By Jessica Long
Harryette Mullen’s Ode to Jayne Cortez
In “I am New York City” Cortez writes “i am new york city / here is my brain of hot sauce / my tobacco teeth my / mattress of bedbug tongue / legs aparthand on chin / war on the roofinsuits / pointed fingerpushcarts / my contraceptives all” (“I am New York City”). “I’m using my plan brain to imagine her fancy cortex” writes Harryette Mullen of Jayne Cortez, “as if the inquisitive iris of my galaxy-orbiting telescope could see as far as her vision…as is my duty-free bottle of jerk sauce could simulate the fire ant picante that inflames her tongue of rage” (28). Both Mullen and Cortez share the same zeal for using imaginative and powerful language in their poetry. As black women writers that lived through the Civil Rights movement, Cortez and Mullen have a powerful source that fuels their work. In “Fancy Cortex,” Mullen shows her gratitude for the influence of Cortez’s language.
In an interview with Cynthia Hogue, Mullen recalls that she was the only black, female English major at the University of Texas at Austin and remembers that her curriculum was void of any African American literature. “We didn’t read Invisible Man. We didn’t read Richard Wright. We didn’t read any black women,” said Mullen in her interview. Most of her knowledge of African literature came from folklore classes taught by Roger Abrahams, a white professor. “Here was this white man who was teaching me Afro-American culture, and it was practically all new to me,” Mullen told Hogue. Mullen tells Hogue that the way she experienced and began to understand black culture was through writing. Because there was not a long tradition of black literature, Mullen had to “expand [her] sense of black subjectivity” by talking about how the issue applied to her (Hogue). Mullen expresses her frustration as a student trying to understand a culture she was part of, but had no connection to:
Now I feel that I understand why I kept having this experience of ‘Why don’t I know this? Why is this the black culture and I don’t have a real familiarity with it?’ This is definitely a black culture that was marked for class and for gender in a way that did not include my own experience, for if you had talked about black people who go to church two or three days a week and who work very hard and are thrifty and try to avoid entanglements with the law, that is the culture I knew. Partly what was going on was that people were fascinated with those aspects of black culture that were most different from what they saw as white middle class culture. (Hogue)
Part of this unfamiliarity came from Mullen’s family living in a ‘white style.’ Growing up Mullen experienced the gap between ‘black’ and ‘white’ English, which she calls code-switching: “for instance, my family spoke standard English at home. Educated, middle-class, black speakers are code-switchers, and what we really did was learn to switch from standard English to a black vernacular in certain situations when that was called for” (Hogue). In essence Mullen had to learn two different languages. She refers to her black family as having ‘white style’ and distresses that many black children today believe that if they learn standard English that they are “less black” (Hogue).
In her career Mullen has used code-switching in her poetry, but it is clear that in “Fancy Cortex” she uses standard English when she speaks of Jayne Cortez (Hogue). It is interesting that Mullen uses proper English instead of using a black dialect in praise of another strong, black woman writer. It could be argued that Mullen was drawing on her tradition of ‘white’ or standard English to praise Cortez’ diverse, powerful language that embraces the part of black culture that Mullen never experienced growing up. Mullen is essentially trying to use her familiarity with the only part of black culture that she knew to praise Cortez’ familiarity of the black culture she never had.
“As if the trained nostrils of my narco-bloodhound could sniff out what she sense in the wind” (28).
Some of the culture that Mullen refers to can be found in Cortez’s “Morning”: “in the morning / gonna firedance in the petro / in the morning / turn loose the blues in the funky jungle / in the morning/ I said when you see the morning coming like / a two-headed twister / let it blowlet it blow / in the morningin the morning / all swollen up like an ocean in the morning / early in the morning” (Jayne Cortez.). In this poem Cortez seems to use a combination of ‘black’ and ‘white’ style. Words such as “funky,” “gonna firedance,” and “all swollen up” exemplify the black vernacular whereas the grammar is standard English. Cortez, in her own right, clearly code-switches as well.
“As if my shallow unschooled shoals could reckon the calculus of her konk’s brainwave tsunami” (28).
In constructing her newfound tradition, Mullen had to ask, “What are the qualities that are considered to be ‘black’ in literature” (Hogue). In talking with Hogue, Mullen mentioned Erica Hunt in reference to code-switching and Will Alexander in reference to surrealism. On the topic of surrealism Mullen also mentioned Jayne Cortez: “There is also Jayne Cortez, who also has connections to surrealism, but is seen as being really engaged with a black political consciousness in a ways that moves her work in another direction” (Hogue). Cortez is indeed involved with a “black political consciousness.” She is president of the Organization for Women Writers of Africa and also helps to plan the Yari Yari International Conference of Women Writers of African Descent (“Biography”).
“As if the speculative diagnosis of my imaging technology could chart the direction of her intuitive intellect” (28).
This strong connection to this ‘black consciousness’ is clearly shown in her poetry. In “If the Drum is a Woman” Cortez writes, “don’t become weak and cold and desert to your drum / don’t be forced into the position as an oppressor of / drums / and make a drum tragedy of drums / if the drum is a woman” (“If the Drum is a Woman”). Her abbreviated biography on her webpage describes her works as “political, surrealistic, dynamic innovations in lyricism, and visceral sound” (“Biography”). While Mullen was struggling to create a tradition for herself, Cortez already had found her poetical niche and mastered the sound and language of her poetry.
“As if the knots and tangles of my twisted psyche could mesh with her intricate synaptic network of condensed neutral convolutions” (28).
According to Voices from the Gaps, a website dedicated to the literary criticism of black women writers, Jayne Cortez embraces the black rights movement through her political and influential poetry: “Her razor sharp imagery and directness leave no room for questioning the intent of the author. Cortez's excrescent language and her ability to push the acceptable limits of expression to address issues of race, sex, and homophobia place her in a category that few other women occupy” (Voices from the Gaps). Cortez seems to not only embrace the values of black rights and black culture but takes the torch and runs with it. It is no mystery that Mullen would dedicate “Fancy Cortex” to Cortez for not only her influence on black culture, but also her personal influence on Mullen.
“As if the pedestrian software of my mundane explorer could map as rounded colonies the terra incognita of her undiscovered hemispheres” (28).
In Cortez’ poem entitled “American / Nigerian Relations: (They Want the Oil) she repeats the refrain “They want the oil / But they don't want the people” twenty times (Jayne Cortez). This is the deeply political poetry that Cortez is so well known for. The repetition of the refrain drives her point like a hammer driving a nail in to a wall. She is neither circuitous in reaching her point and makes no attempts to sugarcoat what she believes to be the truth. Her intentions are unmasked and direct. She simply comes out and says exactly what she means: “Cortez makes no mistake in her approach; she is constant and firm in her opposition to oppression, racism, and cultural marginality. She calls for a swift end to imposed dehumanization, and demands the creation of order and equality in our society” (Voices from the Gaps). It seems only natural that Cortez would choose to use such strong language to emphasis her message.
All the comparisons in “Fancy Cortex” that Mullen uses between Cortez and herself exemplifies Cortez’s powerful language that Mullen seems use as a muse. Good examples are: “speculative diagnosis” vs. “intuitive intellect,” “simple chalk” vs. “monumental reefs,” (28). Mullen’s comparison of her “twisted psyche” to Cortez’s “intricate synaptic network” is no less compelling than when Cortez uses the refrain of “They want the oil / But they don't want the people” (28, “American / Nigerian Relations: (They Want the Oil)”). In order to truly complement a potent author, Mullen is using her own potent diction.
Cortez also seems to have influenced Mullen politically as well, which is easily send in such poems as “Bilingualism”:
Californians say No
To bilingual instructions in schools
Californians say No
To bilingual instructions on ballots
Californians say Yes
To bilingual instructions on curbside waste receptacles
Coloque el recipiente con las flechas hacia la calle
Place container with arrow facing street
No ruede el recipiente con la tapa abierta
Do not tilt or roll container with lid open
Recortes de jardin solamente
Yard clippings only. (10)
It is evident that Mullen is using this poem to voice her disapproval of the treatment of Latin American people, in this case by the Californians, which is analogous to Cortez’s “If the Drum is a Woman.”
However, even though Mullen clearly drew on Cortez for insight, she in her own right has ascended out of the confused cultural tangles of her earlier years into a niche of her own mastery. While Cortez in straightforward and sometimes brutally blunt, Mullen invites the reader into a realm of beautiful of black culture, political awareness and intellectual exploration. Instead of giving the answer to the reader, Mullen asks her audience to search for it within their own experience. She enjoys playing with the sounds of words in “Blah-Blah,” “Jinglejangle” where each letter of the alphabet is variated in sound: “ack-ack, aye-aye / Baa baa, Baba, Bambam, Bebe, Berber, Bibi….Zizi, ZsaZsa, Zouzou, Zuzu,” (12, 34). Mullen’s poetry creates an atmosphere of clever and humorous censure where the readers find themselves marveling at the craft of her wit and the spectrum of her intensity. In the opinion of this author, Mullen has surpassed her ‘muse’ in Sleeping with the Dictionary and succeeded in creating her own black tradition that combines the soul of black culture with a standard English dialect. She truly has found her artistic foundation.
Mullen ends her poem with: “As if the grey matter of my dim bulb could be enlightened by the brilliance of her burning watts. As if her divergent universification might fancy microcosm of my prosaic mind” (28). Mullen draws on the powerful language of Cortez to paint the part of black culture she never knew, and her gratitude is unmistakable in “Fancy Cortex.”
Cortez, Jayne. “American / Nigerian Relations: (They Want the Oil)” Jayne Cortez.
3 Dec. 2004.
Cortez, Jayne. “I am New York City.” Jayne Cortez.
23 Nov. 2004
Cortez, Jayne. “Morning.” Jayne Cortez.
3 Dec. 2004.
Hogue, Cynthia. “Interview with Harryette Mullen.” Postmodern Culture. 9.2 (1999).
23 Nov. 2004. only/issue.199/9.2hogue.txt>
Jayne Cortez. “If the Drum is a Woman.”
23 Nov 2004.
Jayne Cortez. “Biography.” 29 Nov.
Mullen, Harryette. “Fancy Cortex.” Sleeping with the Dictionary. University of
California: Berkeley, 2002.
Voices from the Gaps : Women Writers of Color. “Jayne Cortez – Voices from the Gap.”
4 Dec 2004.