Poem Guide

Harryette Mullen: “Elliptical”

When polite prejudice makes for scathing satire.
Black and white headshot of poet Harryette Mullen.

You open a book and start reading a prose poem. The poem’s voice sounds insistent, but it keeps trailing off. It calls itself “we” and repeatedly passes judgment on “they,” but it never specifies who “we” and “they” are. Its tone is disapproving, supercilious, squeamish:

They just can’t seem to . . . They should try harder to . . . They ought to be more . . . We all wish they weren’t so . . . They never . . . They always . . . Sometimes they . . .

Though many poems have an indirect style, this one seems to be about indirectness: its title, “Elliptical,” acknowledges that it’s talking around its subject. What is this speaker trying to say? How might their meaning differ from the poet’s? The poem’s larger context, including the poet’s other work and public statements, offers some useful guidance through this maze of hedging.

Throughout her acclaimed career, Harryette Mullen has written poems as pointed as they are playful. Devising literary games that unveil hidden delights, absurdities, and treacheries of language, she adapts the project of Modernists such as Gertrude Stein to our own complicated times. Her preface to Recyclopedia (2006), a volume that gathers three of her collections, describes her “hard-won appreciation for Stein’s work”:

I share her love of puns, her interest in the stuff of life, and her synthesis of innovative poetics with cultural critique. However, my own prose poems depart from her cryptic code to recycle and reconfigure language from a public sphere that includes mass media and political discourse as well as literature and folklore.

Mullen’s linguistic creations are as improbable and brain-twisting as Stein’s, but she mines her raw material from a wider lexicon. Writing as a Black American woman in the digital age, she consciously declines to seal her work off from “mass media and political discourse.” In The Poem Is You, poet-critic Stephanie Burt tracks Mullen’s early-career turn from “more or less clear, speechlike poems of African-American experience” toward poems that projected “feminist, and antiracist, politics” but “did not feel like speech.” During that phase, Mullen began repurposing Stein’s techniques as well as those of other influences she’s named: the Black Arts movement, the New York School, the Language poets, the puckish European school called Oulipo. Grounded in the experimental, she sneaks up obliquely on the political, sometimes seeming to startle it at random. One piece from her second book, Trimmings (1991), reads in full:

Her red and white, white and blue banner manner. Her red and white all over black and blue. Hannah’s bandanna flagging her down in the kitchen with Dinah, with Jemima. Someone in the kitchen I know.

In a flash, this riff links the American flag, an old children’s joke (“What’s black and white and red all over? A newspaper”), race (“white” and “black”), bruising (“black and blue”), the Bible (Dinah and Jemima are Old Testament characters), the folk song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (“Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah / Someone in the kitchen I know”—"Dinah" in this context was a stereotyped name for Black women), and the syrup-brand character Aunt Jemima, a demeaning caricature of Black womanhood that dates to the 19th century.. In four sentence fragments, the poet free-associates her way from the American flag to the image—or the “know[ledge]”—of Aunt Jemima, as if the former conceals the latter.

En route, she touches on a dense cluster of subjects: Americanness, mass culture, violence, labor, misogyny, racism. Though more surreal and sound-driven than “Elliptical,” this poem, too, feels intensely loaded, its meaning largely stashed between the lines.

***

“Elliptical” appears in Mullen’s fifth book, Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002), a banquet of lavish language and uncanny conceits. One poem in the collection begins “Are aardvarks anxious?”; another alphabetizes rhyming phrases such as “flower power” and “nitwit”; another, “Denigration,” draws out strains of bigotry in both “innocent” and inflammatory language; another spoofs Shakespeare’s “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” in outrageous prose. Mullen’s interest in offbeat social commentary remains even as her verbal pyrotechnics crackle.

What, then, explains the staid, clenched diction of “Elliptical”? Mullen’s comments about her process in a 2008 interview offer a few clues:

From childhood I’ve also appreciated the aesthetic, expressive, emotive, and pleasurable aspects of language, as well as the conflict and confusion we sometimes encounter when trying to communicate with others. I’m interested in the borderlines of language, where meanings contradict and overlap. ... Often I work improvisationally, sampling and collaging fragments of written and spoken discourse. ... I like to use puns and other kinds of polysemy and ambiguity to stretch the limits of meaning.

“Elliptical” does seem to mimic spoken discourse (whether continuous or sampled in fragments), and it’s certainly full of ambiguity. The title alone suggests multiple, overlapping meanings. First, it refers to the ellipses that punctuate the poem, riddling its rhetoric with enigmatic gaps. Every sentence peters out into the unsaid or the unsayable—unless those triple dots indicate things that have been said and are now being elided. Either way, the poem is also elliptical, as in circuitous or roundabout. Its speaker is very prone to “the conflict and confusion we sometimes encounter when trying to communicate”; in essence, that problem is the poem.

The title may also be a literary in-joke. Beginning in 1998, Stephanie Burt identified what she called an “Elliptical” school of contemporary poets. Her definitions of this term, which gained currency in poetry circles, included the following:

Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. ... They are post-avant-gardist, or post-“postmodern”: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the “language writers,” and have chosen to do otherwise. ... They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate ...

“Defensively difficult” clearly fits Mullen’s speaker; “desperate” might also apply. The ellipses and plural voice could be considered “verbal gizmos” designed to “undermine the coherence of speaking selves.” At the same time, this speaker hardly “reflects the poet”; if Mullen is invoking Burt’s ideas, she’s doing so mischievously.

Few poets would want the voice of “Elliptical” confused with their own. It pronounces grand opinions, yet it keeps correcting itself: “They never,” “They always,” “Sometimes they,” “Once in a while they.” It speaks with dry formality, yet so vaguely that it never names its subject:

However it is obvious that they . . . Their overall tendency has been . . . The consequences of which have been . . .

In some key respects, this voice echoes others from the same book, Sleeping with the Dictionary. Its evasive awkwardness recalls the I of “All She Wrote,” the collection’s opening poem:

Forgive me, I’m no good at this. I can’t write back. I never read your letter. I can’t say I got your note. I haven’t had the strength to open the envelope.

This speaker, too, elliptically withholds important context. Who is apologizing to whom? What has triggered this guilt: a “letter”? a “note”? a “book”? The poem hedges on the smallest details. What comes through clearly is the disingenuous tone, the defensive pleading, which flouts any assumption that poetry will speak with a silver tongue. “Elliptical” works similarly, trading I for we, hedged excuses for hedged accusations.

Another kind of echo is audible in the we of “We Are Not Responsible.” Here Mullen’s satire is not elliptical but direct. The speaker’s chilly bureaucratic reserve is unmistakably that of the White American power structure: “We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives.?... We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” This we is deeply hostile, keen to perpetuate injustice: a voice as inhuman as it is dehumanizing.

The voice of “Elliptical” may be just as culpable, but it’s all too human. It tries to claim some privileged understanding of they, but it can’t keep up the sham for the duration of a sentence. It makes occasional feints toward compassion: “But we know how difficult it is for them to,” “Certainly we can’t forget that they,” and so on. These are condescending and heavily qualified, but they suggest thoughts and feelings the speaker is unwilling to pursue. Overall, the prose hovers, uncommitted, between empathy and contempt:

Many of them remain unaware of . . . Some who should know better simply refuse to . . . Of course, their perspective has been limited by . . . On the other hand, they obviously feel entitled to . . .

As a result, the speaker sounds compulsive, stunted. Their constant qualifications (However, But, On the other hand, Nevertheless) steer the poem’s rhetoric in a vicious loop. It’s worth noting that elliptical can also mean “oval-shaped,” like the orbits of certain planets. This speaker is talking in circles, apparently without ever listening.

No wonder their speech is thick with dramatic irony. Most of their half-assertions can be sarcastically turned back on them: “They just can’t seem to . . .” (Communicate?) “If only they would make an effort to . . .” (Speak plainly?) “On the other hand, they obviously feel entitled to . . .” (Judge others?) The final hesitation sounds ominous or rueful: “Our interactions unfortunately have been. . .” (Tense? Confusing? Violent? Have there been genuine interactions?)

This we seems to assume that readers are part of us and will grasp the unstated topic of discussion. Thus, the elliptical style of “Elliptical” suggests, in part, a kind of in-group signaling—coded, exclusionary talk. (Notice the clubby appeals to a shared understanding: “we all wish,” “we know,” “we can’t forget that,” “we know.”) But the context here isn’t as clear as in “We Are Not Responsible”; readers can’t be sure this poem deals with racial divisions. In theory, we and they could be any powerful in-group and belittled out-group. This ambiguity broadens the poem’s scope and—by giving the speaker more plausible deniability—sharpens its satirical bite.

Still, Mullen herself has cited “Elliptical” as one of the poems in Dictionary that “echo recurrent discussions of identity politics, multiculturalism, immigration, assimilation, and racial profiling.” Poet James Lowell Brunton observes, “While anyone could be speaking these lines ... the poem is reminiscent of the kinds of quiet white racism found in both ‘polite’ conversation and official discourse meant to justify existing racist power structures.” Brunton adds that even the speaker’s undeclared identity—the guise of plurality and objectivity—“underscores the ability of privileged subject positions to make universal claims.” This we isn’t the “royal” we, but it talks as if its judgment rules the universe.

So why all the hesitations? Evidently, Mullen’s target is not only the arrogance but also the primness of privilege. By stifling their ugliest thoughts and couching their disdain in genteel terms, the speaker avoids the self-knowledge that might puncture their illusions. Toni Morrison once called racism “a profound neurosis”; in that sense, this speaker is too neurotic to risk a full statement but determined to pontificate anyway—a hopeless case, according to Brunton:

[N]o meaningful communication between the speaker and the object of their musings can ever take place, for the speaker is never willing to admit ignorance or to learn from the other person. ... What the ellipses might stand for, then, is ultimately unimportant, because the sentence will always favor the speaker’s point of view.

Though the poem provides no resolution or uplift, it does carry emotional force. There’s something pathetic about the speaker’s flight from truth; the self-censorship is that of a witness always perjured in advance. Beneath all the glib judgment runs a cry of frustration, a flailing desire for things to be otherwise: “They just can’t seem to,” “We all wish,” “If only.” However stiffly, the final line (“Our interactions unfortunately have been”) conjures a whole ruinous history. It’s fitting that this history, with all its unacknowledged shame, prompts the speaker’s last and deepest silence.

“Pronouns are powerful words,” Mullen once remarked to an interviewer. “Consider how we use I and you, we and they to divide or unite ourselves.” For the poet of Sleeping with the Dictionary—a writer enamored of the sensuous and connective possibilities of language—“Elliptical” is a kind of nightmare vision: speech at its most sterile and divisive. It’s so attuned to the accents of prejudice that it’s barely satire; at the same time, like all satire, it holds instructive power. In its speaker’s craven account of what “our interactions unfortunately have been,” it gestures elliptically toward what they might have been and still might be.

Originally Published: September 11th, 2020

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection,?Pleasures of the Game?(Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.

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