by Harryette Mullen

I beg to dicker with my silver-tongued companion, whose lips are ready to read my shining gloss. A versatile partner, conversant and well-versed in the verbal art, the dictionary is not averse to the solitary habits of the curiously wide-awake reader. In the dark night’s insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative, awakening my tired imagination to the hypnagogic trance of language. Retiring to the canopy of the bedroom, turning on the bedside light, taking the big dictionary to bed, clutching the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers, smoothing the thin sheets, thick with accented syllables—all are exercises in the conscious regimen of dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages. To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet’s nocturnal mission. Aroused by myriad possibilities, we try out the most perverse positions in the practice of our nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body of the work. Any exit from the logic of language might be an entry in a symptomatic dictionary. The alphabetical order of this ample block of knowledge might render a dense lexicon of lucid hallucinations. Beside the bed, a pad lies open to record the meandering of migratory words. In the rapid eye movement of the poet’s night vision, this dictum can be decoded, like the secret acrostic of a lover’s name.

SOURCE: “Sleeping with the Dictionary” appears in Harryette Mullen‘s collection Sleeping with the Dictionary (University of California Press, 2002), available at

IMAGE: “Flaming June Dictionary Antique Art print by Reimaginationprints, available at (The print is composed of an antique dictionary page and “Flaming June,” a painting by Sir Frederic Leighton (1895).


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Harryette Mullen is a poet and a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing and African-American literature. Mullen was born in Alabama, but spent most of her childhood in Texas. After receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Texas, she attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she wrote her dissertation on slave narratives. Mullen’s poetry collections include Tree Tall Woman, Blues Baby: Early Poems. Trimmings, Muse and Drudge, and Sleeping with the Dictionary, which was nominated for a National Book Award.