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Sleeping with the Dictionary

Harryette Mullen (Author)


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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."
All She Wrote
The Anthropic Principle
Any Lit
Ask Aden
Bilingual Instructions
Black Nikes
Bleeding Hearts
Bolsa Algodón
Coals to Newcastle, Panama Hats from Ecuador
Daisy Pearl
Dim Lady
Dream Cycle
European Folk Tale Variant
Exploring the Dark Content
Fancy Cortex
Free Radicals
The Gene for Music
Hitched to a Star
Junk Mail
Kamasutra Sutra
The Lunar Lutheran
Mantra for a Classless Society, or Mr. Roget’s Neighborhood
Music for Homemade Instruments
Naked Statues000
Natural Anguish
Once Ever After
O, ’Tis William
Outside Art
Present Tense
Quality of Life
Resistance Is Fertile
She Swam On from Sea to Shine
Sleeping with the Dictionary
Souvenir from Anywhere
Suzuki Method
Swift Tommy
Ted Joans at the Café Bizarre
Variation on a Theme Park
Way Opposite
We Are Not Responsible
Why You and I
Wino Rhino
Wipe That Simile Off Your Aphasia
Xenophobic Nightmare in a Foreign Language
X-ray Vision
Zen Acorn
Zombie Hat
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).
“Mullen goes all the way. She fools around shamelessly with meaning, indulges in language’s sensual pleasures, and entices her readers with the sounds and rhythms particular to American English.”—Georgia Review
"Sleeping with the Dictionary contains more than enough light, heat, and sheer pleasure to bring Harryette Mullen the attention she so richly deserves."—Reginald Harris Oyster Boy Review

Nomination for the L.A. Times Book Prize in poetry, L.A. Times

Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Critics Circle

Nomination for the National Book Award, National Book Foundation

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

Sleeping with the Dictionary

I beg to dicker with my silver-tongued companion, whose lips are ready to read my shining gloss. A versatile partner, conversant and well-versed in the verbal art, the dictionary is not averse to the solitary habits of the curiously wide-awake reader. In the dark night's insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative, awakening my tired imagination to the hypnagogic trance of language. Retiring to the canopy of the bedroom, turning on the bedside light, taking the big dictionary to bed, clutching the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers, smoothing the thin sheets, thick with accented syllablesñall are exercises in the conscious regimen of dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages. To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet's nocturnal mission. Aroused by myriad possibilities, we try out the most perverse positions in the practice of our nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body of the work. Any exit from the logic of language might be an entry in a symptomatic dictionary. The alphabetical order of this ample block of knowledge might render a dense lexicon of lucid hallucinations. Beside the bed, a pad lies open to record the meandering of migratory words. 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.

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