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On "Trimmings"

Harryette Mullen

Trimmings is a kind of list poem about clothing and accessories, and each one of those poems is also about woman or the idea or representation of woman.

. . . .

[T]hese poems [are] all about clothing and accessories that women are worn. And in each poem you have the same operation over and over again, is that a metonymical description of a woman in terms of what she's wearing. So that in that last poem the two ideas coming together are the mermaid and the fishnet stockings.

From Farah Griffen, Michael Magee, and Kristen Gallagher, "A Conversation with Harryette Mullen" (1997). Click here for the text of the entire interview.

Trimmings was in part a reflection on the marginality of women and of "the feminine" in language. (As well as a reflection on the feminization and marginalization of poetry, and certainly my own marginality as a black woman in relation to the dominant cultural construction of the feminine.) It is a "minor" genre, the prose poem. It's also a list poem which I thought of as a form congenial to women, who are always making lists. Of course, the catalogues (of heroes, ships, and so forth) in epic poems evoke a masculine tradition, not to mention David Letterman's lists. However, a whole poem composed of a list of women's garments, undergarments, & accessories certainly seems marginal & minor, perhaps even frivolous & trivial. Actually it was an inside joke for me to begin Trimmings with "a belt" since a convention of epic poetry is to begin "in the middle." So that joke I was having with myself was about the epic poem versus the little list poem, which has become a workshop cliche: in this case a list of feminine apparel.

Writing the poem also involved a process of making lists. First, I made a list of words referring to anything worn by women. Each word on that list became the topic of a prose poem (I started with clothing, then decided to include accessories. There were a few things I decided not to write about, such as wigs, dentures, and so forth.) Then I made more lists by free associating from words on the first list. I generated lists of words that might be synonyms (pants/jeans/slacks/ britches), homonyms (duds/duds, skirt/skirt), puns or homophones (furbelow, suede/swayed), or that had some metaphorical, metonymical, or rhyming connection (blouse/dart/sleeve/heart, pearl/mother, flapper/shimmy/chemise), or words that were on the same page of the dictionary (chemise/chemist). I would improvise a possible sequence of words, seeing what the lists might suggest in the way of a minimal narrative, a metaphor, an association, or pun.

Each prose poem is a unit of the "long poem" that is itself a list, with each item described figuratively, as in true riddles. I also quickly understood that the structure of the poem was like a hologram. Each prose poem basically does the same thing as all the rest, since whatever the trope, it is the woman's body that appears consistently in every figure as the tenor of which clothing is the vehicle. This simply extends and elaborates a metonymical tendency already present in everyday usage: "skirt" and "petticoat" also commonly refer to women as well as to clothing worn by women. I also borrow or recycle language and/or syntactical structures from a variety of folk and mass culture genres, including: riddle, nursery rhyme, fairy tale, prayer, television commercial, cliche, tabloid headline, and weather report, as well as from specifically African-American forms including the blues and the dozens. 

. . . .

My paternal grandmother was an accomplished quilter. One of my treasures is a quilt she made, using the "cathedral window" pattern, which resembles a stained glass window. The list poems, Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, as well as the stanza form of Muse & Drudge, allowed me to make a kind of long poem composed of discreet units, so that in effect, I could write brief manageable poems that were parts of a longer work that was the book-length poem. The discreet units, stanzas or paragraphs, form various patterns like the pieces of a quilt. I could start anywhere, proceed in no particular order, writing whenever I had the chance and the energy. With my wardrobe and supermarket lists, my tidy prose paragraphs, my quatrains of blues songs and jumprope rhymes composed of recycled representations of black women, I could continually end and begin, without feeling the trauma of endings, the fear and uncertainty of beginnings. My own consolation in the face of rupture, a writing through the gaps and silences.

From Barbara Henning, "An Interview with Harryette Mullen." Click here for the text of the complete interview.

Harryette Mullen

Also, I was interested in Tender Buttons. The units operate separately and collectively. That really helped me with the form of Trimmings because you could read it as separate poems, you could read it as a longer poem that is composed of these units, these paragraphs. In a way, each paragraph is doing the same thing and there is a metonymical construction where the female body is constructed around metonymy.

I was analyzing what Stein was doing to figure out what I could use and I found that on a lot of levels, I could use what she was doing: the structure of the book itself, in terms of using a prose-poetry form, and a paratactic sentence that is compressed, that is not really a grammatical sentence but that makes sense in an agrammatical way, in a poetic way. Also, in her use of subject matter, where she is dealing with objects, rooms, and food, the domestic space that is a woman's space and with the ideas of consumption, our investment in objects, our consumer fetishism. At the same time, I read Marx on commodity fetishism. So, all these things came together for Trimmings.

. . . .

In Trimmings, I actually found myself at a certain point becoming alarmed, because I wanted the book to be about feminist ideas, a feminist exploration of how femininity is constructed using clothing, how the clothing itself speaks to, or is emblematic of, certain kinds of constraints on women's bodies. That is one of the issues I wanted to deal with: the overlap at that time of pornography and fashion, the kind of photography that was very trendy in fashion magazines. There was a lot of S & M imagery in the eighties. We read The Story of O in a graduate seminar at Santa Cruz. I was horrified and fascinated because all of a sudden, the discourse of pornography and sadomasochism was taking over the feminist conversation in the same way that pornography seemed to be taking over fashion. So I was really wondering, "What does this mean?" The other thing had to do with the critique by black women and other women of color of the very way that feminism was constructed around the needs of white women without always considering the sometimes very different needs of women of color who were not middle-class, or working-class white women who also had problems with academic feminism. I think a lot of us were puzzled by why we were reading The Story of O in a women's studies class. Does this really make sense? I actually found that book hard to read, it was painful to read. Partly my book was really setting out to be an explication of white feminism, but then I felt kind of uneasy doing that. I was thinking about the dominant color code for femininity. It is pink and white. English literature is full of the "blush." I felt that I had to include images of black women. Trimmings grew from my response to Stein. One of my poems even cannibalizes Gertrude Stein's "Petticoat" poem.

A light white disgraceful sugar looks pink,
    wears an air,
pale compared to shadows standing by. To plump
naked truth lies. Behind her shadow wears her
    color arms
full of flowers. A rosy charm is pink. And
    she is ink. The
mistress wears no petticoat or leaves. The
    other in shadow,
a large, pink dress.

I'm using the language of Stein. She has a "light white," "an inkspot," "a rosy charm." So I put those words into my poem. Then I
expanded to give the reader an image of Manet's painting of the white nude with the black woman in the shadows who's obviously a servant. Manet contrasts the white woman's body and the black woman's body with the white woman's body constructed as beautiful, feminine, seductive, also a little outrageous. The black woman is basically just a part of the decor but her presence seems to enhance the qualities that are attributed to the white nude. In a way, the whole book is really built around this: both my active and my somewhat critical engagement with Stein, my problematic relation to the Western icon of beauty and the black woman's relationship to that, and my interest in representation itself, whether it is a visual representation or a representation in language. I didn't think it was enough just to have that, so I put some other things in here that were definitely meant to investigate alternative female images. I put in the Josephine Baker poem and the "bandanna" poem because it was unsettling to me just to investigate this white femininity without some kind of black experience being represented as well. There are also "cool dark lasses" wearing their shades, maybe jazz divas, someone like a Billie Holiday. I have "the veiled woman" at the end. I remember at this time in graduate school, I read a book, Veiled Sentiments, by Lila Abu-Lughod, about the Arabic traditions of veiling women, so that was in my mind as well. It's a way of taking a woman's body out of circulation but she's still being controlled in the culture.

From Cynthia Hogue, "Interview with Harryette Mullen." Postmodern Culture (1999). Click here for the text of the entire interview.

Elisabeth A. Frost

In Trimmings (fittingly published by a small press that is, in fact, called "Tender Buttons"), Mullen takes Stein's 1914 text as a provocative point of departure. Operating through association rather than logic, sound-play rather than denotation, Mullen's pun-laden prose poems take the domestic landscape of Tender Buttons and "trim" it down to a central trope: feminine clothing. The "trimmings" of Mullen's title suggest a re-stitching of Stein's project, as well as a focus on the odds and ends, the scraps, of contemporary culture. But the most prominent meaning involves the politics of women's clothing. "Trimmings" can be both adornments and things discarded; the word can imply both frivolity and violence. In the poems there are belts, earrings, stockings, hats and purses, not unlike the petticoats, umbrellas, and shoes of Stein's poem. As Stein does in Tender Buttons, Mullen uses linguistic play to hint at the relations between the physical sensations of the body and the experience of using language. Like Stein, she suggests that the female body and the word need not be divorced, as much recent theory insists. (Even Kristeva's opposing categories of the semiotic and the symbolic imply that soma and symbol are in constant battle, an opposition Stein--and Mullen--expose as unfounded.) As in Tender Buttons as well, Mullen plays with words to release the reader's own associative powers. There is, indeed, great pleasure for the reader in the process.

Among the briefest of the prose poems in Trimmings is one that consists of just two lines: "Night moon star sun down gown. / Night moan stir sin dawn gown." In this paratactic list, vowel shifts (rather than syntax) bear the burden of reference. There are certainly associations and near-meanings (sundown and evening gown can be easily teased out), and the possibility of a setting (the romantic moon and star), yet the larger implications (for instance, that come "dawn," the "sin" will be "done") are merely hinted at, left to the reader's own associative powers to piece together. The poem moves from word to word by generating relationships among sounds and creating localized meanings, rather than by employing linear logic. These tactics that skew and defer meaning, even if somewhat less disjunctive, are overtly Steinian, resurrecting Stein's fascination with repetition and circularity, with what she called "knowing and feeling a name" and "adoring [and] replacing the noun" in poetry (LIA 231). Like Stein, Mullen signals the erotic without directly treating it as subject matter. But she also critiques the erotics of our attire. Consider the very shortest of Mullen's poems: "Shades, cool dark lasses. Ghost of a smile" (Tr 62). Charged puns ("dark lasses" conjuring "glasses"; "shades" as sunglasses for the stylish and as a racist word denoting African-Americans) render the final, simple phrase ("ghost of a smile") ambiguous: the smile might suggest a pleasurable memory or an invitation, but it is also inseparable from the implication that "shades"--in the racial sense--are "ghosts," invisible presences in a culture bent on cover-ups, on hiding behind its own, often rose-colored, glasses.

In this way Mullen uses a Steinian linguistic play to address not just the pleasures of language and clothing, but their larger social implications, the very issues that Stein most frequently avoided. Trimmings removes Tender Buttons from its hermetically sealed locale and, so to speak, takes it out of the closet and into the street, by underlining the conjunctions between racial identity and gender in a semiotics of American culture. In choosing Stein as intertextual companion, Mullen uses what Henry Louis Gates identifies as a strategy frequently employed in African-American writing: the elaboration of repetition and difference. "Signifying," Gates says, is the playing of various kinds of rhetorical games in black vernacular, and it can mean "to talk with great innuendo, to carp, cajole, needle, and lie," as well as "to talk around a subject, never quite coming to the point" (Gates 54). Signifying contrasts with the "supposed transparency of normal speech"; it "turns upon the free play of language itself, upon the displacement of meanings" (53). There is a political, and not just a formal "play" here that applies to Trimmings: signifying involves a "process of semantic appropriation"; words are "decolonized," given a new orientation that reflects a rejection of politics as usual. According to Gates, this double-voicedness is associative, and it employs puns and figurative substitutions to create an indeterminacy of interpretation (49, 22).

Strikingly matching Gates's theory of signifying, Mullen's version of Steinian writing involves an assertion of difference. Mullen encodes cultural and racial specificity into her word games, in deliberate contrast to what I see as Stein's private, largely hermetic codes. Allusions to contemporary life are everywhere, mixed in with more lyrical, "poetic" language. Commercials, for example, are not shut out, precisely because such references are, all by themselves, a commentary on American culture. Here is the subject of clothing-become-laundry and, more specifically, laundry detergent:

Heartsleeve's dart bleeds whiter white, softened with wear.   Among blowzy buxom bosomed, give us this--blowing, blissful, open.   O most immaculate bleached blahs, bless any starched, loosening blossom. (Tr 31)

In rich and lyrical language (especially the outburst, "O most immaculate. . ."), Mullen bears witness to some un-lyrical truths--that the struggle to attain the "whiter white" (a redundant operation of either language or color) raises questions about America's obsession not just with cleanliness (the subject of TV ads) but with the valorization of what is as light as possible, in shirts or skin-tone. Here the poetic tradition of the beauty of clothing, of feminine or other attire, has to confront the "immaculate bleached blahs" that represent mass culture "bleached" for a white audience.

The poems insist on such meetings of the ecstatic and the drab in women's lives (as in the title for Mullen's most recent work in progress--"Muse and Drudge"), whether the act in question is hanging clothes on the line or watching TV. Whenever TV seeps into women's lives, in fact, there is both the urgency created by commodification and the potentially lobotomizing effect of the medium. Of nylon stockings Mullen writes, "The color 'nude,' a flesh tone. Whose flesh unfolds barely, appealing tan . . . body cast in a sit calm" (16). The issue of what color "nude" is--the fact that the "model" for this neutral skin tone is an Anglo one--is too often taken for granted by white women. At the same time, any woman whose "whose flesh unfolds barely" has become a commodity, like the many items sold on TV, where viewers, too, are objects in front of a screen, "body cast in a sit calm," static and passive, as though in a "body cast," under an unidentified injunction not to move. Other TV allusions, such as one to the evening news, suggest the banality of women's lives: "Mild frump and downward drab. Slipshod drudge with chance of dingy morning slog" (49). Words, just barely altered from their "originals" in a TV or radio weather report, testify to women's representation in the mass media, the source that may well affect whether or not they see the morning, or themselves (the "drudges" in question), as "dingy" and "drab." In this processed language, all of us hear a horoscope for the day, our lives; in such representations, we are--and this applies especially to women--caught in our own "mild frump," as though our routines were items we would prefer not to purchase.

Yet Mullen makes it clear that, however potentially controlling, mass media don't obliterate culturally specific language. Mullen marks her text with both "mainstream" speech and the black vernacular in what she calls a "splicing together of different lexicons" that would be hard to see in Stein's defamiliarized language in Tender Buttons. In one such gesture, Mullen appropriates clichés linked to African-American culture and forces us to ask what "black" and "white" culture actually consist in--where the lines are drawn:

Her red and white, white and blue banner manner. Her red and white all over black and blue. Hannah's bandanna flagging her down in the kitchen with Dinah, with Jemima. Someone in the kitchen I know. (Tr 11)

The "bandanna" and the Jemima figure suggest stereotypes of black women. Mullen has suggested to me that even though such images are most likely drawn from the white minstrel tradition, they constitute nonetheless a powerful "pseudo-black folklore" that has shaped views of blackness in America. By refusing to exclude even these representations from her own language, Mullen implies that there is an important source for this language, one that needs to be traced: such images get constructed both from our "red, white and blue" national identity and from the politics of violence ("all over black and blue"), also based on color. In the "blues" alluded to here, another kind of "folklore" is also conjured, one that may seem more "genuine" or "authentic" than that of Hannah and Jemima. But Mullen's text refuses to make clear distinctions among the sources for what she calls her "recycled" language. This word-play reclaims all and any expressions that concern women's cultural "place" (literally, the "kitchen," repeated twice in this brief passage) in the service of an explicit critique of those words that serve as designations to divide black from white--and different women from each other.

In some of the poems, Mullen "signifies" on Stein even more overtly. There are several instances where Mullen infuses the very diction of Tender Buttons with her own agenda--an investigation of the ways in which racial and gender identities are constructed in and by language. Stein has a dialogue between "distress" and "red" which Mullen recasts as an excursion into black vernacular speech, with Steinian intonations:

When a dress is red, is there a happy ending. Is there murmur and satisfaction. Silence or a warning. It talks the talk, but who can walk the walk. Distress is red. It sells, shouts, an urge turned inside out. Sight for sore eyes. The better to see you. Out for a stroll, writing wolf-tickets. (Tr 34)

The most immediate Steinian source is the heading "THIS IS THIS DRESS, AIDER," and the text of that "tender button" reads:

Aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher, munchers.
A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king, makes a to let. (TB 476)

One of the most frequently glossed sections in Tender Buttons, this passage has often been read as punning on "distress," as well as on the notion of "aid" and one of Stein's nicknames for Alice, "Ada" ("Aider, why aider . . ."). The passage is crucial to readings that emphasize that Tender Buttons is really about female sexuality. For some, this involves a critique of the "meadowed king" who rises at the expense of "her," as Ruddick suggests; among others, Gass sees an explicit (and joyful) sexual scene; and, as I have detailed elsewhere, I believe that Stein provides a typical double perspective here--that of lesbian eroticism and a patriarchal observer's panic about that eroticism.

For all these readings, sexuality provides the backdrop for Stein's polyvalent language. In Mullen's appropriation, however, a double perspective about sexuality and language alerts us instead to the social construction of the sexual moment. There is a different sort of doubleness at work--that of black America itself, the experience of a division that W.E.B. Du Bois first called "double consciousness" and which Black Arts writers in the 1960s and 1970s converted into experiments with a specifically black consciousness in radical new forms.

Mullen's own revisionary feminist dialogue with Stein is clear from the start. The short, uninflected questions ("Is there murmur and satisfaction," for example) are reminiscent of Tender Buttons, and so is the diction--the mixture of simple monosyllabic words ("dress," "red," "talk") with words describing states of consciousness ("happy," "satisfaction," "urge"). But clearly Mullen's "talk" here is not just words exchanged between lovers but the specific language of a whole culture: "dis" both alludes to the sound of "this" in black English, and to the verb "to dis," or "disrespect," someone, echoed in the competition of "talks the talk." A similar conjunction is that of European fairy tale (red riding hood's "better to see you") and black English ("writing," instead of "selling," "wolf-tickets"). But the primary question is what happens when the seductive "red dress" is donned; is there "satisfaction" for flirtatious partners, a desire to shout with joy, or is there fear of violence--silence, warning? As Mullen points out, Trimmings is a "compressed meditation on the whole idea that how a woman dresses is responsible for how she gets treated in the world": "is there a happy ending" for any woman's Cinderella-like transformation "when a dress is red"--when she puts on a piece of clothing that signifies passion and seduction, or availability and provocativeness? How is such a color "read" by male on-lookers? Without providing any simple or polemical answers, Mullen links sexuality, clothing, violence and desire, even as she forces the literary tradition of Stein to confront the vernacular traditions of African-American speech and writing.

Mullen's dialogue with Stein in Trimmings has everything to do with the exclusion of questions of race from feminist criticism that has recently been the subject of passionate critique and rethinking. Mullen has described her desire to "get a read on Stein and race," and at the time she was writing Trimmings she was reading both Tender Buttons and "Melanctha," whose overtly racist and classist images are the subject of reappraisals by critics as diverse as Sonia Saldívar-Hull and Charles Bernstein. Mullen's play on Stein's famous "rosy charm" is perhaps the most striking instance of her recasting of Tender Buttons so as to explore questions of race that Stein didn't take on in her poetry but made all too clear in "Melanctha":

A light white disgraceful sugar looks pink, wears an air, pale compared to shadow standing by. To plump recliner, naked truth lies. Behind her shadow wears her color, arms full of flowers. A rosy charm is pink. And she is ink. The mistress wears no petticoat or leaves. The other in shadow, a large, pink dress. (Tr 15)

Stein's text is "A PETTICOAT," and it reads, in its entirety: "A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm" (TB 471). The passage is most likely about female creation, both on the page and of the body. As Ruddick convincingly argues, the white of a woman's undergarment is connected to the blank page, and the stain of blood to the writer's ink, a "rosy charm" whose power Stein asserts. Mullen has described this passage as her opening into Tender Buttons--perhaps even the point of departure for Trimmings as a whole. Mullen sees Stein's text as an allusion to Manet's provocative painting "Olympia"--the white woman staring boldly at the viewer, in a state of "disgraceful" sexual permissiveness, with the near-by "ink spot" (a black servant) waiting behind her. Mullen encodes the painting into her response to Stein, calling up the representation of the nude white woman reclining luxuriously on a couch, while behind her the black woman in "a large, pink dress" holds a bunch of flowers, presumably a love-token, in a position of attentive servitude to her mistress.

Mullen's take on "Olympia," and on "A PETTICOAT," concerns the supposed "disgrace" of sexuality in conjunction with her awareness about the difference of blackness in a culture in which femininity is equated with the naiveté of "pink" and the skin color "white." This motif of color pervades the book. Mullen writes that in Trimmings

The words pink and white kept appearing as I explored the ways that the English language conventionally represents femininity. As a black woman writing in this language, I suppose I already had an ironic relationship to this pink and white femininity. (Tr "Off the Top")

Throughout Mullen's work, evocations of the blues tradition and African-American speech confront the deficiencies of conventional language in representing blackness. Yet in her "rewriting" of the painting "Olympia," the very ownership of sexuality is at stake: the transgressive eroticism--of the sort Stein championed and Manet supposedly celebrated--is, in Manet's depiction, available only to the "light white" woman, not to her "shadow standing by." While clearly a feminist reading of Olympia" might suggest that Manet "owns" (or names) the white woman's sexuality as well, Mullen's own attention is drawn to the dynamics between black and white: there is implicitly a problem not just for the black woman depicted here, but for the African-American woman writer as well. The "ink" of blackness is literally "in shadow" (the word is repeated three times), as the white woman, clothed in what Mina Loy called "ideological pink"--in this case nothing more than her own pink skin--"wears an air." In another section of Trimmings, girlhood and the color pink are also associated ("Girl, pinked, beribboned. Alternate virgin at first blush" [Tr 35]). This passage uses the same technique of multiple meanings and the connotation of innocence conjured by the color pink to point out the disturbing "naked truth": "pink" is "a rosy charm" in the white world only when it's worn by someone "pale," "white," and "sugary." The one whose skin is "ink" remains in shadow. She is, literally, incomplete: the word "pink" minus the "p" gives us "ink." And yet, she still has the power to signify--after all, writing is produced with "ink." It is this most important "signifying" on Stein's text about the "rosy charm" of female sexuality, a celebration of the erotic that nonetheless reveals considerable limitations to any black women reader, that produces the revisionist poetry of Trimmings.

Far from innocuous, the "pale," "sugary" femininity that Mullen unveils is also part of a culture that, in addition to privileging whiteness, condones violence against women in covert, as well as overt, forms. Mullen uses Steinian disruptive language to expose this violence, which lurks just beneath accepted standards of femininity. Even seemingly harmless items, like the feminine attire of the pocketbook, are emblematic of theft, assault, rape:

Lips, clasped together. Old leather fastened with a little snap. Strapped, broke. Quick snatch, in a clutch, chased the lady with the alligator purse. Green thief, off relief, got into her pocketbook by hook or crook. (Tr 8)

The purse is metonymic for female genitalia; on one level, getting "into her pocketbook" is the male game of conquest. Yet the puns on currency ("strapped," "broke," "green," "relief") show the close ties between money and desire (as in some men's ability to purchase female companionship) and allude to the ways women are frequently economically exploited--simply put, ripped off. There is double-meaning as well in the word "snatch," and the covert violence of "snap," "strapped," "clutch," and even "chased" (traditionally, women are sought after, or "chased," if pure--"chaste"). The word-play and subject rhymes, in familiar idioms and rhythms, convey the very real violence women are often subject to, whether by the "thief" (purse-snatcher) or the man intent on sexual assault.

This violence is, then, insidious even in its less obvious forms--jewelry, to take another example. Of earrings, Mullen writes: "Clip, screw, or pierce. Take your pick. Friend or doctor, needle or gun" (Tr 40). Earrings carry a weight beyond their immediate function; these small items refer to more profound mutilations of the female--and male--body. There are choices among modes of violation here ("clip, screw, or pierce"), yet the "pick" is merely between "friend or doctor," figures of betrayal, whether personal or institutional. And, most significantly, the intrusion into the black body is metaphoric of social exploitation and the prevalence of the "needle or gun"--drug-use and other violence. Here a simple female "adornment" can no longer be seen, or written about, as innocent. Mullen evokes a semiotics of clothing, the language that is revealed in those items women decorate their bodies with ("such wounds, such ornaments," as Mullen concludes in this "trimming"). This language reveals, however subtly and covertly, what Mullen calls ironically a "naked truth"--that black women and men are, still, psychologically and otherwise, subject to violence and mutilation, symbolized by the very objects women use to make themselves seem different, to meet our culture's standards of beauty.

Mullen has written that "Gender is a set of signs which we tend to forget are arbitrary. In these prose poems I thought about language as clothing and clothing as language" (Tr 68). In the final poem of Trimmings, Mullen links her interest in literary signification with the importance of a poetic utterance that remains conscious of how the signifier functions in the public sphere:

Thinking thought to be a body wearing language as clothing or language a body of thought which is a soul or body the clothing of a soul, she is veiled in silence. A veiled, unavailable body makes an available space. (Tr 66)

Placed at the end of the book, this "trimming" serves as Mullen's ars poetica, the explanation for her use of the trope of clothing. That which is "veiled" shows through language--the "unavailable" or often invisible "body" of the black woman "makes" its own space. Moving away from simply being "veiled in silence" is precisely Trimmings's project. It is a goal that diverges from Stein's "play," which, however radical an expression of its time, is nonetheless kept safely indoors. Stein tended to abstract the objects she wrote about from their specific contexts, to see them in formal terms, which is one reason her work is often associated with Cubism. She wrote of the process of looking at objects as the inception of the poetry of Tender Buttons; she focused intently on an object in order to name it without using its name. While Mullen also uses words to "re-name" objects, her interest lies not just in form but in a semiotics of American culture. Each gesture, each belt or buckle, reveals the society that created it. Less arbitrary than the "signs" of language, the semiotics of clothing reflects women's position in the culture at large. Signifying on Stein, as well as playing by some of her rules, Mullen makes it clear that she cannot simply "use" Stein's poetic language uncritically. In fact, by simultaneously inhabiting and altering Stein's non-traditional language, Mullen encodes in Stein's own hermetic diction the divergent perspective provided by an African-American woman. Stein's codes must, indeed, be broken; to have social significance, linguistic "play" has to evoke aspects of a shared, social identity, and not simply constitute an idiosyncratic, private language. In part, Trimmings is indeed homage to Stein, a writer whose poetry attempts to change consciousness, and even our own relation to our bodies, through a changed language. Yet for Mullen, the experiment now appears too circumscribed. Her "signifying" on Tender Buttons lays down a challenge: women's dress (their "distress") constitutes a social semiotics, the "language" of a culture whose racial and sexual politics we would do well to change.

From "Signifyin(g) on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino" Postmodern Culture 5.3 (1995). Copyright © 1995 by Elisabeth A. Frost.  The entire essay from which this selection was excerpted can be found at

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