Sleeping with the Dictionary

Sleeping with the Dictionary

Sleeping with the Dictionary

Sleeping with the Dictionary

Synopsis

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."

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).

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

Excerpt

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.

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