Harryette Mullen

Recycled Aphasia: Non-exhaustive Readings of Harryette Mullen

I move in this next section of plateaus, from Juliana Spahr’s clear anarchist sympathies to the work of Harryette Mullen, who, while in no way anarchist herself, instead offers postanarchism a method of resistance tactic that is highly experimental and interested in the radical alternatives offered to readers and writers in and through language. The move to Mullen from Spahr might seem strange, but the connection between these two poets is clear; not only do the two read together frequently, running in similar experimental or innovative circles, but, and perhaps more importantly, Spahr has devoted much of her own critical scholarship to discussing Mullen’s work. For example, a chapter of Everybody’s Autonomy, which is an adaptation of Spahr’s doctoral thesis, discusses Mullen’s Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T. And, Spahr provides the introduction for Barbara Henning’s experimental and hugely informative book of postcards and interviews, Looking Up Harryette Mullen.

In Everybody’s Autonomy, Spahr focuses on the connective reading practices and collective approaches to identity that she understands to be encouraged by Mullen’s work. She begins these discussions by asserting that, following the clearly defined subjectivity of Mullen’s earliest work, namely in her first collection Tree Tall Woman, her later work moves away from this. Ultimately, she asserts that “[t]here is no clear ‘I’ in Mullen’s later books” (108). For Spahr, this disruption of authorial subjectivity shifts the focus onto the reader rather than the clearly delineated author, partially through complicating the potential exegetical readings of her work. In more concrete terms, Spahr’s theory of connective reading argues that the disruption of the lyrical “I” in Mullen’s work is part and parcel with the loading of the poem with multiple and multifarious cultural information. “While this work allows readers to do the unpacking,” she writes, “it is always a provisional unpacking because the markers are so loaded with culture that one cannot come up with an easily exhaustive answer” (113). Essentially, Mullen’s work complicates exegesis, but in a manner that is entirely different from the ways that I saw a similar process enacted in the chance-based work of John Cage, or the reading-writing of Robert Duncan’s Passages series.

What makes this turn away from one clearly defined authorial position to the multiple inherent in Mullen’s later works so fascinating is that, as Spahr indicates, the shift is political insofar as it critiques the very system of binarism that my project opposes, the binarism that Spahr and Mullen both assert makes oppression and domination possible. Approaching Mullen’s work as sites of the multiple or the common functions to dismantle the structures of reading and writing that enable binary thinking. As Spahr writes, “[v]iewing works as sites of complication rather than exclusion avoids the either/or of thought that so pervades systems of domination” (118). And yet, despite a lack of a unified authorial subjectivity, Mullen’s work does articulate certain perspectives (however multiplied) that function simultaneously as inclusive and exclusive. This is a major feature of the discussions between Mullen and Henning, who frequently point out where the erasure of subjectivity succeeds in textual production, and where it fails. For Henning, Mullen’s work may function inclusively insofar as the lyrical “I” is complicated, but especially in Sleeping with the Dictionary, the collection upon which my own discussions of Mullen focus, the reader is also often made to confront his or her exclusion from the text and the various cultural experiences it seeks to represent. So, Henning tells Mullen, “[w]hen I was reading your poems, I always knew when I was an outsider, looking in from another cultural experience or even from my own purposeful alienation from everyday television & advertising” (16). My project interrogates this apparent borderland between inclusion and exclusion, between the identifiable authorial subject, and the commonality of connective reading and writing practices put forth by Spahr and tacitly endorsed by Mullen’s poetry and poetics.

To do this, I would like to begin with a discussion of “All She Wrote,” the first poem of Sleeping with the Dictionary. The poem provides a good introduction to the major issues in Mullen’s poetics more generally, and to my own observations on how her work illuminates a postanarchist reading process. As a prose poem, like each of the poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary, “All She Wrote” already exclaims the multiple and its interrogation of traditional poetics. In its conversational tone, it signals to its reader that it looks to engage with him or her on a personal, and potentially affective, level. And yet, throughout the page, “All She Wrote” sees the speaker apologizing to his/her reader for, absurdly, not writing. S/he pleads with the reader for forgiveness, complaining: “You know how scarce paper is these days. I admit I haven’t been recycling.” While this is, on the surface, an apparent excuse for not writing, it is also a tongue-in-cheek way of demonstrating the line Mullen walks between borrowing/allusion and innovation, which I will discuss later. Additionally humorous (of course, historically, paper has been more plentiful over the last decade or two than ever before) and ecological (our rapid consumption of paper leads to, amongst other environmental issues, deforestation and the destruction of animal habitat), these sentences inaugurate the reader into the explosion of cultural markers that, for Spahr at least, prevent exhaustive reading. Additionally, the poem sets the tone for the collection’s tenuous relationship with the authorial subject[i].

When Henning asks Mullen directly about this particular poem in the second part of Looking Up Harryette Mullen, she primarily discusses the surface aspect of the poem, prodding at the inspirations for and the material conditions of the poem’s production. She says:

BH: This seems like a collage made from a series of excuses. Were these all excuses you culled from your own experience? Or did you gather them from other writings?

HM: It is a litany of excuses for not writing. Not writing letters to friends and just not writing poetry, stories, or essays, or whatever I was intending to write. I also hear lots of excuses from my students and my writer friends. (43)

I include this exchange not only because I am interested in the extent to which the at times seemingly apersonal and anti-subjective poetics of Mullen’s work – squarely focused in the Language tradition – also has clear grounds in the autobiographical, recalling, for example, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life in its simultaneous adoption and disruption of the lyrical “I.” I am also interested in Mullen’s description of the production of “All She Wrote” as pragmatic and practical, completely without the ephemery of inspiration and musing. That is, for Mullen, the poem is also about writer’s block, and about using experiment, innovation, and constraint-based writing processes as a practical way out of the often debilitating issue of inspiration. Thus, Mullen’s frequent use of constraint in her work, and in particular her adoption of the Oulipian N+7 method in Sleeping with the Dictionary, functions as a way to start writing when a “writer’s block” might have stopped you. She tells Henning, “[i]n a way, the Oulipians have a solution for the writer’s block problem. As they say – you never really have a reason for not writing. There’s always a constraint, always another possible project” (43). This is one part of what Mullen suggests when she writes, “I suffer from aphasia.”

And yet, true to Spahr’s observations, Mullen’s contradictory aphasia also functions on multiple levels that severely complicate any sort of exhaustive exegesis of the text. One element of this is that silence is a major feature of her work. Sleeping with the Dictionary frequently interrogates who is given voice and who is silenced, and she reconfigures an inability to speak or a lack of access to speech as oppression and liberation, recalling the stuttering of Spahr’s work and the silence of Cage’s simultaneously. It is the beginning of a book-length interrogation of these issues, as Mullen herself notes to Henning. “It sets the tone,” she says, “announcing that writing itself is a subject” (44). All of this is to say that “All She Wrote” positions “writing” as a subject alongside reader and writer; suddenly, the text itself occupies a fraught subject position, and the writer is only one part of the assemblage it forms with literary tradition, with cultural experience, and with the radical multiplicity of its readership.

This unique approach to authorship allows Mullen to interrogate these moments of recycling and aphasia, dual terms that will repeatedly surface in the five plateaus on Mullen that follow this one. After this interrogation of authorship and communication, I will take up these issues of recycling and aphasia – or, less metaphorically, tradition and silence — through the clear politicization of a Language poetics (much to the chagrin of Alicia Ostriker), and an insistence on the infusion of identity politics into the writerly texts of the literary avant-garde. As the other side to that coin, my work on Mullen will also navigate those spaces where one cannot speak, and what voices get silenced, refusing to, as Wittgenstein quipped, pass over them. Following Mullen’s lead, I look at the inherent linguistic, social, and material relationship between silence and violence, and how these two terms are intertwined and complicated in an experimental poetics. Additionally, my work here is interested in the ephemeral alongside the preserved, and looks to develop a black experimental tradition out of Mullen’s work that moves adeptly between the speakerly texts of the black arts movement and the writerly texts of Language poetry and the avant-garde. As such, my discussions of Mullen are, of course, particularly concerned with the deleuzoguattarian concept of minor languages and minoritarian politic. So, it also pays particularly close attention to the race and gender issues innate in tradition, influence, and canon formation, all of which feature prominently in Mullen’s work and in the criticism surrounding it. Ultimately, these plateaus position Sleeping with the Dictionary as the recycling of aphasia, and the embracing of the impossible multiple inherent in that metaphor.


[i] Amy Moorman Robbin’s notes that, in contrast to the vast majority of Sleeping with the Dictionary, “All She Wrote” dwells suspiciously on the authorial subject and the lyric “I.” She writes: “The excessive presence of the ‘I’ in ‘All She Wrote,’ coupled with relentless references to the speaker’s inability, incompetence, unavailability, and state of general illness, work at one level to advance an idea of Mullen’s speaking subject as hyper-present in damaged form; indeed, up until the final turn, ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘my’ saturates nearly every sentence” (358).

3 thoughts on “Recycled Aphasia: Non-exhaustive Readings of Harryette Mullen

  1. This is a really solid intro to Mullen and her place in your study. I really don’t have anything substantive to offer….

    I think this is an obvious question, but is there something about a writer’s block that is helpful in relation to Mullen’s work (and perhaps also the other writers and/or ideas you’ve been working through)? Is that blockage, so disparaged by most authors, something that can help bring about the postanarchist distrust of authorial subjectivity you’ve been discussing? (You certainly imply that in this plateau–I wonder if it’s something that you could develop a bit more?)

    I imagine you’ve already planned to use it, but Mullen’s short essay “Imagining the Unimagined Reader…” [Boundary 2, 26:1, Spring 1999] could prove useful in the examination you intend.

    • I hadn’t thought about using writer’s block more, but I definitely agree with your suggestion here. I think that what we call “writer’s block” is often the point when you realize, consciously or subconsciously, that your form (whatever it is) has limits, and that part of what you are trying to write (to offer your reader) is somewhere beyond those limits. I also think that the idea behind “writer’s block” tends to reinforce the understanding of an Author as a medium, as if there is usually a path through which inspiration and artistic creation flow, and now something is blocking its way.

      The more I think about it, the more I realize there’s something really interesting going on there.

  2. This is really intriguing. Just don’t ignore all of those standard conceptions of writer’s block as something extremely tied to personal agency (that is, those cliches of the individual unable to connect with his or her–really, almost always his–own genius). This idea of writer as conduit is an interesting adaptation (and, really, return to the original meaning of the term). And thinking about it in relation to formal limits seems really fruitful, too.

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