SLEEPING WITH THE DICTIONARY

Harryette Romell Mullen, Author . Univ. of Calif. $30 (85p) ISBN 978-0-520-23142-9 ISBN 978-0-520-23143-6

It's been over six years since Mullen published her last book, Muse & Drudge, a series of terse, wacky quatrains which barnstormed through plangent blues to "rhime rich" rap, from Language poetry–style minimalism to "the doubles" of the playground dis. Mullen's fifth book is no less unconventional, and more diverse—prose poems, exhaustive alphabetical language-salads like "Jinglejangle" ("Mingus Among Us mishmash Missy-Pissy mock croc Mod Squad mojo moldy oldie"), surrealistic odes to her erotic other, Oulipian word-replacement poems, short stories that recall the quasi-fantastic realism of John Yau and strange rewrites of classics, such as this riff on Shakespeare's famous sonnet: "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." Some poems expose, mischievously, the basic foibles of human sexual relations. Others, like "Present Tense" and "We Are Not Responsible," hone political realities through histrionic absurdity: "Now that the history of civilization has been encrypted on a grain of rice, it's taken the starch out of the stuffed shorts." All of the work here is full of such energy, invention and pleasure that the dictionary surely awoke refreshed. (Feb.)

Forecast:Mullen's Freeing the Soul: Race, Subjectivity and Difference in Slave Narratives was published in 1999 by Cambridge University Press, and she is currently teaching creative writing and African American literature at UCLA. Poems from her long unavailable 1981 debut, Tall Tree Women, along with other early works, are due to be reissued by Bucknell University Press in April. Her three small press books from the '90s ( Trimmings, S*Perm*K*T and Muse & Drudge) remain in print and oft assigned, but this volume's visibility and accessibility should make it a breakthrough. Look for some prize nominations, and a possible "new & selected" next time around.

Reviewed on: 12/17/2001
Release date: 02/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
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