Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sleeping with the Dictionary, by Harryette Mullen.


On an unrelated note (because that is always the best way to start a paper), it occurs to me that part of the superficiality (negatively intended) of Pessoa comes from the fact that in fragmenting himself into heteronyms, he also fragmented his own complexity and nuance. If each personality had been organic, not in the sense of a prescribed psychology but in the sense of evolving and expanding visions of the universe, then his work might have felt more propulsive and relevant. This occurs to me because I think that Anne Carson is a very close approximation to what I believe Pessoa attempts with Caeiro. That is, there is a common unity to experience that is almost beyond explication to both Caeiro and Carson, but only Carson really engages it in a way that is beautiful, challenging, and rich in paradox.

This occurs to me because in the interview with Carson she describes a tendency, which you confirmed, to awe and terrify her audience. I’ve never witnessed this sort of reaction to a poet, but it seems precisely the effect that Caeiro had on de Campos and Reis.

* * * * *

I won’t describe Mullen as the deepest or darkest of the poet’s we’ve engaged in this class, but she is probably the most delightful. Also, I don’t mean to suggest that she is neither deep nor dark, because I think that it must be tempting to read her word and sound games as frivolous. They are playful, but I also think she is at least as deep and dark as Brock-Broido and Hejinian. Perhaps a little bit less so than Anne Carson.

I intend depth as being the ability to chase a thought or concept in terms of its roots, finding consistently interesting and challenging material that hints a progress but never satisfactorily resolves. Darkness is the gravity and seriousness of subject matter itself.

The playfulness is easy to spot. It begins with the alphabetical table of contents which, from the long list of places in which these poems were originally published, is completely straightforward: there is no structure or shape to this collection other than the choice of the poems themselves and any coincidental alignment we might discover (or fabricate) on our own. The order, though at fifty-seven entries a bit slim for a dictionary, is conspicuous and at the very least suggests the seating arrangement in a high school classroom. This exercise1 is vamped in a number of the poems that are more plays on slang and onomatopoeia than coherent narratives: “Blah-blah” and “JingleJangle.” Others, while they don’t use alphabetization, rely on other conventions that Mullen makes extremely obvious: “Zen Acorn,” “O, ‘Tis William,” “Any Lit,” and “Elliptical.” Two poems seemed more (“Dim Lady”) or less (“Variation on a Theme Park”) obviously based upon Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. One poem, “She Swam On from Sea to Shine” struck me forcefully as a some sort of synthesis between O’Hara’s Second Avenue and “1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” by Jimi Hendrix. The point here is that these structural choices are more difficult to avoid than they are to discover. Mullen does not want her readers to spend their time trying to decide what game she’s playing. The games are as up front as they are frequent, spatially explicit on the page, and audible when read aloud. This is what I mean by playfulness. Reading this collection felt more like play than work.

The temptation, of course, is to think that playfulness comes at the expense of complexity, and this is where the more difficult case can be made that her writing is both deep and dark; murky even. The best case for this, in my opinion, is exposed as play through the artifice of the writing. For example, JingleJangle is so broadly written, in terms of sound and rhythm and lack of meaning, that it’s truly reminiscent of a game that children would play on a long car ride. I cannot see how this would be accidental: “ab flab abracadabra Achy Breaky Action Jackson airy-fairy / airfare.” In a poem, then, that emphasizes play, that one could even fairly argue infantilizes the language, there are dense clusters of double-entendre: “backpack backtrack Bahama Mama balls to the wall bam-a-lam / bandstand // Battle in Seattle beat the meat bedspread bee’s knees / behani ghani best dressed.” As a reader, then, I think of a children’s game that includes meanings and contexts I might consider inappropriate. This is magnified by the meaninglessness of the poem; since there is no narrative arc or even conventionally structured lyricism, the impression of a children’s game may be the only causal tool I am allowed to use. Beyond the alphabet, of course.
The examples here are a little slim for the case I’m making, but the wordplay comes up in many poems. Sometimes the play delves into coprophilia, as in “JingleJangle”: “play as it lays pocket rocket poet don’t know it pogo / pooper scooper pot shot pope-soap-on-a-rope” and “bird turd black don’t crack blackjack blame game boho boiling oil.” Sometimes, racial slurs are incorporated, never literally, but in a way that cannot possibly be missed when read aloud, as in “Denigration”: “Though slaves, who were wealth, survived on niggardly provisions,” “do you chalk it up to my negligible powers of discrimination,” “Does my niggling concern with trivial matters negate my ability to negotiate in good faith?” and “will I turn any blacker if I renege on this deal?”

Again, I don’t think that the device itself is ever intended to be subtle. There are subtleties, ambiguities, and most of all, multivalence in the ways the devices, once recognized, can be interpreted.

Another point: there is a great range of clarity between poems that are narratively indecipherable (“Kirstenography” and “Blah-Blah”) and those that are so clear as to almost be prose allegories (“Xenophobic Nightmare in a Foreign Language”). Some seem to exist in between (“Mantra for a Classless Society, or Mr. Roget’s Neighborhood”). Again, these poems are drawn from prior collections, and the alphabetical arrangements suggest that the reader imposes any construed meaning that results from ordering. But still. The tension between symbolism and the eradication of symbolism to the point of syntactic nonsense are other candidates for extrapolation and mystery.

This is all very playful, but it’s also deep and dark and very occlusive.

I love the beginning of “Variation on a Theme Park”:
“My Mickey Mouse ears are nothing like sonar.”

1 A point I want to make that doesn’t fit into the paper very well semantically: People tend to use the word “exercise” pejoratively in the sense of being an untested experiment that relies upon a deliberately chosen method of composition. They use this word as if the fact that it is an exercise automatically results in an inferior story or poem. I don’t think it’s relevant whether a composition is an exercise or not, as long as it accomplishes what the author sets out to do. In Mullen’s case, I think almost all of these poems are exercises, but that is not a liability for the reasons I discuss here.



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