Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Reading Harryette Mullen

Let’s look at two poems from Harryette Mullen’s book, S*PeRM**K*T. Mullen’s work is strongly influenced by “Language Poetry”, although the poems in this book are on the cusp between Language Poems, and poems which seek to use language as a primarily communicative tool. Because, while they eschew the use of the first person; or of linear narrative, and highlight the ambiguity inherent in language; they clearly refer to the world outside of the poem, often have a unified thematic thread, and have a social conscience; critiquing sexism, racism, classism, and rampant consumerism among others. The book’s title can be variously read as “SuperMarket”, “S-Perm Kit”, or “Sperm kit”. As the readings of the title show, this book utilizes punning as a primary (but not sole) literary device, where Mullen picks up words, and fans through their multiplicity of meanings like a magician with a deck of cards.
There are at least five different types of puns used in the English language, all of which are found in these poems.
A) Homophonic Puns- Words or phrases which sound the same but are spelled differently i.e. male/mail, seen/scene
B) Double Entendre- Words or phrases which are spelled the same, but have unrelated meanings i.e. can (verb, meaning “able”)/can (noun, a metal container), or the double entendre of “hard as calculus” which can mean “difficult as Calculus” (a type of Mathematics), or “tough and durable as calculus” (the mineral deposits often found crusted in water pipes)
C) Sonic Allusions-words or phrases which sound similar to, (and therefore call to mind) other words or phrases i.e. “scarred strangled banter” alludes to the “Star Spangled Banner”
D) Lexical Puns-Puns which repeat a word or root word in different forms i.e. “I’m cursed with this curse to just curse”, or “in this journey, you’re the journal, I’m the journalist/ am I eternal, or an eternalist? “
E) Visual puns-Puns where the spelling of a word or part of a word calls to mind some other word which looks similar, but is pronounced differently i.e. He’ll burn forever in Hell, where “He’ll” is a visual, but not sonic pun on “Hell”

Here is the first poem-

What’s brewing when a guy pops the top off a bottle or can talk with another man after a real good sweat. It opens, pours a cold stream of the great outdoors. Hunting a wild six-pack reminds him of football and women and other blood spoors. Frequent channels keep high volume foamy liquids overflowing, not to be contained. Champs, heroes, hard workers all back-lit with ornate gold of cowboy sunset lift dashing white heads, those burly mugs.


The first sentence asks a rhetorical question about the events commonly pictured in print ads, and TV commercials (critiquing the use of macho imagery to sell beer), here “brewing” is a pun, meant metaphorically (what’s happening?), and literally (as a reference to how beer is produced), also note the internal rhyme (pop/top), and assonance (top/off/bottle), the word “can” is also being punned on. In the second sentence “It” refers to both a commercial and a bottle of beer, “stream” is the beer leaving the bottle, the body of water (the purity of the water used by the breweries is often touted in beer commercials), and the “stream” of images in the ad. In the third sentence “Hunting” is both literal and metaphorical, and “six-pack” refers to beer as well as wild animals, “blood spoors” is both literal, and alludes to ‘blood sports’ i.e. football, and “him” is the viewer. In the next sentence “Frequent” is both literal and plays off the idea that channels are on different frequencies, “channels” refers to TV channels, “channel” as a body of water, and “channels” as different types of advertising, and “high volume” refers to the amount of beer, beer sales, and the sound level of the commercials, “not to be contained” refers to the beer, the commercials, and the amount of sales. The last sentence lists the type of macho images favored by makers of commercials, “cowboy” refers to both the occupation and the type of sunset, “dashing white heads” are of the actors, and the foam of the beer, and “mugs” is a type of beer glass, the faces of the actors, and in African-American vernacular a reference to the men themselves.

Next we have-

Well bread ain’t refined of coarse dark textures never enriched a doughty peasant. The rich finely powdered with soft white flours. Then poor got pasty pale and pure blands ingrained inbred. Roll out dough we need so what bread fortifies our minimum daily sandwich. Here’s a dry wry toast for a rough age when darker richer upper crust, flourishing, outpriced the staff with moral fiber. Brown and serve, a slice of life whose side’s your butter on.

This particular piece, critiques notions of social class by charting how white bread
began as an expensive luxury item for the rich, which made it desirable to the lower classes, even though the cheaper, darker whole grains they were eating were more nutritional. Then, when the health food movement began and people realized the value of whole-grained breads, the companies changed their prices, and those same whole-grained breads became more expensive and now are signs of higher class.
Mullen starts off with an allusive pun (well-bred), then “refined” refers both to people and wheat flour, “coarse” is a homophonic pun (course), “dark textures” refers to both the texture of bread and the color of peasants (who worked outside, and were therefore darker), “enriched” is both literal and a bread reference, “doughty” is a visual pun (dough), also note the assonance of (bread/texture/never/peasant). In the next sentence “finely powdered” refers to both the type of milling necessary to make white flour, and the wigs worn by the rich, note the internal rhyme (powdered/flour). The next sentence begins with alliteration (poor/pasty/pale/pure), then the puns, “blands” (brands), “ingrained” (in grain), and “inbred” (in bread). The fourth sentence puns on “roll out dough”, which is literal and also means “pull out the money”, on “need” (knead), “what” (wheat), “fortifies” (white bread is both enriched and fortified with vitamins), and the phrases “our daily bread”, and “minimum daily requirements”. The next sentence puns on “wry” (rye), and “toast”, then “rough age” alludes to “roughage”, “darker” is a reference to bread and to the fact that in modern times the rich tend to be more tanned, Mullen then follows with “upper crust”, then a visual pun in “flourishing” (flour), after which “staff with moral fiber” alludes to (stuff with more fiber), while critiquing the idea that the upper classes are morally superior to their servants. The final sentence contains “brown and serve”, a reference to ready-made biscuits and the fact that African-Americans often worked in domestic capacities, then “slice of life”, and an allusion to the phrase “know which side your bread is buttered on” which contains an allusive pun on “butter” (butler).
Presto, chango, now you see him , now you don’t. Given the interpretive role required of the reader, some of you may see more, or less, in these poems, which is part of the joy of reading them.

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