Sleeping with the Dictionary

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Harryette Mullen's fifth poetry collection, Sleeping with the Dictionary, is the abecedarian offspring of her collaboration with two of the poet's most seductive writing partners, Roget's Thesaurus and The American Heritage Dictionary.
In her ménage à trois with these faithful companions, the poet is aware that while Roget seems obsessed with categories and hierarchies, the American Heritage, whatever its faults, was compiled with the assistance of a democratic usage panel that included black poets Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, as well as feminist author and editor Gloria Steinem. With its arbitrary yet determinant alphabetical arrangement, its gleeful pursuit of the ludic pleasure of word games (acrostic, anagram, homophone, parody, pun), as well as its reflections on the politics of language and dialect, Mullen's work is serious play. A number of the poems are inspired or influenced by a technique of the international literary avant-garde group Oulipo, a dictionary game called S+7 or N+7. This method of textual transformation—which is used to compose nonsensical travesties reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"—also creates a kind of automatic poetic discourse.

Mullen's parodies reconceive the African American's relation to the English language and Anglophone writing, through textual reproduction, recombining the genetic structure of texts from the Shakespearean sonnet and the fairy tale to airline safety instructions and unsolicited mail. The poet admits to being "licked all over by the English tongue," and the title of this book may remind readers that an intimate partner who also gives language lessons is called, euphemistically, a "pillow dictionary."

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Editorial Reviews

Village Voice
Mullen's infectious linguistic torques can entrance readers.
LA Times Book Review
[An] exuberant book. Sleeping with the Dictionary may be lexicon lust, but it's no one-night stand.
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Mullen acts as a sort of Gertrude Stein rap artist, bending street language, word games and alphabetical arrangement to the arbitrary dictates of Roget's Thesaurus and The American Heritage Dictionary, all mixed with a healthy dose of gleeful textural transformation and automatic writing.
Boston Review
Harryette Mullen's latest set of artful mishearings and mis-writings gives you the queasy sense that you haven't been paying enough attention. . . . Submit to its 'Blah-Blah' and you'll be bothered and delighted by what you find there.
Publishers Weekly
It's been over six years since Mullen published her last book, Muse & Drudge, a series of terse, wacky quatrains which barnstormed through plangent blues to "rhime rich" rap, from Language poetry-style minimalism to "the doubles" of the playground dis. Mullen's fifth book is no less unconventional, and more diverse prose poems, exhaustive alphabetical language-salads like "Jinglejangle" ("Mingus Among Us mishmash Missy-Pissy mock croc Mod Squad mojo moldy oldie"), surrealistic odes to her erotic other, Oulipian word-replacement poems, short stories that recall the quasi-fantastic realism of John Yau and strange rewrites of classics, such as this riff on Shakespeare's famous sonnet: "My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon. Today's special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin." Some poems expose, mischievously, the basic foibles of human sexual relations. Others, like "Present Tense" and "We Are Not Responsible," hone political realities through histrionic absurdity: "Now that the history of civilization has been encrypted on a grain of rice, it's taken the starch out of the stuffed shorts." All of the work here is full of such energy, invention and pleasure that the dictionary surely awoke refreshed. (Feb.) Forecast: Mullen's Freeing the Soul: Race, Subjectivity and Difference in Slave Narratives was published in 1999 by Cambridge University Press, and she is currently teaching creative writing and African American literature at UCLA. Poems from her long unavailable 1981 debut, Tall Tree Women, along with other early works, are due to be reissued by Bucknell University Press in April. Her three small press books from the '90s (Trimmings, S*Perm*K*T and Muse & Drudge) remain in print and oft assigned, but this volume's visibility and accessibility should make it a breakthrough. Look for some prize nominations, and a possible "new & selected" next time around. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Yes, Mullen's work is an abecedarian delighting in wordplay-in the delicious taste of language as it rolls off the tongue. But what readers remember is her distinctive means, at once sassy and sorrowful, of capturing the African American experience. A finalist for the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Los Angeles Book Award. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520231436
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 2/22/2002
  • Series: New California Poetry Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 85
  • Sales rank: 800,591
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Harryette Mullen is Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Tree Tall Woman (1981), Trimmings (1991), S*PeRM**K*T (1992), and Muse & Drudge (1995).

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

All She Wrote

Forgive me, I'm no good at this. I can't write back. I never read your letter. I can't say I got your note. I haven't had the strength to open the envelope. The mail stacks up by the door. Your hand's illegible. Your postcards were defaced. "Wash your wet hair"? Any document you meant to send has yet to reach me. The untied parcel service never delivered. I regret to say I'm unable to reply to your unexpressed desires. I didn't get the book you sent. By the way, my computer was stolen. Now I'm unable to process words. I suffer from aphasia. I've just returned from Kenya and Korea. Didn't you get a card from me yet? What can I tell you? I forgot what I was going to say. I still can't find a pen that works and then I broke my pencil. You know how scarce paper is these days. I admit I haven't been recycling. I never have time to read the Times. I'm out of shopping bags to put the old news in. I didn't get to the market. I meant to clip the coupons. I haven't read the mail yet. I can't get out the door to work, so I called in sick. I went to bed with writer's cramp. If I couldn't get back to writing, I thought I'd catch up on my reading. Then Oprah came on with a fabulous author plugging her best-selling book.

The Anthropic Principle

The pope of cosmology addresses a convention. When he talks the whole atmosphere changes. He speaks through a computer. When he asks can you hear me, the whole audience says yes. It's a science locked up in a philosophical debate. There are a few different theories. There could be many different realities. You might sayours exists because we do. You could take a few pounds of matter, heat it to an ungodly temperature, or the universe was a freak accident. There may be a limit to our arrogance, but one day the laws of physics will read like a detailed instruction manual. A plane that took off from its hub in my hometown just crashed in the President's hometown. The news anchor says the pilot is among the dead. I was hoping for news of the President's foreign affair with a diplomat's wife. I felt a mystical connection to the number of confirmed dead whose names were not released. Like the time I was three handshakes from the President. Like when I thought I heard that humanitarians dropped a smart blond on the Chinese embassy. Like when the cable was severed and chairs fell from the sky because the pilot flew with rusty maps. What sane pilot would land in that severe rain with hard hail and gale-force wind. With no signal of distress. With no foghorns to warn the civilians, the pilot lost our moral compass in the bloody quagmire of collateral damage. One theory says it's just a freak accident locked up in a philosophical debate. It's like playing poker and all the cards are wild. Like the arcane analysis of a black box full of insinuations of error.

Any Lit

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
You are a euphony beyond my myocardiogram
You are a unicorn beyond my Minotaur
You are a eureka beyond my maitai
You are a Yuletide beyond my minesweeper
You are a euphemism beyond my myna bird
You are a unit beyond my mileage
You are a Yugoslavia beyond my mind's eye
You are a yoo-hoo beyond my minor key
You are a Euripides beyond my mime troupe
You are a Utah beyond my microcosm
You are a Uranus beyond my Miami
You are a youth beyond my mylar
You are a euphoria beyond my myalgia
You are a Ukrainian beyond my Maimonides
You are a Euclid beyond my miter box
You are a Univac beyond my minus sign
You are a Eurydice beyond my maestro
You are a eugenics beyond my Mayan
You are a U-boat beyond my mind control
You are a euthanasia beyond my miasma
You are a urethra beyond my Mysore
You are a Euterpe beyond my Mighty Sparrow
You are a ubiquity beyond my minority
You are a eunuch beyond my migraine
You are a Eurodollar beyond my miserliness
You are a urinal beyond my Midol
You are a uselessness beyond my myopia

Ask Aden

for A.D.

Are aardvarks anxious?
Do dragons dream?
Ever see an eager elephant?
Newts are never nervous, are they?

Excerpted from Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen. Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

All She Wrote 3
The Anthropic Principle 4
Any Lit 6
Ask Aden 8
Between 9
Bilingual Instructions 10
Black Nikes 11
Blah-Blah 12
Bleeding Hearts 14
Bolsa Algodon 15
Coals to Newcastle, Panama Hats from Ecuador 16
Coo/Slur 17
Daisy Pearl 18
Denigration 19
Dim Lady 20
Dream Cycle 21
Ectopia 22
Elliptical 23
European Folk Tale Variant 24
Eurydice 26
Exploring the Dark Content 27
Fancy Cortex 28
Free Radicals 29
The Gene for Music 30
Hitched to a Star 33
Jinglejangle 34
Junk Mail 44
Kamasutra Sutra 45
Kirstenography 46
The Lunar Lutheran 48
Mantra for a Classless Society, or Mr. Roget's Neighborhood 49
Music for Homemade Instruments 50
Naked Statues 51
Natural Anguish 52
Once Ever After 53
O, 'Tis William 54
Outside Art 56
Present Tense 57
Quality of Life 58
Resistance Is Fertile 60
She Swam On from Sea to Shine 61
Sleeping with the Dictionary 67
Souvenir from Anywhere 68
Suzuki Method 69
Swift Tommy 70
Ted Joans at the Cafe Bizarre 71
Transients 72
Variation on a Theme Park 75
Way Opposite 76
We Are Not Responsible 77
Why You and I 78
Wino Rhino 79
Wipe That Simile Off Your Aphasia 80
Xenophobic Nightmare in a Foreign Language 81
X-ray Vision 83
Zen Acorn 84
Zombie Hat 85
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