Clothes Made New:
I will begin with a passage from Trimmings: Harryette Mullen's 1991 book of prose poems that expose and connect a network of assumptions and perceptions about the raced and sexualized female body and the language of beauty, clothing, and skin found in advertising. With both the casualness of spoken, off-the-cuff contemporary vernacular and the shaped precisions and ironic pauses of modernist poetry, Mullen links objectified female sexuality, clothing, food, color, and language to subtly reveal the humor and pathos of a bride thickly wrapped in the objectifying and stultifying layers of a wedding dress:
Since the image of the bride on the wedding cake metonymically represents the actual bride physically carrying the thick, white, sugary layers of her wedding dress, and the cake is something everyone gets a "piece" of, this prose poem comments on the sexual availability (and even violence) that weddings both repress and express. And by sliding easily back and forth between the material, spoken, unquestioned surface of the idiomatic language of weddings and its often hidden ideological connotations, Mullen shows that at least figuratively, a taste of the bride's sexuality is a part of a wedding's ritual exchange.
While it is pleasurable to trace Mullen's sly verbal winks and playful critiques, it is important not to rest easy with the interpretative pleasures her work requires and inspires. In addition to closely tracing her lyrical strategies, I would like to place Mullen's work in the context of the literary tradition it alludes to, especially considering Mullen's own statements about the way her work has been represented and marketed. In an essay titled "Poetry and Identity," Mullen articulates the two often mutually exclusive categories that poets are commonly placed in: poets of color and "formally innovative poets." She discusses the difficulty of placing, and therefore exposing, work that falls into both categories, and the consequences of that difficulty for the writer:
To begin giving Mullen's anomalous, idiosyncratic work a literary history, I would like to place Trimmings within the context of two American women writers who are often not formally or thematically linked: Gertrude Stein and Zora Neale Hurston. Mullen never directly cites the work of Hurston and Stein in Trimmings, but I want to claim that their innovative strategies can be seen within Mullen's text without much hermeneutic scrutiny. I've chosen to focus on "visibility" in my interpretative thematic because seeing Stein's and Hurston's presence in the text helps readers see the way Mullen's condensed, multi-layered, poetic collages call attention to language's construction of visual perception by telling the piece by piece story of an image's construction and its social connotations. Trimmings shows readers that language constructs perception in ways we don't readily "see" while we participate in its quotidian transactions, but also that language placed in juxtaposition with visual images can defamiliarize the habitual ways those images are perceived. At the end of this essay I will analyze Mullen's critique of that icon of modernism, Edouard Manet's Olympia, by focussing on language's ability, particularly language such as Mullen'splayfully, lyrically, and ironically renderedto defamiliarize the images of modernism. So without reducing Mullen's text to its influences, I would like this essay to begin a reading of Trimmings that flexibly moves through the poet's simultaneous use and critique of both Stein's and Hurston's work, while also attending to Trimmings as text that brings together the work of two modernist women writers in order to critique modernism's racial and gendered dependencies and divides.
Stein's 1914 text, Tender Buttons, is often cited as a foundational text for the innovations in contemporary poetry. In its experimental rendering of the signs that suggest a domestic and feminine world, its logical disjunctions and manipulations of syntax, and its play with part and whole, the strategies of Tender Buttons is clearly as an influence on Mullen's Trimmings. Stein's Tender Buttons helps provide a context for interpreting Trimmings, while also demonstrating how contemporary poets such as Mullen still continue to work within frameworks set up by modern poetry, particularly modern poetry such as Stein's which was ignored by the Anglo-American New Criticism that established figures such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in the academy.
Stein's work was known but pointedly ignored by the fathers of New Criticism, but the work of Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American folklorist and fiction writer, was unknown to them and not even marginally considered. Mullen's text, however, draws as much from the styles, ideas, and methods in Hurston's 1934 essay "Characteristics of Negro Expression " as it does from Mullen's work. Hurston's essay was published in Nancy Cunard's Negro: An Anthology, a project devoted to charting parallel preoccupations in the Harlem Renaissance and American Modernism, and is, according to Michael North, "a quintessential modernist production" (177). Because of its attention to the way language shapes visual perception, Hurston's text helps exemplify the modernism of Negro: An Anthology.
According to Hurston, Negro Expressions are far from detached and abstract, but instead portray the visual aspects of an object as well as the way it is humanly, actively used. For example, instead of "chair," a word distanced from the image of actually sitting in a chair, African-Americans say, according to Hurston, "that which we squat upon" (830). This phrase is an example of what Hurston calls the characteristic "will to adorn," which also manifests itself in the propensity to use metaphor and simile ("Yo sho propaganda"), the double descriptive ("Low down"), and verbal nouns, ("She features someone I know") (830). Following the verbal style Hurston articulates, Mullen turns verbs into nouns to playfully exploit puns. In the following line, Mullen turns the noun "pants" into the verbs "pants" in order to show a relation between the expressions of sexual arousal and the discomfort of tightly fitting jeans, "Jeans so tight, she pants" (32). Mullen also utilizes verbal nouns to reveal how the objects that adorn women become the means through which they are perceived. For example, Mullen begins a prose poem with the line, "Girl, pinked, beribboned." "Pink" usually operates as a noun or adjective, but to describe a girl as "pinked" suggests that by wearing this color as well as its connotations of a sweet, girlish femininity, the girl becomes the gendered qualities associated with that color. As Mullen writes in the epilogue to Trimmings, pink and white have a particular resonance for African-American women:
In Trimmings, Mullen's critique of the racialized dimension of the contemporary commercial language of beauty isn't distinct from her critique of the sexualized and objectified female body of advertising. These two critiques are often indistinguishable from each other, arising subtly out of Mullen's deft and ironic handling of advertising's words and images. In the following prose poem, Mullen calls attention to the words that express ideas about money and luxury and inform the sexualized language of pantyhose. In the last line, when she mentions "blue vein stock," Mullen calls attention to the way whiteness underlies that pretty and rich and luxurious image.
rich match fits a couple of gilded calves. Silk stockings glide up
In her essay "Ruses of the lunatic muse': Harryette Mullen and Lyric Hybridity, " Elizabeth Frost writes that Mullen's work "fosters a linguistic multiplicity that displays, often revels in, the varied lexicons of contemporary American Culture..." (2). I would add to this statement by claiming that Trimmings also displays the dense linguistic methods of both American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, two intersecting literary movements that North describes as "...two different modernisms, tightly linked"(11). If the intersections rather than the distinctions between modernisms are kept in mind, with Hurston and Stein representing two strains, Trimmings becomes readable as a text calling attention to arbitrary constructions of race and gender, while at the same time linking segregated strains of American modernism.
From Stein's work, Mullen extracts associational logic, verbal density that resists complete interpretive mastery by the reader, and a detached and idiosyncratic authorial presence. From Hurston's work, Mullen extracts the performative and mimetic qualities of African-America dialect and its highly visual components while also emphasizing the way language participates in and shapes cultural and economic exchanges. Mullen's use of a contemporary vernacular, combined with an ironic skepticism, makes explicit the feminist critique often implicit in Stein's innovative poetic structures. In Catherine Stimpson's words, Stein's poetry "...is a series of propositions about the possibilities of transposing gender, about the possibilities of breaking up its orders, codes, and poses" (2). From both Stein and Hurston, Trimmings gleans a subject"clothing" and "adornments"as well as a pleasurable exploration of the sensual, material, and fluid qualities of language. And with their verbal and visual plays with the components of perception, both Stein's and Hurston's texts offer models and methods for defamiliarizing the way we physically see and ideologically perceive the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and the economics of "beauty."
While Hurston's "Characteristics of Negro Expression" and Stein's Tender Buttons seem to be the most influential and easily discernible textual backdrops for Trimmings, Mullen's project is obviously not limited to a dialogue with her modernist predecessors. To their linguistic insights, Mullen brings her gift for catching the cadences of meaning within idiomatic fragments and then constructing poetic narratives that draw out those meanings in order to critique their ideological dimensions. This combination of modernism and contemporary ideological critique makes Mullen a poet of postmodernist resistance. Trimmings deconstructs modernism "not to seal it in its own image," as Hal Foster describes, "but in order to open it, rewrite it." (xii). And though it critically revises some aspects of literary modernism, Trimmings is not simply a stylistic enactment of a postmodern profusion of simulacra or the potential hybrid of languages and images from contemporary culture, but articulates an oppositional critique that challenges master narratives of modern and contemporary culture by working within and against them.
Because Tender Buttons dramatically widens the gap between objects and the words usually used to identify them Stein's text can be seen as a model informing Mullen's critique. Therefore Tender Buttons is not, as Frost claims in her essay "Signify(g) on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino," "an unabashedly closed text," but a radically open one (2). Frost argues that Trimmings can be read as a critique of the omissions in Stein's text. While I agree that Mullen includes "language of the street and marketplace" and "revises Stein's poetics to illuminate a locus of the political and the erotic," the idea that Mullen exclusively critiques Stein's text, instead of working both in and against it, denies Stein's innovative influence and her subversive place in the modernist canon. Tender Buttons allows for interpretative insertions such as Mullen's that expose and critique the raced and gendered assumptions within the vocabularies used to commodify women's bodies, vocabularies that more than often assume that those bodies are white.
When Stein writes in a small section from Tender Buttons entitled "A Piece of Coffee," "A single image is not splendor" she may be critiquing, as Peter Nichols points out, Ezra Pound's criteria of imagism"direct treatment of the thing"as well as T.S. Eliot's "objective correlative." Unlike Eliot and Pound, Stein, Hurston, and Mullen do not attempt, in Nichol's words, to "produce a balance of internal and external worlds." All three writers attempt to disrupt that balance in order to call into question and defamiliarize conventional description and narrative forms of writing, that, in Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrew's words, make language transparent, "leaving a picture of a physical world the reader can consume as if it were a commodity" (x). Hurston's emphasis on the voluptuous language of adornment, as well as angular and asymmetrical images and expressions, works against standards of transparency. And on page 16 of Trimmings, Mullen employs these disruptive tendencies to call attention to the white basis in pantyhose and tanning products. Here Mullen reveals the way these languages and images together work to compose a commodified but supposedly "natural" image of a woman by denaturalizing and disrupting these commercial images and playfully punning on the images and words she is composed with, images and words associated with economic language"summer stock"and sexualized threats"body stalking."
Notice that the end of the prose poem puts forth the visual product of these "products," and within the production of this thoroughly commercial image (and in Mullen's hands, almost farcical), blackness becomes a skin color that is tanned, homogenized, commodified and then supposedly sweetened into something recognizably edible.
Clothing and physical adornments are especially appropriate subjects for a critique of culture because they are the material manifestations of the cultural context that figuratively, literally, and intimately shapes our bodies and our perceptions of physicality. In the opening pages of Mules and Men, clothing becomes Hurston's figure for the cultural mores one lives and habits but cannot perceive. When asked to collect Negro folklore, Hurston describes herself as so completely immersed within it, she couldn't perceive it, and uses clothing as a metaphor for that immersion:
In "Characteristics of Negro Expression," Hurston brings her "spy glass of anthropology" to language and the ways people figuratively wear language in cultural and economic exchanges, particularly those with a sexual tinge. She articulates the pictorial and performative dimensions of African-American expression that serve as dramatic, direct, and physical forms of communication and exchange. To describe what happens when "[a] Negro girl strolls past the corner lounger," Hurston versifies in a language that resembles in rhythm and cadence Mullen's and Stein's, "A hippy undulation below the waist that is a sheaf of promises tied with conscious power" (831).
The first prose poem in Trimmings demonstrates Hurston's earlier perception that rhythmical language, sexuality, and economic exchange are all intimately tied and performed together, while also revealing and critiquing how a woman will "become" the object she adorns. Or, to put it in slangier terms, Mullen's text performs the accessories "suck[ing]her in":
In this passage, Mullen draws attention to the fact that the belt is paradoxically "added" to a woman's body in order to "divide" and "subtract" but also "multiply a look" (words that also suggest monetary exchanges). This prose poem also shows how the belt visually takes the place of the waist"becomes the waist"by punning off the compliment that the belt is "becoming" to a small waist. Not only does the belt define the waist, but it effects the woman's facial expression, "Sucks her in. She buckles. Smiles, tighter." Within this literal, physical, and visual constraint, the woman in the poem has been conditioned, trained really, to quickly "spot the bulge below the belt." This phrase brings to mind images of women scrutinizing themselves for "bulges," but also men's physical signs of sexual attraction.
To arrive at and present this lyrical, cultural critique, Mullen deliberately avoids the inscription of the lyric and subjective "I." Her detachment, as well as her immersion within the materiality of language, is characteristic of Stein's work as well. While both Trimmings and Tender Buttons are definitely idiosyncratic, the poet's personas are not present except as perhaps distant, depersonalized arrangers of their language constellations. In place of the "I," the reader must insert her perceptions and construct her own meanings that will never be corroborated by the text.
I want to offer one such speculative reading of a Steinian piece of clothing and then see Mullen's additions to and revisions of it, additions and revisions that Hurston's more explicit emphasis on sexuality, exchange, and performative language help provide. Stein's entry, "A Petticoat," provides four different and interconnected ways of perceiving that petticoat: "A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm" (13). In this poetic equation, readers confront not only the color associated with a petticoat"a light white"but also the fact that we know what a petticoat is by what it isn't, by what defiles that whiteness"an ink spot"as well as the moral and abstract language used to describe that negation, "a disgrace" (13). After reading the phrases "a disgrace" and "an ink spot," "A Petticoat" takes on moral and sexual connotations that can be disgraced by the subversive act of writing, signified by the ink spot. Stein ends the sentence with the phrase "a rosy charm" perhaps to pull the reader away from the binaries that separate what the object "is" and "isn't," and perhaps by analogy, the binaries of purity and disgrace. She therefore implicitly argues that writing can bring color and description to an object"a rosy charm"without necessarily reifying moral and sexual connotations. In the following passage, Mullen translates "a rosy charm" into the color pink and then critiques the racial implications of using this color to describe a woman's femininity by calling attention to the way a construction of feminine whiteness is defined by its cultural shadow and negation, black femininity:
Mullen works within and against Stein's vocabulary for defining the petticoat to verbally mimic, critique, and disrupt the visual configuration of Edouard Manet's Olympia. What we see when Mullen's language calls attention to the racial and gendered exchanges of color and clothing is a scene in which the representation of black femininity serves as a pictorially visible but ideologically hidden support for the lavish displays of white femininity offered up for exchange in the sexual and aesthetic marketplace. Mullen draws from the adornments, innovations, and disruptions of her modernist women predecessors in order to expose the lying ways of this seemingly naked truth.
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BIO: Kimberly Lamm is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington and currently teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.