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Harryette Mullen: what has been and what could be

Updated: Mar 3, 2023


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 refuse to . . . Of course, their perspective has been limited by . . . On the other hand, they obviously feel entitled to . . . Certainly we can’t forget that they . . . Nor can it be denied that they . . . We know that this has had an enormous impact on their . . . Nevertheless their behavior strikes us as . . . Our interactions unfortunately have been . . .


Karen Volkman introduced me to Harryette Mullen. Not in the person (how I wish), but through Sleeping with the Dictionary. Volkman also introduced me to art as a living, possible thing, and she introduced me to what it means to live the life of an artist. In fact, she was the first true artist I had met. At any rate, she would probably be confused by my claims… She seemed confused by connection, or others’ desire for it (I write this out of affection, not with disdain). I will say I learned by osmosis. I wished for mentorship. Someone else found me, though. All this was happening around 2004; I was 24; this is all another story for another time.

Back to my focus for the day: Mullen. Everything in my life at that time was elliptical. I could only get at myself in a roundabout fashion: through drugs, through drink or (this last was a discovery that saved my life) through art. But who cared about me? I barely did… And what did I have to say? What awed me initially about Mullen’s work was what I perceived as epic contrasts which seemed to exist within it. Take “Elliptical.” As an African-American woman, it made absolute sense to me that Mullen would examine what it means to be othered by examining the speech of those in power. And how interesting: power in this poem is shown to be effected by what is not said. The speaker may not know what he or she does. Ignorance (and the power of numbers and the weight of history) effect a seemingly natural gulf which makes it easy to keep the other at bay (bad pun intended). And so, comfortably ensconced within his or her system of power, the holder of the power judges the other by privileged standards… And this speaker, he or she surely has not crossed the river to see the world from the other bank.

(So many water metaphors… I use river and bank here perhaps because Missoula is split by the Clark Fork and I crossed it every day to get to campus and thus to Volkman’s classes. But I have also always been fascinated by the etymology of the word rival, and there is rivalry in this poem. Again, another topic for another time.)

And yet. In Sleeping with the Dictionary one finds poems like “Jinglejangle,” an abecedarian rundown of slogans, taglines, titles and slang that intoxicatingly encapsulates the oddities of this living thing we call English. And yet… This phrase is something I see as a poetic tool; don’t ask me to explain myself… It’s the Libra in me that could say such a thing. Seeing both sides. The beauty in the horrific and vice versa... Mullen for me is a poet who has mastered “and yet,” and her ability to write from within and without her personal experiences (and her ability to leave it all behind when other inspirations call) taught me that I … that an artist does not have to be the art. She is a woman of color whom others would demean and define and yet she chooses to look into the language as much as she looks into herself and the power structures that seek to define her. Others through their assumptions might dam her in but she flies up and away on wings of language…

In some ways Mullen, and Volkman, helped me to see that what had been was not what had to be. What I had done was not who I was or could become. Maybe that’s why Volkman was perplexed by me—she saw a youth bent forward like an old man by the weight of his past. A young man leaning so far out, desperate to connect and share his load. And why not laugh a little at this scene: all you have to do is let go.


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