Parting the Nightgown of the Poem

Recently Harryette Mullen was awarded the
Academy of American Poets Fellowship 2009. Hooray for Harryette.

In mini-celebration, I am posting these two slender but full lines from Mullen's 1991 Tender Buttons book, Trimmings.

Night moon star sun down gown.
Night moan stir sin dawn gown.

Below is a brief description of these lines from writing I've done on Mullen's work:

The two lines contain the same number of words, retain the consonants within each, and change only vowels in particular words. In this regard, they suggest a kind of stasis. Mullen has set up a field of restriction, something akin to a parsimony principle in which there is a great deal of constraint and limited mobility.

In Mullen’s two lines above, the only textual difference or movement occurring consists in changes of vowels. Yet, so much else is generated out of so seemingly an insignificant change. Each line begins and ends with the same words : “night” and “gown.” Together these two separate words make one word: nightgown. Mullen opens up or parts the nightgown of this poem. The lines reveal what happens in the space between “night” and “gown.” In the first line night is linked to its coming into being (“sun down”) and its emblems–“moon,” and “star.” In the second line night and the activities that occur in or during it are eroticized as “moon” is transmuted into “moan,” “star” into “stir,” and “sun” into “sin.” Furthermore, the lines document the passage of time, though the first might be said to chart a disordered movement of time as the line begins with “night” and then moves into dusk. The second line is occupied with the passage from night to “dawn” as the ‘o” of “down” in the first line is translated in the second into the “a” of “dawn.” It is not insignificant that the movement of the lines occurs undercover of not only linguistic restriction, but also night and its darkness. Out of extreme restriction and delimitation, the lines instantiate the passage of time both formally and in their content (in the time it takes to read them as well as the way they register or figure a movement from dusk to dawn) while they also generate an erotic and transgressive excess from “sun” to “sin” and in the strangeness of the movement from “night” to “dusk.”

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