The Operating System


I am going to start with an admission—I have a deep and varied past with the poetry of Harryette Mullen. Her masterpiece, Sleeping with the Dictionary, opened my eyes to so many possibilities in poetry. The experience I had is described best by her line, “I’ve been licked all over by the English tongue.”  The book sparked some of the experimentation and play that led me to explore OuLiPo and Dada in college and later become a part of Exit Strata. What amazed me from the very beginning was how her wordplay did not stray to become glib or flippant. Instead, it measures the heaviness that her words push against.
Mullen uses those words to carve an artistic space for herself that is not contained only within black or woman. In Sleeping with the Dictionary, Mullen writes as a whole creative being, in full possession of the craft. The cultural criticism and profound sense of social justice in her work rings truer because she already is dismantling the barriers of form and language. A few years ago, my mother asked me to recommend some books of poetry as creative supplements for the course she taught on race—Harryette Mullen came out of my mouth before the question was even finished. Not for the explicit themes of her poems, but her ability to both inhabit and transcend cultural disparateness.
Another of her books, Muse & Drudge, represented a much different turning point for me. She composed the volume out of quatrains, four per page, that capitalize only proper nouns and run throughout without punctuations—save for a couple of em dashes. A page will run:

keep your powder dry

your knees together

your dress down

your drawers shut

a picture perfect

twisted her limbs

lovely as a tree

for art’s sake

muse of the world picks

out stark melodies

her raspy fabric

tickling the ebonies

you can sing their songs

with words your way

put it over to the people

know what you doing

Each quatrain straddles the line between narrative and lyric. However, Mullen shears each narrative thread before the reader can pull too much of the yarn. Each page does comprise a full tonal resonance, but as soon as the pages change the course of the poetry does as well. The book proceeds to flood the reader with rich images and dark flashes of experience.
I first read Muse & Drudge toward the end of college. By then, I had all due reverence for the modern poetic sequence, lyrical muscle, and the critical genius of Rosenthal and Gall. Yet, the budding scholar in me found itself yielding to an unfamiliar force while reading the book length poem. I suddenly felt the deep desire to copy all the pages and then reorder them. I wanted to create thematic arcs and footnotes on Bessie Smith songs. In short, Muse & Drudge created the editor in me.
Slowly, rereading the stanzas I finally was able to give myself over to Mullen’s pace and vision. Each page full of quatrains becomes its own tiny museum room filled with cultural language getting bent and cut open to expose the inner matter. Mullen possesses an avid collector’s care with the worlds her words briefly bring to life:

wine’s wicked wine’s divine

pickled drunk down to the rind

depression ham ain’t got no bone

watermelons rampant emblazoned

island name Dawta

Gullah backwater

she swim she fish

here it be fresh

cassava yucca taro dasheen

spicy yam okra vinegary greens

guava salt cod catfish ackee

fatmeat’s greasy that’s too easy

not to be outdone she put

the big pot in the little pot

when you get food this good

you know the cook stuck her foot in it

There have been whole nights where I read Muse & Drudge aloud to myself, and start the poem again. Those nights, I let the language bathe me. I come out clean and changed, because the pages let me know that what is outside of myself is just as complex and specific and infinite as what is inside me. Mullen has a singular strength in her writing that allows her poetry to play at the same time that it is suffering. I have an admission—that is exactly how I try to suffer.

by the dancerly light

the dewy cotton

oversized tee shirt

your shape shows through

sink your pinky

into the biscuit’s heart

fill the void you made

with blackstrap molasses

you sink to your knees

but it isn’t hallowed

it is coffee ground

sprinkled round azaleas

soft sung mantras

of hush little baby

lullabies of past lives

we used to be

Benjamin Wiessner appreciates a well-placed em dash. He still listens to that song by Petey Pablo and he believes in the untapped culinary power of country ham. He values sensible footwear. He always keeps a tent in his trunk.  He was raised to witness the emancipatory power of storytelling. These are all source texts for his aesthetics. He is an editor here at Exit Strata. He also works with the film collective ornana. Their first feature, euphonia, premiered this spring at SxSw and is now available for free.




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