Scatting the Visionary: Jazz, Jouissance and Identity
in Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge
...on her own jive
player and instrument
all the way live...
Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge is an eighty-page book-length poem composed in un-punctuated quatrains, four to a page. Borrowing from the jazz tradition which often encourages spontaneity on the part of the performer, Mullen conceives each page of her poem as a unit unto itself, with a seemingly infinite number of variations among them: “I think I just tried to feel, intuit, how the quatrains might be ordered. In some cases, there’s a local order that may continue for a page, usually not longer than a page.” Because the relations among the parts of the text are manifold, because narrative structure itself has been intentionally destabilized and delimited, the reader is expected to undertake both diachronic and synchronic readings–a strategy Mullen herself undertakes at readings, shuffling the order of pages entirely, sometimes commencing with those that appear at the back of the book, then perhaps reading pages which appear towards the middle, or elsewhere. On any given night, some passages may play together in loosely connected narrative sprints, others might associate as historical or thematic bundles, while still for others nothing at all coheres. And no doubt the arrangement will change on each subsequent reading because in Muse & Drudge, beyond the typographical linearity that the book and page format dictate, there are multiple beginnings and multiple endings; there is no reading of the poem which cannot be reversed, no fixed hierarchy of meaning which cannot be made more or less significant.
Mullen also destabilizes linguistic structures at the level of the stanza, doing so not only through disjunctive syntactical formations and vague operative relationships among parts of speech (nouns substituting for verbs and vice-versa), but also through the sheer preponderance of her word-play, which continuously permutates familiar words and phrases. Homophonic puns, anagrams, oronyms, palindromes, double (and sometimes triple) entendres–each enacts a polysemic playfulness which demands from the reader a comprehension of language on two, three, four levels at once. This is particularly true when we consider how such gaming is funneled through any number of vocal registers, including black vernacular, contemporary slang, diasporic idiom, colloquialism, Spanish, and pidgin. Moreover there is the ever-present bric-a-brac of cultural, literary and historic allusion with which to contend. The poem is, as Mullen herself admits, “a book of echoes," a hyper-literate, hyper-lexic “recyclopedia” of languages.
Most overlooked among critics, however, is the non-sensical strain running through Muse & Drudge, those passages “hooked on phonemes imbued with exuberance” in which mimetic representation of the world breaks down entirely, and in which Mullen’s radically destabilized language functions on the level of phonemes as an improvised form of textual scatting that Mullen disseminates over themes of kinship and identity. Mullen’s sprints of sound, which blur the spoken word with the written one, improvise a joyful nonsense–or jouissance in Barthes’ sense in The Pleasure of the Text–that offers an abrupt form of free play set loose above Mullen’s open-ended, allusive word-play. As in jazz, where the excitement comes from being present at the moment of creation, so too does Mullen’s “mix of wiggle” create a slippery, unpredictable, spontaneous composition that attempts to outrun, however fleetingly, those normative linguistic processes determined to contain it. Such scatting, I would suggest, is a gesture towards the visionary: an ideal semiotic state, a “writing aloud” wherein “the grain of the throat” revels in being an instrument unto itself (and without practical purpose); wherein even pluralized categories of gender, race, and identity are momentarily transcended; and wherein a heretofore undiscussed visionary aim emerges–one that not only signals a departure from the symbolic function of language, but also a concurrent sliding of the poem into a more archaic relation between vocal production and the body.
If accessibility to word-play and allusion (still operating at both the denotative and connotative levels) represents the pheno-text of Muse & Drudge, that level of the poem which, according to Julia Kristeva, “serves to communicate . . . ‘competence’”, then such breathless (and punctuation-less) flows of words (“mutter patter simper blubber / murmur prattle smatter blather / mumble chatter whisper bubble / mumbo-jumbo palaver gibber blunder”), places locution in the realm of what Kristeva associates with “the transfers of drive energy that can be detected in phonematic devices”; devices such as “the accumulation of rhythm,” “intonation or rhythm” as well as the sonic textures produced by sonic textures like consonance, assonance and alliteration. It follows then that Mullen’s drift into phonemic improvisations, her “runs’‘ in language (“Nary hep male rose sullen / let alley roam, yell melon / dull normal fellow hammers omelette” constitute a disruptive, pre-verbalized, pre-lingual state. Mullen’s scatting, then, is a kind of somatic impulse “below the surface” of her speaking being.
What should interest us most here is the motility of this energy; that is its spontaneity. The chora as a “rhythmic space, which has no thesis and no position” is “rhythm, a sequence of linked instants . . . prior to any signified spaciousness” where “rhythm, space and time coexist." Kristeva’s notion of a mobile rhythm preceding “signified spaciousness,” as well as the collapsing together of time and space get at the improvisational aspect of Muse & Drudge. Scatting emphasizes the spontaneous over the formulaic, happy coincidence over premeditation. Gerald L. Bruns posits the generative nature of extemporaneous linguistic performance this way:
From a mildly etymological point of view an improvisation is a species of unforseen discourse. One cannot predict anything about it. It is discourse that makes no provision for a future, not in a readers mind nor, certainly, in the writer’s; its teleology is entirely in the present. It is discourse whose beginning is what matters, because to improvise is to begin without a second thought, and under the rules there is no turning back. It is discourse that is governed by no provisos, and so differs from nearly every other discourse one can imagine: it is ungeneric almost by definition; it is a close semblance of free speech.
That improvisation situates itself “entirely in the present” suggests the temporal provisionality to utterance. Take, for example, this stanza from Mullen’s poem: “rough, dirty, a little bit hard / broken blossom poke a possum / park your quark in a hard aardvark." Disjunctive syntax, illogical verbal constructions, unannounced operative relationships among parts of speech (how nouns, adjectives and verbs as qualities and abstractions are freely substitutable)—such impulsive derangements of the verbal practice are always beginning. And yet for readers acquainted with her interview with Calvin Bedient, Mullen (in the line “park your quark in a hard aardvark”) admits to having played with her mother’s Boston accent, punning on the phrase “park the car in Harvard yard." Where allusion and oronymical play depend on the reader’s coincidental recognition of cultural signs and speech patterns, Mullen’s “scattings” also depend on a complete and coincidental mis-comprehension of language. That is to say, because interpretation is provisional to a particular reader in a particular moment in time (and thus mobile across any number of audiences), and because complete mis-comprehension of lines and stanzas is always a potentiality for the poem (thus abjuring any sense of finality to the process), scatting in Muse & Drudge could–at least potentially–occur everywhere and nowhere. Indeed, Mullen’s scattings end not when they have attained a necessary formal or thematic completeness, but rather when they re-emerge again into the symbolic order of an individual reader or audience member.
Mullen’s extemporaneous sprints of nonsensical sound suggest a verbal state that precedes emergence into the social order. Her runs of language (“spaginzy spagades / splibby splabibs”, “jig-rig nitty-gritty”) slide straight out of bodily desires, aligning them with both an asocial linguistic state and with a highly individualized bodily presence. Indeed, the semiotic would appear to fulfill Mullen’s own vision of “the body as instrument." With its intertwining of symbolic and somatic energies, scatting suggests a reverse anthropomorphizing and conjures the fierce independence of the female jazz vocalist whose voice, Mullen suggests, “she can enjoy because so many people have tried to define and limit and imprison her body and her sexuality. The idea is that she can be in charge: she can play her own instrument, and she can play the tune that she wants on the instrument."
To extend the implications of Mullen’s poetry, I would here suggest that her improvisations (“chenille feely zeroes / fuzzy nooky fumble”) represent Barthes’ utopian notion of “writing aloud,” that is “the art of guiding one’s body” in a “language lined with flesh” where we can hear “the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the volumptuousness of voweles, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning." Indeed, Mullen’s linguistic improvisations–played over and around the rule-bound domain of allusive word-play–place her back in the corporeal body; they individualize her (and the reader) in a body, yet place that body beyond articulated strictures of race, ideology, and socio-economical status. Indeed, scatting posits a heretofore undiscussed visionary strain within Muse & Drudge, a strain wherein verbal production and material being conjoin, wherein materiality, sensuality, “the breath, the gutterals, the fleshiness of the lips, the whole presence of the human muzzle” are realized in the transitory surfaces of the text. In short, scatting is a realization–by more extemporaneous means–of the body of bliss, the pleasure of jouissance that is “individual–not personal” (62). Mullen the African-American, Mullen the woman, Mullen the professor and childhood product of a segregated Texas border town has dispersed into the rise and fall and push and pull of vowel sounds, into the nonsensical whelter of phonemes, and the bursts and sprints and timbres of accents and inflections. As Barthes would say, text, however fleetingly, has generated into tissue. Having succeeded in shifting the signifieds of identity a great distance, Mullen (and by extension, the reader) has everywhere and nowhere become an “anonymous body." She has gone into our ear.