Flirting with Poetry Analysis: Harryette Mullen

Posted 10/19/2010 by WHayes in Labels: , , , , , ,

As you read this, I am now two full years into my love affair with Harryette Mullen and her poetry. For someone who never fully “got” what poetry was all about, who is just now building a lexicon of terms to define the types of prose I come across -- in rhyme, slant rhyme, iambic pentameter -- it came as a shock to read an author whose work almost instantly expanded my mindscape, whose words were no longer clumps of alphabet soup, but virile, moving images. A poet’s pressures, lifestyle, and location drastically influence the product they create, and Mullen crafts works endowed with such divergent meaning that her every stanza reflects the massive network of influences and emotions that culminate from a lifetime of teaching and absorbing. In doing so, her poetry pulls your mind outside itself: a sensual, psychedelic journey.
In Mullen’s first book, Trimmings, she fashions a collection of “serial prose poems that use playful, punning, fragmented language to explore sexuality, femininity, and domesticity,” corresponding to the “Objects” section of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (Mullen, ix). In reading Tender Buttons as a reference point, I found that Mullen’s style -- sexual, entendre-laden stream-of-consciousness -- was indeed a direct reflection of Stein’s influence. While Trimmings poems go unnamed, their structure -- often short bursts of streaming thought -- allow for many of the one to five line pieces to be quoted in their entirety:

“Starving to muffler moans, boa scarfs her up. Feathers tickle
her nose. Kerchief, fichu. Gesundheit.” (Mullen 6)
When this collection was published in 1991, Mulled had just begun teaching at Cornell University in New York. I find it hard to understand just what this poem’s tone is, but the many ways the language could be dissected keep the mind occupied past the initial mood assessment. The muffler could be a scarf, connecting to the boa the unknown subject wears, or could refer to stifling her moans, which connects to “fichu” in the second line. Fichu is a French word, from the past participle of “ficher”: to stick in. Muffler: scarf, as moans: stick in. The feather boa calls to mind a provocatively dressed woman, while “boa” itself could refer to a snake, and, in turn, a (large) penis. “Scarfs her up,” suggests the garment wrapped around her, or the woman gobbled down via oral sex.
In all, Mullen’s work forces us to ask just what is poetic language? Does a simple sentence like the previous work qualify? How should the way the words are structured compare in importance to the actual words? Is it enough for a poet to choose language that sets the reader off their expectations, or does it need to be eclectic as well? Consider the final poem from Trimmings:

“Thinking thought to be a body wearing language as clothing or language a body of thought which is a soul or body the clothing of a soul, she is veiled in silence. A veiled, unavailable body makes an available space.” (Mullen 62)
Formatted with no particular structure save that dictated by the confines of the page, this poem is a great capstone for the poet’s first collection. The interplay between alliteration, repetition, and the varied interpretations of tense mood and bundled symbol goes off like a subconscious explosion. There is nothing extraordinary about her vocabulary here, but her form suggests a connection between the mental and the tangible, that the two are intertwined and inseparable.
S*PeRM**K*T, released one year after Trimmings, again responds to Stein’s Tender Buttons, albeit this time the “Food” section. Appropriately, the collection was fully realized through Mullen’s culinary memories with Cornell friend Gil Ott, who provided the photographs of his local supermarket. In her own words, S*PeRM**K*T materialized from an interest in “the stuff of life” combined with “the collision of contemporary poetry with the language of advertising and marketing, the clash of fine art aesthetics with mass consumption and globalization, and the interaction of literacy and identity.” (Mullen, x) As a result, many of the works read like this (also unnamed) poem:

“Plushy soft tissues off screen generic rolls as the world turns on re-vivid revivals rewinds reruns recycling itself. A box of blue movie equals smurf sex. Poor peewee couldn’t shake it. Wished he had a bigger one. Per inch of clear resolution’s color window, more thick squares snag a softer touch.” (Mullen, 78)
Mullen represents branding and pop culture via “Pee-wee Herman” (Paul Reubens) and his 1991 indecent exposure arrest and the daytime soap opera “As The World Turns.” This and further brand imagery gets swirled with technology references (clear resolution and color window could refer to a television), an aside of sexual anxiety (penis size being a major component of masculine identity), and the supermarket consumer conflict of generic versus name brand purchasing power. Mullen never attempts to provide a sort of answer or solution to the images she summons; that would be anathema to her style -- as poet, her words merely point you in the right direction. It becomes the reader’s job to interpret the prose accordingly.
By the time Muse & Drudge was published in 1995, Harryette Mullen had returned to California, and was teaching at UCLA. Her poems changing structure reflects the change in situation. In a pattern holding throughout the entire book, four tight, lyrical stanzas have replaced Mullen’s trademark sips of lucid thought. An imagined meeting of Sappho, the Greek poet, with Sapphire, “an iconic black woman who refuses to be silenced”, inspired the shift. (Mullen, xi) The overall effect is not as poignant as her first two collections, but she still provides her reader with intriguing imagery:

“I dream a world
and then what
my soul is resting
but my feet are tired” (Mullen, 101)
Through this first stanza of yet another unnamed poem, Mullen asks the reader (and, more importantly, herself) the most inspiring or damning question available to an artist: what next? What is the point of dreaming these perfectly false landscapes if all we create are shadows on a cave wall?
Continued next week in Part 2: Jayne Cortez

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