Photo Credit: Judy Natal, 1995
Sleeping with the Dictionary
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 with accented syllablesñall are exercises in the conscious regimen of dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages. To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet’s nocturnal mission. Aroused by myriad possibilities, we try out the most perverse positions in the practice of our nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body of the work. Any exit from the logic of language might be an entry in a symptomatic dictionary. The alphabetical order of this ample block of knowledge might render a dense lexicon of lucid hallucinations. Beside the bed, a pad lies open to record the meandering of migratory words. In the rapid eye movement of the poet’s night vision, this dictum can be decoded, like the secret acrostic of a lover’s name.
By Harryette Mullen
© New California Poetry, 2002
Alone, the title of this poem makes me smile. “Sleeping with the Dictionary” is a desire that attracts me. It is nerdy, sexy and loaded with layers of meanings. Once I hear the poem, it’s easy to see (to feel?) the layers within words. It is as if Mullen’s poem is calling attention to how we perceive words, not just what they mean, but how they sound, their rhythm: “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.” The wordplay, sound play–even erotic play–she finds in the dictionary is astounding. In the poem, I see connections between everyday words and the erotic so that the wordplay, “I beg to dicker,” or the sound play “the perverse positions in the practice” makes “all the meanings between these covers” so very new. And remember, the speaker here is talking about her relationship with the dictionary.Comment by seversley — February 17, 2011 @ 5:47 pm
Prof. Eversley’s emphasis on the erotics here is great, a useful corrective to my first read through the poem, which had picked up on some monastic imagery in the idea of “illuminated pages,” “solitary habits,” and even “retiring.” But the solitary habits don’t seem celibate, and the inspiration is not heavenly but rather the book itself, so I cast aside the image of poet-as-monk in favor of the masturbatory overtones. In this light, it seems apt that what turns the poet on is words about words, which seems like an auto-erotic concept.But I have questions here, too–the euphemism “sleeping with” implies both being asleep and not, a contradiction that’s here also in the way that the poet talks both about conscious and dreaming phases, in a progression that I can’t quite tease out and would love to see someone else attempt. And I’d love to see somebody talk about why this poem takes this form, which isn’t very traditionally poetic, is it?Comment by Mary McGlynn — February 18, 2011 @ 4:03 pm
Absolutely amazing. I love how she brings the dictionary to life as if it where a real person, aware of its surroundings. It’s as if it can move and think on its own. Definitely erotic in the way Mullen gives it the ability to weigh on her between the covers as she smooths out its thin sheet. The choice of words and the rhythm here make me feel like I’m reading through a romance scene between two people. I had to re-read it a couple of times to be able to fully appreciate it. Great choice.
Comment by Lynette Garcia — February 24, 2011 @ 4:40 pm
To explain the versatility of this poem is impossible as it seems that it would take more than a lifetime to do. Because everytime that I read it I found yet another facet that I had apparently failed to see before. It is because of such that I feel like this poem can be taken so many ways.Literally, there is this image of a woman with an actual dictionary turning the pages, ‘learning herself to sleep’. Figuratively, I see another person next to her and then each verse becomes a euphemism for something else. Something my vivid imagination prefers to keep locked in the confines of only my mind. Which I suppose is best as now you will come to your own conclusion as to what each line means for you and perhaps in turn you will see more of your true character (and not simply the one you ‘profess’ to have).Comment by Melissa Swan — February 25, 2011 @ 1:45 pm
Simply put, I am a fan. Reading this poem makes me smile and laugh with childlike intrigue and curiosity. The subtext is enjoyable and erotic. I truly appreciate the use of language and how it depicts the love a text as it would the love of man or woman. In my humble opinion, there can be no substitute for the real thing during a restless night; however, this beautifully written work of art that has in-twined such eroticism with the plan black and white, makes the argument worth having.Comment by craigthomas — February 25, 2011 @ 6:30 pm
I love this poem. In fact, I love this entire collection, this poet, the idea for this book. I agree with Professor Eversley’s notion of the combining of the “everyday words and the erotic”, and have really enjoyed all of these comments.What intrigues me most about this poem is Mullen’s decision with regards to form. I am a big fan of procedural writing and constraint-based writing–essentially creative work that is partially generated by chance. Mullen used some “oulipian” dictionary games to write these poems–I think she used the “n + 7″ one in particular–which just means that she took the nouns and randomly substituted them for other nouns 7 words later in the dictionary. But, the fact that this poem is able to generate so much conversation despite this chance composing technique is almost a testament to Mullen’s mastery. How can words manipulated, deleted, replaced still be so though provoking, still hold so much charged (perhaps even linear or narrative) meaning?I really like this quote from an interview with Mullen:
“Dictionaries are attempts to identify or create standard usage and definitions, but of course the dictionaries don’t exactly agree among themselves. In disagreement there is tension, confusion, resistance, and conflict. But also in our disagreement, and in the way language disagrees with itself, there’s room for critical thinking, humor, and play.”I wonder what this idea of conflict and disagreement does to the poem and to the process (or reason why Mullen opted to use a procedural tactic) for the poem? I also wonder…why prose?
Comment by Erica Kaufman — March 1, 2011 @ 12:17 pm
Prof. Kaufman is educating me about procedural writing here–wondering which are the n+7 words! I’m reminded of the way Stanley Fish had one class full of students analyze as a poem the words he left on the blackboard after another class. Does the way meaning gets retained here derive in part from prose syntax?Comment by Mary McGlynn — March 3, 2011 @ 10:48 am
I truly ingested this poem as I read it. Something I noted was the way that Mullen gives the mind a body of its own. To me the dictionary is sleeping with this woman’s mind; her brain is achieving the sexual climax that we assumed only the body was capable of. I love the ways in which Mullen detaches the actual body and the body created by the mind. One of the ways she accomplishes this is by having the dictionary’s natural genius as its most celebrated form of foreplay. Here is a line that stood out to me “the penetration of the denotative body of the work.” This line operates to dissect the actual body from the created body for the reader. The idea of penetration is normally one that we cannot have without automatically picturing animate things. But this is just pure notion, if you think about it, we “penetrate” a dictionary whenever we use one, we open and finger its packed pages and it responds by releasing knowledge by the pound into our minds.Comment by taniqua.brown — March 9, 2011 @ 9:19 pm
I have a secret admiration for my dictionary. I try to learn how I can woo him/her. I was so happy to see I wasn’t alone in
my quest to plum the mysteries and the weightiness of my chock-
filled companion. I immediately grabbed my dictionary with the
word “hypnagogic” and had an Ahh moment to find this was the place between “wakefulness” and “sleeping”-the place I feel is
most free to be a channel for art. I love her use of in between:
“stimulating sedative” and “conscious dreamers.” And then the contrast of this floating state with the tangible physicality of “clutching” and “penetration.” And the dictionary’s “tossing words”
on our “tongues” – thanks dictionary. I also dig the searching in the “dark” with the light on. The many meanings of dark – most importantly the brightness that comes from the discovery of a magical word.Comment by Carla Savoy — March 10, 2011 @ 1:21 pm