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Sleeping with the Dictionary

Sleeping with the Dictionary

Harryette Mullen
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 85
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt5vjztw
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  • Book Info
    Sleeping with the Dictionary
    Book Description:

    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 ThesaurusandThe American Heritage Dictionary.In her ménage à trois with these faithful companions, the poet is aware that whileRogetseems obsessed with categories and hierarchies, theAmerican 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 groupOulipo,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."

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92783-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-2)
  4. All She Wrote
    (pp. 3-3)

    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...

  5. The Anthropic Principle
    (pp. 4-5)

    The pope of cosmology addresses a convention. When he talks the whole atmosphere changes. He speaks through a computer. When he asks can you hear me, the whole audience says yes. It’s a science locked up in a philosophical debate. There are a few different theories. There could be many different realities. You might say ours exists because we do. You could take a few pounds of matter, heat it to an ungodly temperature, or the universe was a freak accident. There may be a limit to our arrogance, but one day the laws of physics will read like a...

  6. Any Lit
    (pp. 6-7)
  7. Ask Aden
    (pp. 8-8)
  8. Between
    (pp. 9-9)
  9. Bilingual Instructions
    (pp. 10-10)
  10. Black Nikes
    (pp. 11-11)

    We need quarters like King Tut needed a boat. A slave could row him to heaven from his crypt in Egypt full of loot. We’ve lived quietly among the stars, knowing money isn’t what matters. We only bring enough to tip the shuttle driver when we hitch a ride aboard a trailblazer of light. This comet could scour the planet. Make it sparkle like a fresh toilet swirling with blue. Or only come close enough to brush a few lost souls. Time is rotting as our bodies wait for now I lay me down to earth. Noiseless patient spiders paid...

  11. Blah-Blah
    (pp. 12-13)
  12. Bleeding Hearts
    (pp. 14-14)

    Crenshaw is a juicy melon. Don’t spit, and when you’re finished, wash your neck. Tonight we lead with bleeding hearts, sliced raw or scooped with a spoon. I’ll show my shank. I’d rend your cares with my shears. If I can’t scare cash from the ashen crew, this monkey wrench has scratch to back my business. This ramshackle stack of shotguns I’m holding in my scope. I’m beady-eyed as a bug. Slippery as a sardine. Salty as a kipper. You could rehash me for breakfast. Find my shrinking awe, or share your wink. I’ll get a rash wench. We’ll crash...

  13. Bolsa Algodón
    (pp. 15-15)
  14. Coals to Newcastle, Panama Hats from Ecuador
    (pp. 16-16)

    Watching television in Los Angeles. This scene performed in real time. In real life, a pretty picture walking and sitting still. It’s still life with fried spam, lite poundcake, nondairy creme. It’s death by chocolate. It’s corporate warfare as we know it. I’m stuck on the fourth step. There’s no statue or stature of limitations. I’ll be emotionally disturbed for as long as it takes. You can give a man a rock or you can teach him to rock. Access your higher power. Fax back the map of your spiritual path. Take twenty drops tincture of worry wort. Who’s paying...

  15. Coo/Slur
    (pp. 17-17)
  16. Daisy Pearl
    (pp. 18-18)

    More than a woman’s name. Her traditional shape. Rapidly spread and rubbed with a wedge. Straight drunk with a crooked lick. A brief suck on time. Diminutive. Promptly popular still on the border. As one version of stamina went. A great show of suffering in order to arouse. There were sweet ones. Frozen ones and fruity ones. Her little resemblance to the original. Shake her one key part. Control her ice. Shake her poor stem. Her rim rubbed. Slice juice and pour control out with dusty salt. Or to taste if desired....

  17. Denigration
    (pp. 19-19)

    Did we surprise our teachers who had niggling doubts about the picayune brains of small black children who reminded them of clean pickaninnies on a box of laundry soap? How muddy is the Mississippi compared to the third-longest river of the darkest continent? In the land of the Ibo, the Hausa, and the Yoruba, what is the price per barrel of nigrescence? Though slaves, who were wealth, survived on niggardly provisions, should inheritors of wealth fault the poor enigma for lacking a dictionary? Does the mayor demand a recount of every bullet or does city hall simply neglect the black...

  18. Dim Lady
    (pp. 20-20)

    My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen table-cloths in Shakey’s Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such picnic colors do I see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouth-washes there is more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my main squeeze wheezes. I love to hear her rap, yet I’m aware that Muzak has a hipper beat. I don’t know any Marilyn Monroes....

  19. Dream Cycle
    (pp. 21-21)
  20. Ectopia
    (pp. 22-22)

    A stout bomb wrapped with a bow. With wear, you tear. It’s true you sour or rust. Some of us were sure you’re in a rut. We bore your somber rub and storm. You were true, but you rust. On our tour out, we tore, we two. You were to trust in us, and we in you. Terribly, you tear. You tear us. You tell us you’re true. Are you sure? Most of you bow to the mob. Strut with worms, strew your woe. So store your tears, tout your worst. Be a brute, if you must. You tear us...

  21. Elliptical
    (pp. 23-23)

    They just can’t seem to … They should try harder to … They ought to be more … We all wish they weren’t so … They never … They always … Sometimes they … Once in a while they … However it is obvious that they … Their overall tendency has been … The consequences of which have been … They don’t appear to understand that … If only they would make an effort to … But we know how difficult it is for them to … Many of them remain unaware of … Some who should know better simply...

  22. European Folk Tale Variant
    (pp. 24-25)

    The way the story goes, a trespassing towheaded pre-teen barged into the rustic country cottage of a nuclear family of anthropomorphic bruins. Her motivation? Who can be sure? Some say the youthful offender was an innocent maiden who lost her sense of direction in the lush growth of the virgin pine forest. Or perhaps the elders of her tribe had neglected to attend to her proper socialization. In any case, this flaxen-haired vixen perpetrated a “B and E,” a felony punishable by law. The incorrigible pre-adolescent didn’t stop with trespassing, or even with breaking and entering. The finicky home invader...

  23. Eurydice
    (pp. 26-26)
  24. Exploring the Dark Content
    (pp. 27-27)
  25. Fancy Cortex
    (pp. 28-28)

    I’m using my plain brain to imagine her fancy cortex. As if my lowly mollusk could wear so exalted a mantle as her pontifex pallium. As if the knots and tangles of my twisted psyche could mesh with her intricate synaptic network of condensed neural convolutions. As if my simple chalk could fossilize the memory of her monumental reefs of caulifloral coral. As if my shallow unschooled shoals could reckon the calculus of her konk’s brainwave tsunami. As if the pedestrian software of my mundane explorer could map as rounded colonies theterra incognitaof her undiscovered hemispheres. As if...

  26. Free Radicals
    (pp. 29-29)

    She brought the radish for the horses, but not a bouquet for Mother’s Day. She brought the salad to order with an unleavened joke. Let us dive in and turn up green in search of our roots. She sang the union maid with a lefty longshoreman. They all sang rusty freedom songs, once so many tongues were loosened. She went to bed sober as always, without a drop of wine. She was invited to judge a spectacle. They were a prickly pair in a restaurant of two-way mirrors with rooms for interrogation. The waiter who brought a flaming dessert turned...

  27. The Gene for Music
    (pp. 30-32)

    He wants to know if I am happy here and have I eaten any apples yet. I tell him no, I like to let them fall off the trees and rot. They won’t turn red and the ones I like to eat are red, but these sweeten the air with their decay. They are eaten. They are never wasted. They have their use, when they fall, never far from proverbial tree. Yellow apples falling with brown leaves more slowly onto grass that’s greener than ever. Green in winter, tawny in summer. Don’t burn. Consume yourself more slowly.

    Right now the...

  28. Hitched to a Star
    (pp. 33-33)
  29. Jinglejangle
    (pp. 34-43)
  30. Junk Mail
    (pp. 44-44)

    Thus is just a nothing to thaw you from your warpath and genius during our assonance beguiled two-time yellow agony. Those conversions chapped my thistle in manzanita waylay. In particular, they held a deer and latex impaled on my thistle. Not a deadbeat goes by when I donate this of you. That’s why your silhouette remains, for me, sadistic and painterly. Won’t you writhe or crawl? Let’s mambo and be frisky. Your jiffy jock-strap....

  31. Kamasutra Sutra
    (pp. 45-45)
  32. Kirstenography
    (pp. 46-47)

    K was burn at the bend of the ear in the mouth of Remember. She was the fecund chill burn in her famish. She came into the word with a putty smoother, a handsewn farther, and a yodeler cistern. They were all to gather in a rosy horse on a piety sweet in Alligator Panorama.

    When her smoother and farther wrought her chrome from the hose spittle, her cistern fought the piddle ably was a girly heeded bawl. A bawl that dank silk, booed, burgled, rabbled, fried, and tweed in wipers. This was not a bawl that swept in the...

  33. The Lunar Lutheran
    (pp. 48-48)

    In chapels of opals and spice, O Pisces pal, your social pep makes you a friend to all Episcopals. Brush off lint, gentile, but it’s not intelligent to beshrew the faith of Hebrews. I heard this from a goy who taught yoga in the home of Goya. His Buddhist robe hid this budding D bust in this B movie dud. If Ryan bites a rep, a Presbyterian is best in prayer. Oh tears oxen trod! To catch oil, or a man born to the manor, you need a Catholic, Roman. On Mon. morn, Mom hums “Om” with no other man...

  34. Mantra for a Classless Society, or Mr. Roget’s Neighborhood
    (pp. 49-49)
  35. Music for Homemade Instruments
    (pp. 50-50)

    I dug you artless, I dug you out. Did you re-do? You dug me less, art. You dug, let’s do art. You dug me, less art. Did you redo? If I left art out, you dug. My artless dug-out. You dug, let art out. Did you re-do, dug-out canoe? Easy as a porkpie piperled cinch. Easy as a baby bounce. Hop on pot, tin pan man. Original abstract, did you re-do it? Betting on shy cargo, strutting dimpled low-cal strumpets employ a hipster to blow up the native Formica. Then divide efficiency on hairnets, flukes, faux saxons. You dug me...

  36. Naked Statues
    (pp. 51-51)

    Oscars for the war of noses. With a mummy out of Egypt, a prosthetic muppet. Opening shot: cliché of travel genre. In several scenes, a woman put together in black, white, or khaki. A woman with her back up like his map of mountain. Finally, she dies. Then, at last, he dies. So romantic are the patient English. This all went on when I was making up my syllabus. Telephone and radio told who the winners were. I didn’t need a crystal. Last time I watched was leopard chair and whoopie cushion. That’s when I saw the industry of light,...

  37. Natural Anguish
    (pp. 52-52)

    Every anguish is arbitrary but no one is neuter. Bulldozer can knock down dikes. Why a ragged bull don’t demolish the big house? The fired cook was deranged. On the way back when I saw red I thought ouch. Soon when I think colored someone bleeds. The agency tapping my telephone heard my pen drop. Now I’m walking out of pink ink. We give microphones to the voiceless to amplify their silence. The complete musician could play any portion of the legacy of the instrument. My ebony’s under the ocean. Please bring back my bone (sic) to me. Once was...

  38. Once Ever After
    (pp. 53-53)

    There was this princess who wet the bed through many mattresses, she was so attuned. She neither conversed with magical beasts nor watched her mother turn into a stairwell or a stoop. Her lips were. Her hair was. Her complexion was. Her beauty or her just appearance. What she wore. She was born on a chessboard, with parents and siblings, all royal. Was there a witch? Was she enchanted, or drugged? When did she decide to sleep? Dreaming a knight in armor, she thought it meant jousting. His kind attack with streamers. A frog would croak. A heart would cough...

  39. O, ʹTis William
    (pp. 54-55)
  40. Outside Art
    (pp. 56-56)
  41. Present Tense
    (pp. 57-57)

    Now that my ears are connected to a random answer machine, the wrong brain keeps talking through my hat. Now that I’ve been licked all over by the English tongue, my common law spout is suing for divorce. Now that the Vatican has confessed and the White House has issued an apology, I can forgive everything and forget nothing. Now the overdrawn credits roll as the bankrupt star drives a patchwork cab to the finished line, where a broke robot waves a mended tablecloth, which is the stale flag of a checkmate career. Now that the history of civilization has...

  42. Quality of Life
    (pp. 58-59)

    Does all dust turn grave in his nightmare of cloned sheep? Is Bo Peep losing sleep? Did the lamb march in? Eat the dandelions? Is lamb chop an unnatural act? Hello, Dolly, have you any wool? Serious, serious, thick hats full of kinks. So don’t forget to pack your Polartec. Last week we picked oranges, but the apple’s still chilling. She might not be the cruelest fool. Just a lame dame on a blip trip. Her brain on spring break. A trick vacation. A fake date. A fluke, or just a flake. Was there then but she was in the...

  43. Resistance Is Fertile
    (pp. 60-60)

    This system needs your moral fiber like a bowl of X brand flakes. If your kind cannot be assimilated to make spare parts for Borg wars, your resistance challenges the ant farm to adapt. You might think the system’s tone deaf, but our software’s immune. You are the virus that keeps it in tune. We are the tolerant host, which makes you the guest worker colony ofE. coli, the chitlins inside the chitlins. Catching hits off our perfect pitch, your contra fit’s a false note passed through the phony caca. We call you irresponsible, say you’re indigestible, and it’s...

  44. She Swam On from Sea to Shine
    (pp. 61-66)

    Hide and seek, where the tree decided to sleep was where she ran. She ran away with a ruckus. The baby girl was stolen by a tipsy woman came to take her. Where they found her in the mud. She’d stolen a doll. Her doll got sick, she died. The brown doll from her father. The pink doll came from somewhere else. She had drowsy eyes like marbles. The rabbit was painted on the furniture in the room with pom-pom curtains. The pig slept at her grandmother’s. The pig that ate money, not the country pig that ate molasses and...

  45. Sleeping with the Dictionary
    (pp. 67-67)

    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...

  46. Souvenir from Anywhere
    (pp. 68-68)

    People of color untie-dyed. Got nothing to lose but your CPT-shirts. You’re all just a box of crayons. The whole ball of wax would make a lovely decorator candle on a Day of the Dead Santeria Petro Vodou altar. Or how about these yin-yang earrings to balance your energy? This rainbow crystal necklace, so good for unblocking your chi and opening the chakras? Hey, you broke it, you bought it! No checks accepted. Unattended children will be sold as slaves....

  47. Suzuki Method
    (pp. 69-69)

    El Niño brought a typhoon of tom-toms from Tokyo, where a thrilling instrument makes an OK toy. Tiny violins are shrill. Their shrieks are musical mice. The color of a mechanical clock is lost in translation. Whatever you’re telling me sounds like the straight teeth of rodents. My dreams throw the book at the varmint. We both shudder as the dictionary thuds. You’ve got to admit, our Esperanto’s hopeless. Your virgin is unfaithful. My savory hero boards the ship of Marco Polo, loaded with soy from Ohio....

  48. Swift Tommy
    (pp. 70-70)

    “I grew up with a lot of punctuation myself, so I can understand your nostalgia for parentheses,” the dashing Sister Ka exclaimed to her dingbat friend across the periodic table. “Is a pink collar worker a redneck who came in from the sun?” a bloody European quizzed the ruddy Fulbright scholar during the in-depth Q and A following her profound lecture on the abysmal fried tradition of deep southern chickens. “This exhibit confronts spectators with several provocative photographs of found topiaries,” the moving finger of the aggressively ironic art critic scrawled on the electronic notepad. “Was it plastic or a...

  49. Ted Joans at the Café Bizarre
    (pp. 71-71)
  50. Transients
    (pp. 72-74)

    Vines through the roof of the tool shed. Water leaked in. Where would I sleep. Three square meals: brunch, brown bag, potluck. Hold my hand while we talk. Trees like transplants from Mars. Nooky in the bandstand. Sticky sunshine. Sections of orange. A cut and another. Some snail trail. Trickle of salt. Wets and cries. A hand, sometimes a fist. Lolling toward rhythm. A buzz that kept me awake nights. Burning triangles. Every sound coming through the wall. Dream of elephant. Dream of braiding hair. Who wears those shoes with cutouts? In my next lifetime learn to play guitar. She...

  51. Variation on a Theme Park
    (pp. 75-75)

    My Mickey Mouse ears are nothing like sonar. Colorado is far less rusty than Walt’s lyric riddles. If sorrow is wintergreen, well then Walt’s breakdancers are dunderheads. If hoecakes are Wonder Bras, blond Wonder Bras grow on Walt’s hornytoad. I have seen roadkill damaged, riddled and wintergreen, but no such roadkill see I in Walt’s checkbook. And in some purchases there is more deliberation than in the bargains that my Mickey Mouse redeems. I love to herd Walt’s sheep, yet well I know that muskrats have a far more platonic sonogram. I grant I never saw a googolplex groan. My...

  52. Way Opposite
    (pp. 76-76)
  53. We Are Not Responsible
    (pp. 77-77)

    We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives. We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions. We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for handouts. We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. Your ticket does not guarantee that we will honor your reservations. In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying on. Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments. If you cannot understand English, you will be moved out of the way. In the event of a loss, you’d better look out for yourself. Your insurance was...

  54. Why You and I
    (pp. 78-78)
  55. Wino Rhino
    (pp. 79-79)

    For no specific reason I have become one of the city’s unicorns. No rare species, but one in range of danger. No mythical animal, but a common creature of urban legend. No potent stallion woven into poetry and song. Just the tough horny beast you may observe, roaming at large in our habitat. I’m known to adventurers whose drive-by safari is this circumscribed wilderness. Denatured photographers like to shoot me tipping the bottle, capture me snorting dust, mount on the wall my horn of empties that spilled the grape’s blood. My flesh crawls with itchy insects. My heart quivers as...

  56. Wipe That Simile Off Your Aphasia
    (pp. 80-80)
  57. Xenophobic Nightmare in a Foreign Language
    (pp. 81-82)

    Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of bitter labor to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof:

    Therefore, be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

    That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of bitter labor to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension...

  58. X-ray Vision
    (pp. 83-83)
  59. Zen Acorn
    (pp. 84-84)
  60. Zombie Hat
    (pp. 85-85)
  61. Back Matter
    (pp. 86-86)