Sleeping with the Dictionary
by Harryette Mullen
“One cannot make a world with simple atoms. There has to be a clinamen,” says philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy in The Inoperative Community. Nancy explains that in order to create new ways of being in the world, the individual must serve as clinamen, must swerve, must not progress in standard formation but turn. Poetry may accomplish this movement. In particular, overt poetic misreading or misprision of syllables, words, and phrasing may function as a microsonic clinamen within the language system by interrupting prevailing streams of thought and actively influencing the collective consciousness. Harryette Mullen’s “Sleeping with the Dictionary” enacts this radical poetic clinamen.
Wordplay turns the attention away from standardized denotations and toward the patriarchal, phallocentric background of the codified language, insisting on the dictionary as a motivated tool used for political ends. Across the poem, Mullen repeats the word “dick”—“dicker,” “dictionary,” “big dictionary,” “dictum,” pointing to the ‘dictionary’ as a phallic object, to standardized diction as phallic. The clinamen, the turn away from the standard occurs, importantly, with not only the conceptualization of the dictionary as phallocentric but with the humorous tone through which Mullen presents this idea. A persuasive partner, the dictionary wields a “silver-tongued” influence associated with connections between economic power and speech, connections that have resulted in oppression and silencing; however, the humorous wordplay allows a history of exploitation to be evoked without erecting sparring poles of “self” and “other”—turning away from the oppositional logic on which exploitation depends.
While drawing awareness to the gruesome history of oppression on which the dictionary’s significance is built, sexual misprisions relate a desire for penetrating intimacy, suggesting a relationship with standardized language as a means for effecting social change. The poet personifies the dictionary as a sexual partner, with whom she retires “to the canopy of the bedroom.” She takes the “big dictionary to bed,” and through ludic phrasing turns the dictionary into body; she is “clutching the unabridged bulk…heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers.” The pun on “covers” conflates book cover and bed, a figure in which reading becomes the procreative act. The dictionary attracts the poet, inspiring intimate physical contact of a sexual nature.
Although sexual, the relationship between the poet and the dictionary does not conform to binary sexual roles, implying that social change through relationship to standardized language requires that a poet assume a transgendered position. As an English speaker conversant in standardized language use, Mullen has borne the dictionary’s significance, but the poet must also excrete her own meaning on a “nocturnal mission.” This masculine position does not merely effect a reversal of traditional roles, however; instead, the engagement comes out queer. The poet merges into a “we…trying out the most perverse positions in the practice of our nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body.” In order to produce meaning, the standardized language enters the speaker; in order to actively generate new meanings–new perceptions and thus new social formations–the poet must spread the linguistic corpus wide, as Mullen does with her verbal slippage. Ultimately, for creation, the poet must turn from binary relations; the encounter between the corpus linguistic and the corpus physical turns into a fertile hermaphroditic masterbatory orgy.
Rather than awakening from the nightmare of history, as Joyce famously suggested he strove to do, Mullen ventures a heightened active engagement with the present, turning toward possibility in the midst of lucid reverie. “Sleeping with the Dictionary,” the speaker is both slumbering in an unconscious paralyzed state and entering into the rough and tumble of the procreative act. The poem begins with the speaker “curiously wide-awake” and moves not in a linear direction toward either greater wakefulness nor a dreamy oblivion. Rather, the poem develops a rippling conundrum—the poet is dreaming—“rapid eye movement,” and yet also awake reading with her “night vision.” Language is both upper and downer– a “stimulating sedative,” and this powerful intoxicant stirs the mind into a stupor, “awakening tired imagination to the hypnogogic trance of language.” The wordplay destabilizes the denotative boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness, suggesting no stabilized self outside the language and asserting instead that subjectivity exists as a dynamic relation.
From its beginning with “I” and ending on “name,” or “lover’s name,” the work dramatizes a creative exchange between aspects of a multiplicitous self. Mullen’s speaker accepts the inextricability of subjectivity and language use. She asserts the power of an improvisational clinamen—dressing as maker rather than maid.
Heidi Lynn Staples is the author of four collections, including Noise Event, forthcoming from Ahsahta and Take Care Fake Bear Torque Cake, recently released from Caketrain. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. An Assistant Professor of English at Piedmont College, she lives in Athens, GA.