Disordering the Border: Harryette Mullen's Transaborder Poetics in Muse & Drudge

By Reimer, Jennifer Andrea | ARIEL, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Disordering the Border: Harryette Mullen's Transaborder Poetics in Muse & Drudge


Reimer, Jennifer Andrea, ARIEL


Abstract: This essay reads Harryette Mullen's epic poem Muse & Drudge as an innovative text of the US-Mexico borderlands by focusing on Mullen's literal and figurative transactions between multiple discourses, including Spanish, and the corresponding sets of material conditions these discourses conjure to understand how Muse & Drudge reveals the ongoing racialization and exploitation of African American women and Latinas. I identify a transaborder politics in Muse & Drudge in which shared colonial histories unite Afro-Caribbean diasporic and borderlands subjects. In Mullen's poetics, themes of separation, definition, and regulation are racialized concepts, deeply embedded in the violent histories of racial mixing and mestizaje that are both named outright and alluded to metaphorically by her hybridized language.

Keywords: Harryette Mullen, Muse and Drudge, African American poetry, experimental American poetry, US-Mexico borderlands, feminism

I.

Harryette Mullen's fourth book of poetry, Muse & Drudge (1995), is written as one long lyric poem "sung" in blues-inflected quatrains by a funky diva-muse. It takes us on a many-tongued journey through feminized spaces of black diaspora--that chronotope Paul Gilroy calls the "black Atlantic." (1) While other scholars, most notably Mitchum Huehls, have productively historicized Mullen's poem within the theoretical frame of Gilroy's important research on transnational black cultures, I hear the echo of Mullen's transnational muse in the tension between the seemingly diffuse condition of diaspora and more site-specific geographies such as the United States-Mexico borderlands. (2) The poem's range of cultural references--from West Africa to the Caribbean, from the US-Mexico border to your local urban supermarket--are united through the poem's point of view, the voice(s) of a contemporary black woman. The poem references a diverse array of Afro-Caribbean peoples and cultures, to "insist," as Evie Shockley argues, "that we see African American women's identity extending beyond the boundaries of the U.S." (103). (3) Yet the muse's voice also sings and signifies from boundaries closer to home: the imaginary transnational social spaces of "Greater Mexico," as theorized by proto-Chicano scholar Americo Paredes. (4) We encounter Greater Mexico in Mullen's use of Spanish and her references to border iconography, such as the factories known as maquilas. This essay asks what it means to read Muse & Drudge as a text of the transnational US-Mexico borderlands.

In their photo-essay on contemporary Tijuana, Here Is Tijuana!, Fiamma Montezemolo, Rene Peralta, and Heriberto Yepez claim that the US-Mexico border city is not just a city but also a "transa." According to the authors, transa means

   agreement, bribery, business, intention, reflection and project.
   Transa refers to the illegitimate and what happens on the verge;
   not only of illegality but also of any non-conventional initiative.
   It is derived from "transaction." A transaction within another
   transaction--this is how Tijuana functions, Tijuana muddles
   everything up--Tijuana transa. (4)

Transa is both local and global. While the term is rooted in the specificities of the city, its emphasis on transactions speaks to Tijuana--and the US-Mexico border in general--as a global space of transboundary flows (of people, goods, capital, and cultures). Drawing on the authors' appropriation of the Spanish slang word, I expand transa's field of reference from the mean streets of Tijuana to what Chicano/a scholarship on Paredes now refers to as his theory of "Greater Mexico"--an analytical category taken up in particular by Jose Limon, Jose David Saldivar and Ramon Saldivar, and others. "Greater Mexico" as metaphor for the US--Mexico borderlands reflects its diversity (of peoples, cultures, and traditions). (5) In its emphasis on transaction, negotiation, and exchange, transa opens the borderlands as a geographical and cultural site that makes visible the multiplicity of peoples, ideas, goods, cultures, and languages that transact between and across borders. …

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