18 pages 36 minutes read

Harryette Mullen

Dim Lady

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2002

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SummaryOverview

Overview

Harryette Mullen’s “Dim Lady” may remind some readers of 17th century English playwright and poet William Shakespeare’s well-known “Sonnet 130,” in which the speaker of the poem makes a mockery of his beloved’s physical appearance. During Shakespeare’s time, fashion encouraged poets to write flowery poetry that extolled the virtues and the beauty of their beloved. However, the speaker of this sonnet toys with poetic conventions of the time, describing the physical attributes of the speaker’s beloved Dark Lady in less than flattering terms. Mullen’s “Dim Lady” takes Shakespeare’s parody even further, degrading its language to demonstrate that the only way the speaker can describe a beloved is through the coarsening influence of American consumer culture.

Though the language of the poem may appear degraded, the depth and the authenticity of the speaker’s love appears to remain true, and the juxtaposition of nearly-vulgar language against the high literary topic of love invites an analysis of the role of love, and physical and sexual attraction in the modern world. In “Dim Lady,” the speaker’s attachment to her beloved is illustrated in consumerist terms, as well as with images and individuals linked with popular culture. The poet’s decision to veer away from stereotypically flowery or lyrical language when discussing deeply personal emotions like love reflects her own critical ideas about politics and society along with the changing times. As contemporary society grows more dependent on technology and social media as a mode of connection between individuals, the love affairs and emotional attachment between individuals take a different form and function. As these social dynamics change, so must the language poets use to describe the connections between people.

Poet Biography

Harryette Mullen is a feminist poet and writer of short stories, essays, and non-fiction. Born in Alabama of Pennsylvanian parents in 1953, Mullen and her family moved to Fort Worth, Texas when she was very young; they were the first Black family to live in the neighborhood. She began writing poetry as a teenager, and her first poem was published in a Fort Worth newspaper. Mullen credits her family with her interest in poetry and language. She has researched her own family history extensively, and this research has led Mullen to develop an interest in the role of memory in postmodern literature.

Mullen attended college at the University of Texas at Austin, and after she graduated with her B.A., she went on to earn a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1990. Mullen wrote her dissertation about slave narratives, and her work seeks to recover the legacy of African American women writers. Themes like exclusion, racism, and autonomy can be found in much of Mullen’s poetry, prose, and essays. She refers to herself as a Black feminist postmodernist, and much of her work evokes Black voices of the past, reaching as far back as the 1700s and 1800s, a period of time that resonates with Mullen on a personal level due to her family’s own ties to slavery.

Mullen is a poet of the avant-garde Language poetry movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, an approach that departed from the conventions of mainstream poetry typical of this time in America.

Mullen has published five volumes of poetry, in which she explores themes related to race and gender. She has won many awards for her contributions to American literature, including a Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry, the Jackson Poetry prize, and numerous fellowships, including ones from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Academy of American Poets. Mullen is a professor of English at UCLA, where her areas of expertise are poetry and African-American literature.

Poem Text

Mullen, Harryette. “Dim Lady.” 2002. De Gruyter.

Summary

Throughout the poem, the speaker of “Dim Lady” compares her beloved to a collection of unromantic American commercial products, employing a lightly humorous touch that pokes fun at unrealistic beauty expectations, at the object of her affection, and at the poetic register that love poems typically require and this one emphatically eschews. The speaker describes various parts of the woman’s body, starting with the beloved’s eyes, then moving on to the beloved’s mouth, or her “kisser” (Line 2), which is less vivid than “[t]oday’s spe- / cial at Red Lobster” (Lines 1-2). The speaker next describes the beloved’s racks and hair, which is “a mop” (Line 3) made up of “dishwater Slinkys” (Line 4). Her face, or “mug” (Line 6) lacks red and white, and her beloved’s breath smells like garlic, rather than “minty-fresh” (Line 6). The speaker of the poem says they “love to hear her rap” (Line 8), but admits that even elevator music, or “Muzak” (Line 9) has a better beat. The litany of imperfections concludes with the speaker admitting that their beloved, described as a “ball and chain” (Line 10) rather than a “Marilyn Monroe” (Line 9), is plain but a sexy, “scrumptious Twinkie” (Line 11), ending the poem with an emphatic expression of their preference for the company of the beloved over any “hyped” (Line 12) celebrity movie star or model.

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