Biting Commentary and Hard-Won Wisdom: A Reading by Harryette Mullen

By Taylor Estape

On Friday evening, February 22 in PAC, Harryette Mullen read from several of her collections of poetry. Following the previous night’s lecture, “The Poetics of Soul Food and the Articulation of Black Hunger,” Mullen’s reading was similarly rooted in embodying the cultural and intellectual implications underlying an everyday occurrence: language.

Her opening poems from Sleeping with the Dictionary clearly demonstrated the focus and freedom of her language play. In her poems “Ectopia,” “Denigration,” and “Wipe that Simile Off Your Aphasia,” Mullen created a break from the habitual tropes of words and phrases. Under the seeming frivolity is biting commentary and hard-won wisdom that avoids an overly academic flavor by remaining firmly in the everyday, at times embarrassing, functions of human life and bodies. Ranging from sensual to comedic (“A blood suckers got to worry about irregularity”), Mullen’s poems tread the line between a heavy head and vibrant sensation; between having something to say and the celebration in saying it.

Mullen followed with poems from Tanka Diary, noting that she began writing Tanka and going on hikes and walks outside in an effort to leave the “cramped” space she typically wrote from. While the Tanka poems were more subdued compared to the night’s earlier work, Mullen’s observations of the clashing urban and natural elements around her were no less striking in terms of insight and beauty. In these poems, a plastic-wrapped newspaper glistening in morning dew is as compelling as “the fugitive fragrance of honey suckle.” The further she read, the more the natural world and the urban trappings overlaying it seemed to become indistinguishable from each other: “My visitor from Nebraska buys a sack of assorted sea shells at a souvenir shop then scatters them along the beach.”

Harryette Mullen ended the night with “Land of the Discount Price, Home of the Brand Name,” a cinching and lighthearted account of the consumerist bent of patriotism on the Fourth of July. Mullen remained after the reading to sign books from Boulder Bookstore, as well as broadsides of “Land of the Discount Price, Home of the Brand Name” made by Julia Seko’s Fall 2012 Print Shop class at Naropa’s Harry Smith Print Shop.


Taylor Estape is originally from Miami, FL and recently graduated from the Jack Kerouac School’s BA Writing and Literature program. She is currently preoccupied with a manuscript about floods, a general state of confusion and terror, and finding different ways to eat all forms of pork. She has no idea what will happen next.