Harryette Mullen's écriture féminine
by Mike Jackman

Twentieth Century Literature Conference. Februrary 26-28, 1998, Louisville, KY.

French feminist theorists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray have both advocated the production of a distinctly feminine language, Cixous in "The Laugh of the Medusa" and Irigaray in This Sex Which is Not One and Speculum of the Other Woman. Though Cixous states, "it is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing" (487) their works establish parameters by which a feminine language can be identified and can proliferate. Theirs are among the principle texts inspiring feminist writers to create alternative forms of discourse.

Harryette Mullen explains at the close of Trimmings, "I don't think there is necessarily any 'feminine language' except in the sense that there is feminine clothing" (69). Nevertheless, her work in Trimmings resembles in many ways the écriture féminine described by Cixous and Irigaray. If her statement sounds like a dismissal of such concerns, it is only a partial rejection, since she acknowledges that in the language of clothing one finds the "material," you might say, of a 'feminine language.' Alternatively, her statement can be read as acknowledging that 'feminine language' is a complicated theoretical construct that is hard to realize. Therefore, discussing her text's relationship to an écriture féminine can reveal Mullen's place and practice within the history of feminist theory and some of the problems associated with that theory.

Perhaps the major idea promoted by Cixous and Irigaray is that women's language is inseparable from sexuality--in fact, it emerges from sexual desire. Cixous maintains that, "To Write" would be "An act which will not only 'realize' the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, . . . it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories which have been kept under seal . . . " (485). Irigaray goes further, stating the very form or formlessness of woman's language derives from the vagina and female autoeroticism:

"This sex organ which offers nothing to the view has no distinctive form of its own. Although woman finds pleasure precisely in the incompleteness of the form of her sex organ, which is why it retouches itself indefinitely, her pleasure is denied by a civilization that privileges phallomorphism" (101).

Mullen's language explores the same relationship of word, body and sex, moving back and forth "from women's clothing to women's bodies" (69). For example,

Girl, pinked, beribboned. Alternate virgin at first blush.
Starched petticoat besmirched. Stiff with blood. A little
worse for wear. (35)

"Beribboned" can be taken to mean wearing a ribbon and being ordered to wear a ribbon (be ribboned), being skinny (be rib-boned) and being cut to ribbons. "At first blush" can refer to a girl just learning to use makeup, menstruating for the first time, and bleeding after her first sexual intercourse. So too, the "petticoat besmirched" with blood, as well as the girl, are "A little worse for wear," terribly understated if one takes "stiff" as meaning "a corpse" and not "an erection." This does not exhaust all the potential meanings. The hallmarks of language poetry are that closure is avoided, and that the reader is required to stitch together the poetic material into meaning. Mullins crafts her work admirably: back and forth from clothes to bodies, Mullen's language flows. But her fabric never loses sight of the connection between body, culture, and language. As Elisabeth Frost puts it, "The body as public, in public--this idea is at the core of . . . Mullen's . .. growing body of work" (4).

To those familiar with Cixous and Irigaray, it will be clear from the above example that Mullen's views of woman and sexuality are not as optimistic as their views often are. This can be explained by the fact that Cixous and Irigary are writing manifestos, a form whose purpose is partly to raise consciousness and to express the possible. On the other hand, Mullen focuses on the cultural construction of gender, and "telling it like it is" is less optimistic than "telling it like it will be" when women are liberated from patriarchal systems.

However, manifesto or no, there seems to be an assumption in theories of écriture feminine that expressing the body is expressing optimism. Reading Cixous and Irigaray, one can become entranced with the liberatory power of women's writing and women's sexuality. Cixous asserts,

Such is the strength of women that, sweeping away syntax, breaking that famous thread (just a tiny little thread, they say) which acts for men as a surrogate umbilical cord, . . . women will go right up to the impossible. (489)

In other passages, she writes enthusiastically, "I, too, overflow: my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs" (482) and "laughs exude from all our mouths; our blood flows and we extend ourselves without ever reaching an end; we never hold our thoughts, our signs, our writing; and we're not afraid of lacking" (483). Irigaray, more cautious in tone, nevertheless admits that "a woman's (re)discovery of herself . . . is a sort of universe in expansion for which no limits could be fixed and which, for all that, would not be incoherency" (104).

There is no such enthusiasm in Mullen to compensate for the violence that bleeds from her pages. And yet Mullen is quite different from another African-American poet of feminist issues, Audre Lorde. Though neiither poet flinches from social realities as she perceives them, Audre Lorde's means of presentation is more often the direct statement, one that assumes a self-conscious narrator of personal experience, and, although looser syntactically than formal prose, still follows the general outlines of the proposition. For example, the end of "Echoes:"

As my tongue unravels

in what pitch
will the scream hang unsung
or shiver like lace on the borders
of never     recording
which dreams heal     which
dreams can kill
stabbing a man and burning his body
for cover     being caught
making love to a woman
I do not know.     (Lorde 7-8)

The use of unconventional spacing and the use of abo koinou (i.e. "recording" on line 5, above) give Lorde's poetry a freer, more ambiguous air than a past generation of poets and indeed many of her contemporaries. Yet the abo koinou still depends for effect on the reader taking the word as a hinge between two statements, showing that Lorde's attitude towards language, despite her famous claim that, "The Master's tool's will never bring down the master's house" does not depart as radically from the conventional as Mullen's language. Of a later generation, Mullen fits more into the late postmodern tradition, where the cohesive self is not available to present experience to be interpreted in language. She is more interested in exploring through contiguity and association--rather than Lorde's more standard diction and forms of referentiality-- the social realities of gender. Mullen requires learning a new way of reading--how to ride a bumper-car through language, not how to navigate using unity and cohesion like Lorde, or how to ride a rocket of lyrical expression like much of Cixous, Irigaray, and even Kristeva's lyrics (such as those that occur alongside her academic prose in "Stabat Mater").

That said, for Mullen, as for Lorde, it is the social setting of continued dominance, violence, pain, silence and anger, that fifteen years after Cixous, shows Mullen's work not quite écriture féminine à la française. The title of her work is a clue to her attitude; trimmings are things cut away, superfluous, marginal, left over, discarded, or at best, merely decorative.

While Cixous and Irigaray were looking to the future, which accounts for their optimism, one doesn't have to search far to find the violence inherent in the content of their work and therefore implicit in their écriture féminine. According to Cixous, women "have been driven away [from writing] as violently as from their bodies--for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal" (481, my italics). Or later, "What an effort it takes--there's no end to it--for the sex cops to bar their threatening return. Such a display of forces on both sides that the struggle has for centuries been immobilized in the trembling equilibrium of a deadlock" (482), a deadlock which Cixous advocates breaking, resulting in "a new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history" (484). Indeed, one aspect of her project is "to break up, to destroy" (481).

Irigaray, poised as always, asks,

Must the multiple nature of female desire and language be understood as the fragmentary, scattered remains of a raped or denied sexuality? This is not an easy question to answer. The rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary undoubtedly places woman in a position where she can experience herself only fragmentarily as waste or as excess in the little structured margins of a dominant ideology . . . (104)

The undertone of violence of both Cixous and Irigaray, and in the above final sentence about waste and excess, is mirrored in Mullen's Trimmings, showing their powerful affinities and perhaps the theorists' influences on her.

The closest connection between Mullen and women's writing as outlined in Cixous and Irigaray is in her style. According to Cixous and Irigaray, women's writing will not be based on logic. Cixous complains that "Nearly the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason" (484). Instead, woman will "forge for herself the antilogos weapon" (485). Similarly, for Irigaray, "Woman's desire most likely does not speak the same language as man's desire, and it probably has been covered over by the logic that has dominated the West since the Greeks" (101). Harryette Mullen's work, though ostensibly prose, does not depend to a great degree on logical structures of subordination, linearity, proposition/evidence/conclusion and even the syntax of what James Britton referred to as "transactional discourse." Nor does it work through traditional narrative "Chrono-logic," which Seymour Chatman proposed as the fundamental principle of narrative (9). Nor, as we have seen, does her poetic conform to even the traditional sentence-level logic still apparent in poets such as Audre Lorde. Though there is a logic at work, it is logic of other means; an anti-logic, as Cixous calls it.

What form then, might this ècriture take, if not a logical one? The writing should have certain characteristics. Women "take pleasure in jumbling the order of space, in disorienting it, in changing around the furniture, dislocating things and values, breaking them all up, emptying structures, and turning propriety upside down" (Cixous 490). Here Cixous describes a language that plays with the signifiers (the labels, the sounds, the graphic forms) of sexuality, that jumbles syntax and meanings, including the values of society. Irigaray asserts a similar tendency for female language. There is "an incompleteness of form" (101), and meanings which, "always at least double, is in fact plural. (102). Further, language "goes off in all directions . . . Contradictory words seem a little crazy to the logic of reason, and inaudible for him who listens with ready-made grids, a code prepared in advance" (103). "One must listen to her differently in order to hear an 'other meaning' which is constantly in the process of weaving itself, at the same time ceaselessly embracing words and yet casting them off to avoid becoming fixed, immobilized" (103, italics hers). The distinguishing feature of word relations "is one of contiguity" (103). Finally, before woman can "arrive at the point where she can enjoy her pleasure . . . a long detour by the analysis of the various systems of oppression which affect her is certainly necessary" (although, paradoxically, this implies logic & reason) (105).

Mullen's prose poetry certainly does all these things. It uses an associative rather than a logical structure, fragments or syntactical aberrations that force language out of a linear interpretation, homophone puns and entendres that go beyond the double or triple level, words that work simultaneously as nouns and verbs, based around a lexicon of clothes-words that play with meaning regarding the situation of women. All this adds up to Cixous' jumblings and dislocations, Irigaray's plural meanings that go off in all directions, and represents the "detour" of analyzing woman's social situation before pleasure can be experienced.

For example, consider the many ways the following three line poem can open out, not being restricted within a linear, logical frame:

Bones knit. Skins pink, flush tight. White margin, ample
fleshings. Out of character, full blush. Flushed out of hid-
ing, pink in the flesh. (43)