18 pages 36 minutes read

Harryette Mullen


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


“Elliptical” is a lyric poem written by American poet/essayist Harryette Mullen from her 2002 collection Sleeping with the Dictionary, a finalist for the National Book Award and her fifth collection of poems. Mullen’s interest in language play continues to dominate this collection and the “Elliptical” poem in particular, expressing broad themes of tension and segregation and implying social issues of racism, to name a few. As reviewer Christine Hume in a 2003 Fence Digital article notes of this poetry collection, “The project of reordering—letters, words, sentences—writes large the need for social arrangement.” Mullen also seems to have inspired the work of poet J. K. Daniels, particularly her 2015 debut collection Wedding Pulls.

Poet Biography

Harryette Mullen was born in 1953 in Florence, Alabama but grew up mainly in Fort Worth, Texas, where she wrote to entertain herself and those around her. Because her parents were originally from Pennsylvania, she did not grow up to speak like her peers in her Southern Black community, which made her feel like an outsider. Her interest in language, both spoken and written, Black versus white vernacular, has influenced her poetry, especially later when she began attending poetry readings and viewed the importance of the spoken aspects of poetry just as vital as the written ones.

In high school, she focused on writing poems and had her first poem published in a local newspaper. She remained in Texas for her bachelor’s program at the University of Texas. Here, she connected with a multicultural group of artists that inspired her writing. She won various awards and residency and fellowship opportunities, including a literature award from the Black Arts Academy and the Jackson Poetry Prize, which was awarded to Sonia Sanchez 12 years later, both poets who have been featured as champions of feminist language in Elisabeth Frost’s The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry. In 1981, she published her first collection of poems titled Tree Tall Women, inspired by the 1960s and 1970s political and arts movements, including Civil Rights, Black Arts, Black Power, and second-wave feminism. She also worked as an Artist in the Schools in Texas before leaving the state to pursue her PhD from the University of California in Santa Cruz, focusing on African literature, more specifically slave narratives.

Mullen has taught African American literature and creative writing courses at Cornell University and the University of California, her current place of employment. Along with nine collections of poetry, she has published critical essays on various topics, including “African Signs and Spirit Writing” in 1996 and “Apple Pie with Oreo Crust” in 2002, which renewed interest in Oreo, a satiric novel from 1974 by Fran Ross considered ahead of its time because of its subject matter involving a child with a diverse racial background.

Along with writing and teaching, Mullen has participated in other art forms. In 2011, her interviews with Barbara Henning about Sleeping with the Dictionary and other works were featured in postcard form in a book titled Looking Up Harryette Mullen, and in 2012, Mullen was featured in a documentary, narrated by Maya Angelou, about Kwanzaa titled The Black Candle.

In 2013, Mullen gave her own spin to the Japanese tanka form based on her daily walks in a collection titled Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary, examining the connection between humans’ ways of living and those of the natural world.

Poem Text

Mullen, Harryette. “Elliptical.” 2002. Poetry Foundation.


In this one-stanza, nine-line poem, Mullen writes in prose style the beginning half of sentences that end only in ellipses. She uses third-person “they” and first-person “we” to describe two sets of people with seemingly conflicting values whom she does not identify. At the start of the poem, she describes the “they” group as not doing something that the “we” group wishes they would do. The sentences bounce back and forth in the poem, resulting in juxtapositions and contradictions, as shown in the second line, when she mentions that “They never…” right before “They always…” (Line 2). In some lines, Mullen matter-of-factly states what “they” do, how “they” have been, and what “their” consequences are, such as “Their overall tendency has been…” (Line 3). At other times, she shows judgment, as in, “If only they would make an effort to…” (Line 4). Lines also show “our” consideration or justification for what they do or don’t do, including, “Of course their perspective has been limited by…” (Line 6). The poem goes on a roller coaster ride of emotions and interpretations for readers as readers fill in the ends of the unfinished sentences, but the ending note appears to be discouraging: “Our interactions unfortunately have been…” (Line 9).