Harryette Mullen’s funky supermarket: “There is so much writing in a supermarket.”
“Seeds in packets brighter than soup cans, cheaper than lottery
tickets, more hopeful than waxed rutabagas, promising order
in alphabetized envelopes, dream startled gardens one spring
day tore open. Sown in good dirt, fingered tenderly.”
“Refreshing Spearmint gums up the words. Instant permkit combs
through the wreckage. Bigger better spermkit grins down family
of four. Scratch and sniff your lucky number. You may already
be a weiner.”
“Hide the face. Chase dirt with an ugly stick. The sinking sen-
sation, a sponge dive. Brush off scum on some well scrubbed
mission. It’s slick to admit, motherwit and grit ain’t groceries.”
Harryette Mullen. from S*PeRM**K*T
In Harryette Mullen’s third book, S*PeRM**K*T we go for a walk in a supermarket, we go for a walk in language. It is the embarkation unto Piggly-Wiggly’s. We interrogate the “radiant status of the crass,” of advertising, hype and hypnotics, and by hip-hop. In these 32 prose poems Mullen develops a little indictment of the corruption of language for commercial purposes, of the construction of our identity through advertising, through jingles and consumerism and its attendant waste. “We are consumers; that’s how we are constructed as citizens. People consumer more than they vote. It’s more important what you buy than what candidates you vote for. That has overtaken our sense of ourselves a citizens in a civic society.”
Like her earlier book Trimmings, this work is based on Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and is similar in subject matter (food and the domestic), the use of the prose-poem form, and the use of parataxis as a structuring method. And like much of Stein’s work, Mullen’s is an analysis, a critique, and a
celebration of language, all at once. It’s a transgressive work, part lyrical, part critical, part song and part manifesto. Most of all, Mullen’s work celebrates the playground that language can be. She has fun with what she is doing. In S*PeRM**K*T she riffs on the products we find in supermarkets and the language that describes and sells them. She gets down about pet food, pain-killers, toilet paper, pigs, Pledge, and all sorts of other products. She has a hymn to bottled waters. She ‘chows down on all fours.”
The forces that move Mullen’s poems, that provide structure and meaning are many. Basically however. the poems proceed by metamorphosis, by one thing changing into another, but two things combining to form another, “disinfunktant,” and “chlorinsed,” for instance. The poems work by quick movement from one thing, one object to another. The 28th poem, for instance turns seed packets into soup cans, lottery tickets and rutabagas, comparing each to the other. Canned soup and lottery tickets are probably two of the most ‘sold,” most advertised of products, neither of which is terribly good for you. At the local level of sentence and syntax, each transformation is problematized by comparison. And of course, the poetical personal is always the political, and the social, sexual, gardening is not always what it seems: seeds are “Sown in good dirt, fingered tenderly.” Lines such as “Scratch and sniff your lucky number. You may already be a weiner” also cleverly conflates product, advertising slogan and sexuality (earlier in the poem, refreshing spearmint has gummed up the words/works). Language often equals sexuality.
Each box of a prose poem also gathers speed and meaning from those that precede it. Mullen’s use of fragment and collage in her prose poem containers mimics the order and theology of the supermarket. And yet the order is undermined and minded, by the multiplicity of meanings, by the possibilities that bust open the poems, by the celerity of homonyms (“dry wry toast” for instance in poem 19). This of course, mimics the fragmented fluidity of identity that is the hallmark of the postmodern.
On a micro-level the poems work by repetition, by alliteration, by consonance, all of which are sustained throughout the poem (most spectacularly in lines like “it’s slick to admit, motherwit and grit ain’t groceries.”) And of course the poem is a taxonomy, which parallels the structure provided by the prose poem boxes and the paratactical sentences.
Lastly, S*PeRM**K*T works by being fun, and funny, by privileging the surface of the language, and by getting wild with the materiality of language. For a poet like Mullen, writing is living, is grocery shopping is manifesto.
-------“Never let them see you eat. You might be taken for a zoo. Raise your hand if you think you’re not.”