and collaboration of sounds.