Randall Couch

A Eurydice beyond my maestro:
Triangular desire in Harryette Mullen’s “Dim Lady”


NOTE: the following paper was presented at the 2005 MLA Conference in a session entitled ‘Pastiches and Palimtexts: Source Texts in Contemporary Experimental Poetry’, convened by Camille Martin. Other panelists presented papers on ‘Clark Coolidge’s Visual Arts Intertexts’ (Tom Orange), ‘Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os’ (Michael Cross), and ‘Contextures: Susan Howe’s “Voices Stuttering out of the Wilderness”’ (Elisabeth W. Joyce).


Theorist and language writer Ron Silliman wrote in 1988 that “women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the ‘marginal’—have a manifest political need to have their stories told” in a more conventional form than those progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been “the subject of history” (65). If this view now strikes us as unintentionally patronizing (as it did Leslie Scalapino at the time), Walter Benn Michaels offers a characteristically pithy explanation. To hold such a view is to claim, as he writes in Our America, that “it is only once we know who we are that we will be able to tell what we should do”—in other words, what we can write (15). All other motives for writing are thus subordinated to the interests of identity. And indeed Silliman’s essay is remarkable as an early and conscientious struggle with what Michaels has recently portrayed as a broad cultural shift from the discourse of class and justice to that of subject position and difference (Michaels, Shape).

Silliman’s claim embraces readers as much as writers. The difference he observes between the work of so-called ‘marginal’ authors and that of progressive white straight men “illuminates,” he says, “the relationship between form and audience” (65). In this economy readers presumably consume works in which they see themselves and their concerns, and authors produce works with the intention of satisfying them.

Harryette Mullen’s work begs to differ. As an African-American woman, she occupies at least two hues on Silliman’s “spectrum of the ‘marginal,’” and she has said that in her writing she tries “to acknowledge that not everyone is heterosexual” (Jenkins, 41). A self-described integrationist, she addresses an audience of “any interested reader, as always.” She makes choices intended to connect with a range of readers—black audiences, literary activists, students of folklore and modernism, lovers of experiment and wordplay—including adopting what she calls a “diasporic lexicon,” in her book Muse and Drudge (Kane). “Ron Silliman did us all a favor,” she has said, “when he articulated what I consider a productive tension between content and form, between identity and innovation.” But she is committed to working, in Duke Ellington’s phrase, “beyond category;” to continually “rewriting and revising” identity; and to “overcoming ‘aesthetic apartheid’ and cultural difference” (Kane).

Though she articulates such aims, Mullen is no advocate of the crude understanding of intentionality deployed by Michaels in The Shape of the Signifier. “Once your words become a text,” Mullen insists, “. . . your language doesn’t behave in the same way. I could write ‘Help, fire!’ but people are not going to come running to save me” (Jenkins, 40). She recognizes the contingency and variability of readings, even her own. No; if the author is god, she’s a god who plays dice. For the next few minutes I want to talk about some of Mullen’s choices in the poem “Dim Lady” from her recent book Sleeping with the Dictionary—in particular the choice of source text, and the complex relationships that choice entails.

“Dim Lady” is at once a homolinguistic translation and a parody of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130; the poem grew from an assignment Mullen gave her students to parody famous sonnets.

As a translation, a re-Englishing that preserves the sonnet’s basic concepts and syntax, its interest lies in what’s new about the language. Most striking is the lexicon—“synonymous slang words and commercial brand names,” as Mullen describes it (Kane). From the first three words these create a comedic tone that becomes more outrageous as the poem moves toward its “turn.” The level of diction, substituting “noggin” for “head” and “mug” for “face,” invoking red and white “Shakey’s pizza parlor” tablecloths and “minty-fresh” breath, refuses pretense or aesthetic loftiness. That Mullen discards both meter and verse lineation reinforces this informality, as well as opening a space for her to create local musical effects, such as the bunched stresses and internal rhyme of “main squeeze wheezes.”

Mullen’s particular choices of pop lexicon create both shared and intersecting cultural references and thus embody the integration of audiences she intends. “Hip” and “rap” are terms originating in black culture that have long since become generalized. “Muzak” conventionally figures the most vapid, white-bread environmental noise—or worse, the appropriation and bleaching of colorful cultural products like jazz and rock. Both Red Lobster and Shakey’s are the kind of familiar restaurant chains that contribute to a unifying common denominator of American culture. The inclusion of such potentially gender- and race- charged terms as “racks” for “breasts” and “Slinkys” for curls, and of “Twinkie,” which carries an extra valence in gay idiom, contributes to the poem’s sense of critical distance and irony, as well as its range of cultural reference.

But these observations about the poem’s diction and contemporary references would be true regardless of its source, of what it was translated from. When my students read “Dim Lady” at the beginning of a semester, they usually respond immediately to its wacky humor. When I ask if anything about it sounds familiar, a few hear echoes of the sonnet, and someone may recall the sonnet’s “theme” that concrete particularity satisfies the lover better than idealization or “false compare.” And one could say that Mullen’s version “brings over” that theme successfully as a translation. At the same time, Shakespeare himself was responding to a tradition: both “Dim Lady” and Sonnet 130 are parodies.

Enacting Linda Hutcheon’s durable definition of parody, Mullen’s poem wears its repetition with a difference. As befits a translation, however, that difference is not found in the poem’s pragmatics. Mullen’s speaker maintains the same attitude towards the beloved as Shakespeare’s; her poem faithfully transmits his critique of the clichés of blazon by updating them to the clichés of marketing and celebrity, and it retains the sonnet’s attitudes toward fair and dark coloring. “Dim Lady” does not satirize Shakespeare’s project.

Instead it creates difference in other ways. Besides the formal changes mentioned earlier, and the shift to a broader comedic tone resulting from the exaggerated banality of its diction, the poem’s context—its situation in the world—opens the critical distance needed for its playful imitation to function as parody. The knowledge that its writer is a woman makes the decision to preserve the genders of the sonnet’s speaker and beloved no longer obvious—and therefore productively suggestive, as are most freshly defamiliarized conventions. The reader imagines various sexual orientations for the speaker, and alternatively imagines the poem as a purely textual performance decoupled from the speaker’s gender altogether.

Likewise the knowledge that the poet is African American similarly complicates and illuminates the decision to retain the sonnet’s critique of fairness as erotic ideal and its valorizing of the lady’s darkness. Inevitably the reader tests alternatives: wouldn’t the pragmatic equivalent of the sonnet’s argument, for a black speaker, be to contest an idealized blackness in favor of a pale beloved? How would that rewrite identity into the blazon tradition? Might a black writer ventriloquize a white persona? Could the poem’s speaker be critiquing a hierarchy of skin tones among African Americans? All parodies speak with a double voice; by placing such basic decisions about the poem’s “I” in play, the context of “Dim Lady” creates a virtual chorus of performative identities in the reader’s mind, adding to the critique’s point and resonance.

When Shakespeare set out to parody the blazons of the Petrarchan sonneteers, he was playing a double game himself. It’s true that he closely followed the metaphors, and sometimes even the syntax, of his models—Watson’s 1582 sequence Hekatompathia, passages from Sidney’s Arcadia and Astrophil and Stella, Spenser’s Amoretti (number XV even models the “if-then” pairs of Shakespeare’s sonnet)—and his published sequence follows the formal template of Daniel’s Delia, as John Kerrigan has shown (13-18). But he also knew an existing tradition of backlash, of inverted or anti-blazon, employed elsewhere in Sidney’s Arcadia and exploited independently in poems like Donne’s Elegy II, The Anagram.

So when Shakespeare used parody not to invert panegyric, but to explore the treachery of metaphor itself, he was performing both to demonstrate his mastery of a prestigious if sclerotic form and to complicate it with a new depth of awareness. Already at the turn of the seventeenth century, then, parody can be seen as simultaneously revolutionary and conservative in its ethos. However critical a parodist’s attitude, he or she inevitably appropriates something of the source text.

Clearly Mullen’s performance in “Dim Lady” shares this characteristic: it claims standing in the projects of praising a beloved, of sending up the conventions of praise, of exercising postmodern “received language” effects, and of rewriting a complicating identity into the lyric’s decentered “I.” All this from an exercise, a game; and indeed one that depends like all parody on the choices (those dice again) of an inferred—or in Mullen’s case declared—encoder and the competence of the reader to decode the presence of the source text.

How can we think about these relationships between poet, parody, and source? One way to theorize them is to invoke Rene Girard’s notion of triangular desire. The title poem of the collection in which “Dim Lady” appears—Sleeping With the Dictionary—suggests such a reading by establishing a context in which language itself displays erotic agency. Notice that the title isn’t Sleeping with the Grammar. A dictionary does not record the rules of language but describes how people—often literary people—have used words. Its history of achieved expression is what makes the word hoard seductive as well as generative.

Mullen has said that she has always loved dictionaries of all kinds, including feminist dictionaries and dictionaries of African American slang, and sometimes falls asleep reading them. She likes the fact that the American Heritage Dictionary’s advisory panels included Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps and Gloria Steinem. So when her poem personifies the dictionary as a kind of polymorphous bed partner, it seems to whisper with the voices of countless past word-lovers from untold cultural streams:

  . . . .To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark
for an alluring word, is the poet’s nocturnal mission. Aroused by myriad
possibilities, we try out the most perverse positions in the practice of our
nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body of the work.

In other words, the poet’s relationship to sources and products can usefully be modeled as an erotics. Rene Girard, in his 1965 book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, developed the concept of triangular or mediated desire. In his famous example, Don Quixote, by modeling his behavior on the fictional Amadis of Gaul, surrenders to Amadis the individual’s fundamental prerogative of choosing the object of his own desire. In Proust, the narrator’s desires are mediated by characters within the narrative. In both cases actions, possessions, and attitudes are valued by a character not for their intrinsic worth but because a role model or a rival values them. Girard works out the complexities of these motivations in readings of many novels, but in each instance he insists that the triangular relationship exists among agents, not abstractions.

This perhaps illuminates the impulse to personify the dictionary as lover. The poet desires to write, instead of to knit, because others have written; their writing has awakened the poet’s mimetic desire.

I’ve taken the title of this talk from another poem in Mullen’s book called “Any Lit.” Syntactically modeled on a fragment of an African American courtship ritual, “You are a huckleberry beyond my persimmon,” this poem applies a phonic substitution process to create variant lines that permute the sounds of “you” and “my” in each line. Line twenty-three declares “You are a Eurydice beyond my maestro.”

This is the ancient triangle of poetic longing brought up to date. The poet’s desire for Eurydice—the blazoned mistress, the pure poem of being—remains unquenchable, because it is always mediated: mediated by past masters and by that “silver tongued companion,” the dictionary they populate. Which is perhaps just to say, with Aristotle and the Russian formalists, that the art is prior to the artist. But it’s also to say that desire is in the blood of a poet. The writer’s interior garden, as Rene Girard observes of Proust, is never a solitary garden. Mullen’s garden is shared by Shakespeare, by the anti-blazonists, by Petrarch and his followers, by African chanters, and by the anonymous copywriters of slogans and brand names. Her choices of parody, of process writing, and of source text emphasize how intimately the project of rewriting identity depends on the textual tradition it revises. She inflicts what Thomas M. Green, speaking of renaissance imitations, has called “a civilized violence, a loving sacrilege” on her sources (39). Like Bakhtin’s carnival, Mullen’s many-voiced poem may burlesque its familiar models, but it does so in order to enlarge and complicate, not repudiate them.




Works Cited:

Greene, Thomas M. The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry. New Haven:Yale University Press, 1982.

Jenkins, Grant. “Feeding the Gods: An Interview with Harryette Mullen.” Rain Taxi 10.3 (Fall 2005).

Kane, Daniel. “Poets on Poetry: Daniel Kane Interviews the Poet Harryette Mullen.” Teachers & Writers – Poets Chat June-July 2002 <http://www.writenet.org/poetschat/poetschat_h_mullen.html>.

Kerrigan, John. “Introduction” to Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint. Gen Ed. T.J.B. Spencer, Associate Ed. Stanley Wells. London, Penguin Books, 1986.

Michaels, Walter Benn. Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Silliman, Ron. “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject.” Socialist Review July-September 1988.

Kerrigan, John. “Introduction” to Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint. Gen Ed. T.J.B. Spencer, Associate Ed. Stanley Wells. London, Penguin Books, 1986.

Randall Couch is a poet, translator, and critic whose work most recently has been anthologized in Best New Poets 2005 and XConnect print annual 7. A 2000 Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellow, he teaches poetry and poetics at Arcadia University.

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