(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Sleeping with the Dictionary is Harryette Mullen’s fifth collection of poetry. The collection was nominated for both the 2002 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The University of California Press published Sleeping with the Dictionary as part of its New California Poetry series. The series is edited by the poets Robert Hass, Calvin Bedient, and Brenda Hillman.

Mullen was born in Florence, Alabama, in 1953. When she was very young, the family moved to Fort Worth, Texas. The family were the first African Americans in the neighborhood into which they moved. Growing up African American in a blatantly racist 1950’s America, Mullen felt strongly that she needed to incorporate her life experiences as an African American female in all of her creative endeavors. In 1981 her first poetry collection, Tree Tall Woman, was published by Energy Earth Communications of Galveston, Texas. It was evident in this first collection that Mullen was strongly influenced by the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s. Her second collection, Trimmings, would not be published until 1991. By this time, Mullen had earned her Ph.D. in literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz. With Trimmings, she began to blend so-called mainstream speech with black vernacular in order to join together “different lexicons.”

In addition to being influenced by such African American poets as Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) and Nathaniel Mackey (b. 1947), Mullen also was taken with the writings of Gertrude Stein (1874- 1946). The experimental use of wordplay that is so prominent in Stein’s work was added to Mullen’s evolving poetic vision. She came to realize that writing as a black feminist did not preclude her from taking pleasure in sprinkling her poems with clever poetic banter. Mullen has stated how profoundly she was moved by Stein’s ability to weave “complexity of meaning . . . in the utter simplicity of her syntax.” For her third collection, S*PeRM**K*T(1992), Mullen took on consumerism and America’s patriarchal society. She has explained that the title can be looked at as the word “supermarket” with letters missing, or it could be read as “spermkit.” In this collection, advertising is looked upon as nothing more than a method of trapping consumers, especially female consumers, into identifying with the products that they purchase. For Mullen, poetry can challenge not only the reader but also the poet. Until she has placed the words on the page in a particular order, Mullen has not fully formed how she sees the world or her place in it. She has spoken of writing as being a way of “keeping in touch with the inner landscape.” The roles that women play in society became the inspiration for Mullen’s fourth book of poetry, Muse and Drudge (1995). Women have been muses for European white male poets as well as the persons required to keep the houses clean. Once again, Mullen is able to tackle powerful issues without sacrificing the innovative quality of her verse. In addition to her creative work, Mullen has also published a work of literary criticism, Freeing the Soul: Race, Subjectivity, and Difference in Slave Narratives (1999).

Sleeping with the Dictionary is Mullen’s fifth collection and without a doubt it is her most energetic and inventive to date. For all the variety and playfulness that was evident in her previous collections, the poet shatters what came before and ventures into uncharted regions with a dictionary close at hand. Mullen takes sustenance from The American Heritage Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. It not uncommon for writers to drink from these sources on numerous occasions, but Mullen has placed new demands on these tried-and- true literary companions.Sleeping with the Dictionary explores the very bedrock of what language can do. Language can clarify, but it also can muddy the waters. Mullen is surely up to the task of playing “serious” linguistic games. She always has looked at poetry as her way of working out issues that are playing pinball in her mind. The...

(The entire section is 1689 words.)

The Poems

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The titles of the fifty-seven poems in Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary begin with letters from A to Z, and the poems are arranged alphabetically in the volume. The poems also incorporate various genres of writing, including some categories not typically associated with poetry. Mullen acknowledges her literary predecessors—including William Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm, whose sonnets and fairy tales she comically and insightfully updates—as well as her contemporaries, the performance artists, rappers, and jazz musicians with whom her verses seemingly riff. She also assimilates portions of government regulatory communications, product solicitations, and instruction manuals into her poetry. In its varied scope, Mullen’s volume exceeds the dictionary of its title: It is exquisitely encyclopedic.

Though the poems in the collection can be read in any order, the title poem is a useful point of departure, as it offers clues to reading the others. “Sleeping with the Dictionary” derives from an incident in Mullen’s life. Awakened from sleep by a sharp object, the poet turned to find her American Heritage Dictionary lodged under the covers. Mullen’s ode to her dictionary is equal parts love poem and lover’s complaint. The speaker in the poem links the enticements of words to the desires of the body; she notes that “to go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet’s nocturnal mission.” The brain processes words, while the body experiences a restless slumber, and the speaker acknowledges that sleeping with the dictionary might induce nightmares as well as dreams.

The final line of the poem offers a potential map through the linguistic labyrinth that is Sleeping with the Dictionary: “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.” In the act of composition, Mullen deciphers words from a source that ostensibly performed that service for her. Unlike the denotative and static definitions the dictionary provides, Mullen’s acts of decoding—accomplished through rearrangement, repetition, and replacement of the familiar—render the meanings of words less fixed and more fluid. Mullen’s poems revel in the limitless connotative possibilities of language.

Two of Mullen’s prose poems parody Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which begins “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)