In S*PeRM**K*T (1992), Harryette Mullen offers the perspective of a supermarket shopper scanning pre-packaged, mass-produced products, all totems and icons of US-style capitalism. Moving aisle by aisle, the sequence of prose poems walks us through an extensive experience of the consumer tableau, from bottled water and canned goods to cleaning supplies and dairy products. From the opening poem of the sequence, which situates us squarely at the entrance, taking stock of the check-out lines, Mullen foregrounds questions of arrangement, organization, and classification:

Lines assemble gutter and margin. Outside and in, they straighten a place. Organize a stand. Shelve space. Square footage. Align your list or listlessness. Pushing oddly evening aisle catches the tale of an eye. Displays the cherished share. Individually wrapped singles, frozen divorced compartments, six-pack widows all express themselves while women wait in family ways, all bulging baskets, squirming young. More on line incites the eye. Bold names label familiar type faces. Her hands scanning throwaway lines.1

Lines and lists, assembling and aligning: the first poem invokes a range of systems and processes for ordering, organizing, and arranging, each of which suggests a different relationship between parts, and between part and whole. The differences among these forms are both structural and modal. Playing on the secondary and tertiary meanings of words, Mullen suggests that questions about the patterns that organize consumption are also questions about poetic syntax lines are both poetic lines and checkout lines, gutters and margins both features of the page and the supermarket space. The final sentence, "Her hand scanning throwaway lines," puns on this parallel, connecting the act of scanning poetic lines for metrical structure with the checkout clerk scanning items while the register tallies up prices. In this first poem, Mullen suggests that S*PeRM**K*T's interest in patterns of consumption is routed through its interest in the forms that produce poetic speech, that poetic syntax functions as a mechanism for interrogating microeconomic behavior. Building the collection around questions of how to represent and organize commodities next to one another, S*PeRM**K*T turns to listing, canting, and riddling as formal solutions to this representational problem, bringing significant categories of the lyric to bear on the commodity form.

Appearing amidst an intensifying economic regime of globalization and an ascendent 1990s-era literary and liberal multiculturalism, Mullen's commodity poems bring patterns of consumption together with questions of racial formation. Mullen has explained that, in writing S*PeRM**K*T, she was "interested in the collision of contemporary poetry with the language of advertising and marketing, the clash of fine art aesthetics with mass consumption and globalization, and the interaction of literacy and identity."2 To be sure, globalization newly animated the commodity as an object of critique. In an era when Francis Fukuyama's declarations of "The End of History" measured the ostensible global triumph of US-style capitalism in terms of "access to VCRs and stereos" and Life magazine published a photo essay of a Pakistani boy stitching Nike soccer balls for six cents an hour, the US's global supply chains captured popular attention.3 Amidst this broader cultural interest, many expressive forms evinced a new urgency around questions of how to organize the complex commodity flows endemic to an economic regime where things are always coming from elsewhere. At the same time, ad campaigns like United Colors of Benetton's "All the Colors of the World" established a vocabulary of racial formation organized around the terms of pluralistic inclusion within a consumer economy and an emerging ethos of liberal multiculturalism allowed writing by racial and ethnic minorities to gain wider audiences.4 In the aftermath of the postwar boom, the US rapidly transformed into what Lizabeth Cohen has called a "Consumers' Republic." The expansion of mass consumption was to deliver "not only economic prosperity but also loftier social and political ambitions for a more free, equal, and democratic nation."5 By the end of the 20th century, this connection between citizen and consumer had become interlocked, as presidents from Ford to Clinton justified the new economic order by claiming it served the interests of consumers.

Connecting lyric strategies of listing, canting, and riddling with patterns of shopping, retailing, and advertising, Mullen's supermarket poems ask readers to toggle between detailed histories of consumption and close readings of key lyric operations to redraw the link between commodity form, poetic form, and racial form. Each of these three categories of analysis suggests distinct though interrelated fields of reference. Commodity form, for example, invokes generic substitutability despite surface differentiation; the list as a primary example of poetic form invokes infinitude and abundance; and racial form refers to a set of codes of racial representation that determine how race appears or disappears. In S*PeRM**K*T, each of these three discursive fields can be read through the others. For example, we can read Mullen's collection as pairing the riddle of the commodity fetish with the riddle of the referent of race as a floating signifier. Drawing a structural homology between the forms organizing consumer behavior during late twentieth century globalization and forms organizing racial categorization in post-Civil Rights America, the poetic systems that organize information about commodity flows also determine how race does or does not appear. Though many of these poetic forms are also on display in much of Mullen's work, in S*PeRM**K*T, much more explicitly than elsewhere, we encounter the commodity as mediated by histories of shopping, retailing, and advertising. In this attention to the problematics of the commodity, Mullen takes up a set of historical concerns contemporaneous to the intensifying economic regime of globalization and its concomitant imperative of pluralistic inclusion.

Mullen's poetry has historically occupied a gray zone between a predominantly Anglo-American avant-garde or experimental poetic tradition on the one hand and contemporary Black poetry and poetics on the other. The publication of S*PeRM**K*T in particular clearly announced a new direction for Mullen, diverging from the Afrocentric poems of Tree Tall Woman (1981) a decade earlier and her intervening PhD dissertation on slave narratives. The reception of Mullen's new style also raised large questions about the intersections of race with avant-garde writing. While her first book was praised for its representation of a Black poetic "voice," Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, largely read in relation to Gertrude Stein's modernist breakthrough Tender Buttons (1914), posed a problem of categorization. In an essay titled "Poetry and Identity," Mullen writes:

Because my first book allowed me to be placed rather neatly within the category of "representative blackness" (as well as in the categories of "feminist" and "regional" poet), whereas my second and third books are more frequently described as "formally innovative" poetry rather than as "black poetry," I have had the sometimes unsettling experience of seeing my work divided into distinct taxonomies. Because I no longer write poems like the ones in Tree Tall Woman (Energy Earth, 1981), some readers perhaps perceive my world as "less black."6

Subsequently, much critical attention focused on correcting the perceived contradiction between "formally innovative" and "black" and the accompanying dichotomies it suggests: between voice and text, between race and avant-garde, between vernacular form and experimental poetics. As Mullen adds, the instantiation of a new "black experimental" category arose as a response to the problems posed by this particular book:

Instead, I am placed in a subcategory of formally innovative poets who are also women of color. Or rather (because "women of color" seems to occupy a separate category apart from innovative or experimental poets), I become an example of "innovative women poets of minority background," along with Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Myung Mi Kim, as well as Erica Hunt (in fact, at different times I have read on the same program with the latter two).7

Arriving on the heels of the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the publication of Mullen's S*PeRM**K*T seems to straddle two traditional categories of literary history that emerged in the 1970s, stretching the narrative seams of both: Language poetry, whose radical fragmentation was aimed against the lyric subject of official verse culture, and the legacy of the Black Arts Movement, with its emphasis on calling into question the normative whiteness of Euro-American cultural and aesthetic values while celebrating Blackness.8

Scholarship on S*PeRM**K*T has largely fallen along these lines. Courtney Thorsson and Robin Tremblay-McGaw have looked at Mullen's interventions in both avant-garde and Black Arts literary genealogies; Deborah Mix and Elisabeth Frost have examined Mullen's reworking of Stein; Amy Moorman Robbins and Juliana Spahr have discussed the book's use of formal innovations to critique narrow constructions of identity.9 More broadly, Anthony Reed and Evie Shockley have convincingly placed Mullen's poetry in relation to a post-national tradition of Black experimental poetry.10 Looking more specifically at the site of the supermarket, Bronwen Tate has called to move past critique and focus on the collection's interest in "ambivalent and compromised affective states," while Christopher Chen has linked Mullen's commodity displays to what Roland Marchland named the "Democracy of Goods," or equal access to consumer products, seeing in Mullen's supermarket poems an example of how racial subject formation becomes "entangled with the production and consumption of things."11

Building on and departing from these accounts, the pursuant essay blends a new formal account of Mullen's lyric with a historical materialist approach to her representation of the supermarket and consumer behavior, situating Mullen's commodity poems within a broader pattern a characteristic of late twentieth century globalization in probing the hidden histories and symbolic meanings of everyday consumer goods. Previous approaches to such consumer goods have tended to focus on narration rather than the lyric. Writing in 2005, Bruce Robbins identified the commodity history as a hallmark of late twentieth century popular nonfiction.12 Turning to bestsellers like Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power (1986) to ask how much sense ordinary Americans were making of the US's economic ties with the rest of the world, Robbins raised a series of astute questions about how commodities become narratable. Significantly, the trend Robbins identified was not just scholarly, but popular, characteristic of broader questions and patterns structuring the terrain of consumer politics. Focusing on the grocery store, Michael Pollan, in a 2001 article for New York Times Magazine, asked a similar set of questions about the way we describe and narrate the hidden lives of groceries, part of what became his bestselling book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006). Coining the term "supermarket pastoral" to describe the narrative conjured by the organic label, Pollan, like Robbins, turned attention to the structures formally and politically delineating commodities, asking how commodities become "legible." Pollan's question would have been particularly resonant following a series of contemporary food scandals.13 After controversies like the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, the 1994 Schwan's ice cream salmonella crisis and the 1996 Odwalla tainted juice scandal, companies began to feel pressure to submit audits of their manufacturing processes walk-throughs by outside observers who might uncover violations. This public demand for audits coincided with a broader interest in plumbing the depths of the US's global supply chains. Following the exposure of exploitative labor practices at Gap, Nike, and other major brands in popular media including LifeThe New York Times, and NBC, cultural studies scholar Andrew Ross dubbed 1995-1996 "The Year of the Sweatshop.14 Naomi Klein's No Logo exemplified this new investigative interest in the unbranded origins of brand name goods. Closely associated with the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Klein sought to capture the energy of the anti-corporate movement that emerged in response to the "logo-linked globe."15 Globalization brought renewed attention to the world economy of physical goods and the patterns arranging popular understandings of the complex commodity flows fueling US consumption.

In this broader cultural and discursive context, Mullen's text suggests a repertoire of strategies for representing commodities under conditions of economic globalization, bringing significant categories of the lyric initiative to bear on the commodity form. Significantly, reading Mullen's commodity poems through some of the key historical transformations of globalization requires us to recalibrate how we read for globalization. Even as S*PeRM**K*T's products condense complex linguistic geographies, Mullen's commodity poems do not follow popular accounts of exposing neo-colonial exploitation overseas; nor do the products seek to reveal the hidden histories of their manufacturing. If, for Robbins, the question is what makes commodities "narratable," and for Pollan, it's what makes commodities "legible," Mullen's collection is similarly interested in the organizational systems by which commodities become formally and politically delineated, but in the context of the lyric. Here, the poetic forms that define the legibility of commodities animated through histories of shopping, retailing, and advertising also determine the way race appears or disappears as a floating signifier. Through forms of listing, canting, and riddling, Mullen's supermarket poems connect patterns organizing microeconomic behavior to accounts of racial formation, drawing together an entire web of social relations established by the commodity form. In doing so, S*PeRM**K*T redirects attention to forms of labor, including unwaged domestic and enslaved labor, that are not captured by the industrial paradigm of the wage but are nonetheless part of the story of globalization.

In asking us to rethink how we read for globalization, Mullen's commodity poems also help us see a fuller range of contemporary poetry's response to globalizing processes. Working against world-systems theory's center-periphery model of cultural diffusion, many accounts of poetry and the global emphasize multi-directional processes of exchange. For Jacob Edmond, for example, the turn to iteration across poetries written in English, Russian, and Chinese offers a common grammar for cognizing global cultural change.16 Jahan Ramazani draws a parallel between the production of the commodity amidst economic globalization the pencil of economist Leonard E. Read's "I, Pencil" (1958) and the production of poetry in a global age. For Ramazani, the prosopopoeia of the pencil, allowing the commodity to disclose the process of its own making, provides a model for the way poetry in a global age amalgamates materials tropes, forms, rhetorical strategies, etymologies, genres that span various histories and geographies.17 Whereas for Ramazani, the making of the commodity offers an analogy for the making of poetry, Mullen's commodity poems give us a different formal language for understanding contemporary poetry's relationship to globalization. Even as Mullen's representation of the supermarket draws on forms of cultural transfusion, it asks us to consider how contemporary poetry might make visible not just the cultural change that accompanies economic transformations, but also how poetry's representational forms and organizational systems might help cognize economic processes. In what follows, I balance close readings of poems and their formal institutions with a panorama of the shifting sociopolitical dynamics of shopping, retailing, and advertising that gave popular definition to commodities in the 1990s. Understanding these consumer histories as part of the problematic of commodities under globalization, I will argue, allows us to specify how Mullen's S*PeRM**K*T plays with forms of listing, canting, and riddling to represent a changing capitalist social order established by the commodity form, one which both animates and transforms racial difference.

Listing and shopping

Moving from commodity to commodity, the series of poems in S*PeRM**K*T functions as a list. While the list particularly in its iterations as catalog or inventory suggests a kind a vastness and panoramic sweep that, from the perspective of the grocery store, puts both linguistic infinitude and commercial plentitude on display, Mullen's poetics of listing exploits a different use of the list and introduces a different perspective.18 In S*PeRM**K*T, the poetic list is also a grocery list. In a 1999 interview with Cynthia Hogue, Mullen explains, "it's the woman with her shopping list in the supermarket, because women are still constructed through advertising as the consumers who bring these objects into the household."19 If the inventory list represents the perspective of capital, the grocery list suggests the perspective of labor. Though Mullen almost immediately describes the subjectivity tracked in S*PeRM**K*T as that of the consumer, her invocation of the shopping list frames the trip not so much as an act of leisure, but as one of gendered labor.20 Moving through the collection is not only an act of moving through the store, aisle by aisle, but also a process of checking items off the list with which the shopper entered.

While literary and cultural criticism has most frequently figured the supermarket as a site of hapless consumption and cultural degradation, Mullen's use of the shopping list as a poetic form frames the consumption that unfolds within the physical space of the supermarket as part of a circuit of labor that also takes place inside of the home.21 In part, the grocery list collects various food products canned goods and fresh produce, sliced bread and meat that might be combined at a different moment within the circuit of domestic labor that the poems anticipate. At the same time, the list includes products like furniture polish, bathroom cleaners, laundry detergents, and pest control that index the ongoing work of polishing, cleaning, sorting, washing, folding, and exterminating. Toilet bowl cleaner, when purchased alongside furniture polish, laundry detergent, and all-purpose surface cleaner, suggests a different kind of shopping than the peaches of Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California."

As a list of products necessary for the functioning of the household, the grocery list resembles the market basket, or basket of goods an idea economists use to track the progress of inflation in an economy or measure the value of money in different places. The most common market basket is the basket of consumer goods used to define the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which includes categories like food and beverages, housing, education, transportation, and recreation22 While the formal structure of the list suggests a plentitude, infinitude, multiplicity, and expandability of both language and consumption, this formal and structural vastness is ultimately at odds with the banality of the products on display and the chores these products anticipate. The kinds of products itemized across the collection are not luxury goods, but wage goods: toilet paper, canned soup, laundry detergent, sliced bread. As a list of goods necessary for the household, Mullen's listing links consumption to the domestic labor upon which it relies.

We see the perspective of domestic labor not only when we look at the kinds of items the list collects, but also when we look at the variable languages Mullen's commodity poems combine. These different registers of language constitute a version of what Matthew Hart has called a "synthetic vernacular," a kind of poetry that operates in the gray area between and in the contradictions among "beloved local identities, the redoubtable nation-state form of government, and the increasingly globalized nature of twentieth-century culture."23 In Mullen's case, this synthetic vernacular is constituted, in part, by drawing on the lexicon of housework. The linguistic structures and vocabularies of household tips and tricks, budgeting, and step-by-step instructions offer both discursive fields of reference and formal schemas. In a poem about pest control, phrases like "Invest in better mousetraps" seem to echo banal advice from a list of housekeeping tips. Elsewhere, "Just add water" echoes the kind of instructions followed at home, when the product is consumed in the process of labor. If Mullen takes the poetic form of the list and adapts it to connect consumption to domestic work, the individual component parts of that list similarly make that connection by bringing together advertising especially slogans and jingles and housework. Mullen builds each commodity poem by co-mingling these registers of language, drawing on both their syntactic structures and their specialized vocabularies.

Housework as difficult and time-consuming work was newly visible in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Following Marxist feminist debates of the 1970s and 1980s that sought to clarify the relationship between forms of unwaged household labor and the industrial paradigm of the wage, Arlie Russell Hochschild's The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (1989) and The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (1997) popularized understandings of housework as work, a "second shift" that largely falls on women, following their "first shift" in the formal workplace.24 More specifically, Hochschild brought attention to the gendering of different forms of housework such as mowing the lawn and taking out the trash, compared to shopping or putting the kids to bed. While childrearing was one of the tasks men were more likely to enthusiastically adopt particularly when those activities were "fun," like going to the zoo women were disproportionately in charge of mundane tasks. As Hochschild put it, working wives spent more time "mothering" the house, working husbands spent more time "mothering" children.25

In a 1997 interview with Farah Griffin, Michael Magee, and Kristen Gallagher, Mullen connects the mass consumption of the postwar boom to the racial histories of housework. Speaking about the impact of television commercials, Mullen says: "And when you're a small black child seeing no black people unless they're in uniforms, unless they're serving white people, and what does that even though that's not the case now, we have all these people who are, you know, my age and older who have that we have that in our heads. Somewhere it's in there, it's part of our programming."26 If popular discourses of labor only began to recognize domestic work as work towards the latter end of the twentieth century, the iconography of mass consumption here, typified in television commercials nonetheless visualized housework and its racial histories as part of its cultural narratives. In this context, we might see the repetition of cleaning products across the collection not only as references to rituals of purification as an analogy for assimilation and pluralistic inclusion, but also as bringing the racial history of domestic labor to bear on mass consumption under globalization.

This connection between mass consumption and domestic labor offers Mullen not only an iconography, but a syntactic structure, one that brings together linguistic forms from commercials and advertising, like the slogan and the jingle, with those of domestic work, like the label instruction and housekeeping tip. Though the slogan and the label instruction constitute different fields of reference, the latter formally and syntactically resembles the prior. These are all modern day maxims, generating meaning through repetition. Race is not attached to any of the linguistic fields that come together to build the poems, but rather shifts with each iteration. "Two thousand flushes drain her white porcelana" and "It must be white, a picture of health, the spongy napkin made to blot blood" find racial meaning in patterns of housework and rituals of purification.27 "Streak o' lean gets away cleaner than Safeway chitlings" and "Well bread ain't refined of coarse dark textures" delineate race through the lexical field of food.28 "Swinging burgers do a soft shoe, gringo derbies tipping Latina banana" defines race as a labor relation that ties together entertainment and servitude.29 Even as race appears in each poem, how it appears constantly shifts within the syntactic structure that Mullen repeats across poems.

These forms of repetition give formal definition to race as serial and fungible. Race as a system of classification one that is proximate to the kind of syntactic patterns and consumer taxonomies Mullen explores in the supermarket is not defined in relation to a lexical field, but in relation to a structure of iteration. Zooming out and looking at the list as a whole in the collection allows us to see race at the scale of the shopping list, the inventory, or the market basket. The connotations of each of these forms is slightly different. The shopping list reminds us that this is a scene of labor; the inventory that this is a list of things for sale, with a specific market price attached; the market basket, that this stands as an index of consumption that draws on specific behavioral patterns to tell a story about the national economy more broadly. These larger contextual frames, all of which delineate proximate but slightly differentiated relationships between consumption and shopping, fix what otherwise shifts from poem to poem. These structures of listing give meaning to both commodities and racial signification under late twentieth century globalization.

Canting and retailing

If the collection, as a basket of goods, indexes consumption, the kind of consumption S*PeRM**K*T enumerates is not a consumerism driven by cool-hunting what Naomi Klein calls the pursuit of "attitude" brands but one driven by bargain basements and discount bins. In the canned goods aisle, Mullen writes:

Pyramids are eroding monuments. Embalmed soup stocks the recyclable soul adrift in its newspaper boat of double coupons. Seconds decline in descent from number one, top of the heap. So this is generic life, feeding from a dented cant. Devoid of colored labels, the discounted irregulars.30

Here, Mullen plays on multiple meanings of the word "generic." On the one hand, generic signals the blandness or seeming banality of mass consumption: the rickety "newspaper boat of double coupons" deflates the spectacle of the monumental pyramids, the plentitude that the list enumerates is just a stack of soup cans. As in Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California," which mourns the way the dream of a queer Whitmanian democracy has been channeled into the postwar boom of consumer culture, the commodity is a symbol of loss. In "decline," "decent," "dented," and "devoid," the world articulated by the commodity is defined by what it is missing. Invoking The Egyptian Book of the Dead as a kind of commodity allegory, where the commodity is likened to a soul stripped of memory and history, the language of mass consumer culture seems to have achieved both the comprehensiveness and coherence of a mythological world-system. Ginsberg's poems identify an alternative to the culture of the supermarket in a literary poetic inheritence represented by Whitman; in Mullen's poems, on the other hand, the language of the supermarket bleeds over into even into the language of poetry, making cant both a poetic and commodity form.

At the same time, though, "generic" refers to products that are off-brand or don't have any particular brand. If the first meaning of "generic" suggests a qualitative critique of the social and economic order organized around the commodity form, this second meaning suggests a quantitative critique of the cost of living. To say that "generic life" is lacking is to suggest not economic prosperity but financial constraint. Synonymous with "generic," the private label is typically a copy of a heavily branded product sold at a lower price under the retailer's name like Costco's Kirkland line (introduced in 1995) or Walmart's Great Value brand (introduced in 1993).31 This kind of private-label version became especially popular in the 1990s. In what became known in some marketing circles as "Marlboro Friday" (April 2, 1993), Marlboro announced price cuts to try to keep up with generic competitors. In response to the so-called "value generation" a new generation of shoppers who claimed they could not tell the difference between brand name and bargain versions of the same product Marlboro Friday resulted in plummeting stock value of major American brands, leading many to regard the event as "the death of the brand" and the advent of the "value-minded" consumer.32 With the growth of the private label, retail chains were no longer just retailers. As the anti-corporate activist and investigative journalist Stacy Mitchell explains, "At one time, the big power players in the economy were manufacturers, like US Steel and General Motors. Today the kingpins are the big chains."33

In the poem above, this secondary meaning of "generic" as the retailer's private label makes the "newspaper boat of double coupons" and "discounted irregulars" newly visible. Coupons and discounts, like the private-label, are promotions offered by the retailer. Rather than the private speech of the shopper, the poetic idiom through which the poems are constructed draw on the language of supermarket fliers with special deals and savings, announcements of promotions that echo over the store intercom. At once indicative of the growing role of the retailer in a consumer economy and invoking a kind of shopping based on saving, rather than spending, money a way of thinking of shopping as procuring provisions and household budgeting the poem foregrounds cost and access as issues of consumer politics, rather than issues of monotony and cultural degradation.

The "private" of the private label both echoes the private space of domesticity and suggests a kind of consumer politics of the private different than a consumer politics of spectacle. In particular, Guy Debord's critique of consumer culture and commodity fetishism which was an antecedent to 1990s anti-globalization politics culminating in publications like Adbusters and movements like culture jamming, both of which were closely associated with the global movement that culminated in the 1999 Seattle protests is a significant theoretical antecedent to this strand of consumer politics. In Debord and the Situationists' account, the solution to disrupting the boredom, alienation, and cultural homogenization that characterize consumer capitalism is the integration of art into life, bringing creative play into the everyday and using images and language to disrupt the "society of the spectacle." While this strand of consumer politics emphasized hapless consumption and cultural decline, Mullen's poetics of the generic suggest an alternative way of understanding shopping and consumption during the same period, one with different racial and gender history.

In the same 1997 interview where Mullen discussed the racialized iconography of mass consumption, she talks about the difference between branded products, endorsed through television shows and by popular celebrities, and discounted goods. This distinction serves, in the following anecdote, as an example of the kind of critique of consumer culture that was fostered in the space of the household, and that provided a template for S*PeRM**K*T:

Television was an occasion for learning in our household. . . . [My mother] used to analyze, she used to do critique of what was on the television. For instance, when we would watch "Romper Room," then we would want to go to the store and buy the milk that the Romper Room lady, and the ice-cream that the Romper Room lady, you know, fed the kids, you know, on TV. . . . she explained to us, you know, very clearly, "She is paid to endorse this product. This product is no better than the other product that costs less. We are not buying the higher priced milk just because they use it on the show," and you know, "Don't even . . . I don't even want to hear that anymore." [laughter] Or when we wanted the Barbie Doll and she said, "There's no way that I am buying you all a doll who has more clothes than all three of us put together." [laughter] You know, so we got this kind of lesson and I think that "Spermkit" very much comes out of that kind of session of critique. Because we did not sit like zombies in front of the TV. There was always a conversation. My mother would be sitting there saying, "That's a lie." [laughter]34

Here, Mullen ties together several different strands that come together in S*PeRM**K*T. The first is the way the poems represent commodities not as branded or prestige products, but as generic goods, purchased out of an understanding that they are just as good as and formally equivalent to the kinds of products that are promoted by television shows, celebrities, or commercials. The second is the form of critique that S*PeRM**K*T stages as an intervention into mass consumer culture. This is a form of critique, first, that originates inside of the home, and that, second, emphasizes not hapless consumption generic life as cultural degradation but mass consumer culture's promises of accessing whiteness through consumer spending.

In part, the growth of retailing comes through in Mullen's poetics of listing, which combines both the perspectives of the shopper and that of the retailer. At the same time, though, the new role of retailers as central players in the global economy exerts pressure on the synthetic vernacular of Mullen's commodity poems. In the poem above, the pun linking can to cant suggests an analogy between the unit of the word and the mass-produced container though one that is "irregular," and therefore outside the normal flow of circulation. Looking at the historical emergence of canting as a term, Daniel Tiffany has documented the close relationship between "slang" and "cant": "Once slang had acquired the sense that it possesses today (of colloquial speech in general) and moved into common use (by about 1800), it subsumed the earlier and more narrowly defined canting, which referred solely to the jargon of thieves, vagabonds, and beggars." Historically and linguistically connected, both refer to the "verbal inventions of a closed community . . . canting, a signifying practice marked at once by secrecy and intense communal responsibilities, may be described as the slang of slang." Defined by its anonymity and inscrutability, canting appeared incomprehensible to outsiders.35

Mullen's commodity poems draw on the close relationship canting entails between song and slang, on the one hand, and its features of anonymity and inscrutability, on the other. Closely related to "chant" and the Latin cantus, "cant" has the particular valence of underworld slang but always carries with it the general etymology of musical sound. Singing and slanging are never far from one another; they are particularly tied in the idea of cant. Canting appears in Mullen's commodity poems through everyday forms that combine singing and slanging, like popular maxims, cliches, slogans, and jingles whose meaning emerges, in part, from sound and repetition.36 Playing off cant's associations with the criminal underworld, lines like "Off the pig, ya dig?" and "Eat junk, don't shoot" draw on the racialized vernacular of drug slang during the War on Drugs, as well as its assimilation into 1990s advertising. Here, the language of selling drugs sounds like the language of selling anything these are forms of speech that circulate, authorless. In this sense, the contemporary forms of cant in S*PeRM**K*T echo the form of the promotion, the kind that you might see in a supermarket flyer or hear over the store intercom. Even though slogans often function to promote particular brands, Mullen's consumer landscape has shifted the main engine of consumption from the brand to the retailer. Even when specific brands are invoked as in the phrase "the tunnel of a nightmare night in a roach motel" it has become generic. Though "roach motel" names a specific brand of bait designed to catch cockroaches, the phrase itself, like Q-Tip, has become generalized: it has come to stand in for all traps that use bait to lure roaches into a compartment. The kinds of canting phrases that circulate, then, are less attached to any particular brand than they are to a landscape of consumer goods that is shaped by the centrality of the retailer.

While Joseph Jonghyun Jeon has written on the link between racialization and reification, focusing on literal and metaphorical containers in the Asian American avant-garde, Mullen's canting offers a related though somewhat different perspective by directing attention to product labels, as in the line "Devoid of colored labels, the discounted irregulars."37 Developed in the early 20th century concurrently with the emergence of packaging, the product label occupies a distinct place in the history of retailing and generic goods. In response to growing suspicions of the clerk behind the counter of the general store, the label functioned as a proxy for security, a barrier against tampering and fraud and a guarantee of quality. The promise of branded goods, as expressed through uniform packaging, communicated the promise of getting the same product. To counter the anonymity of packaged goods and humanize homogenizing processes of mass-production, logos tailored to evoke folksiness came to replace the shopkeeper as interface between consumer and product.38

Through logos, brands mobilize personification as a way of assigning bodies to ideas. The generic label remains strangely resistant to doing so and, as such, race is formally delineated not through personification's embodiment but through canting's anonymity. Though the generic is seen as impersonal, lacking the kind of symbolic meaning associated with branded products (Jif is a sign of motherly love; the Safeway brand does not have the same connotations of warmth and nostalgia), it does have a different kind of identity attached to it. As in genre theory, the generic is concerned with difference on the level of the typical rather than the individual. Comparability, similitude, and substitution define the generic in relation to the brand. These are at once questions of poetic form, racial stereotype, and consumer behavior. While personification tends to link two things that usually operate on different levels of abstraction, the alchemy of Mullen's canting enacts a different poetics of substitution, one that plays on the language of retailing to yolk together different historical periods.

Whereas branding leverages the formal machinations of personification to give human form to a complex set of ideas, accumulating characteristics or exemplary details (in contrast to characterological individuation, which functions through an accumulation of nonsignifying details), Mullen's generic canting exploits the pun. Even as "colored labels" refers primarily to the material labels on the branded products, the phrase simultaneously conjures up an anachronistic legal category a time in which race was defined through legal segregation and a contemporary, though misshapen, ethnic label, playing on the gap and transmutation between "colored" and people of color. The pun here is more tragic than comic and marks a moment of deflation.39 Invoking "colored" as a design feature, an anachronistic legal category, and an ethnic descriptor, Mullen's attention to labels and the retailing histories they condense playfully questions whether race describes the container, its contents, or a shifting relationship between the two. Even as Mullen's poems poke fun at definitions of race as non-fungible authenticity, S*PeRM**K*T also satirizes mass consumer culture as a system of empty forms that might be filled in with peculiar content.

Riddling and Advertising

I have explored how the poems in S*PeRM*RK*T draw on the resources of listing and canting to discursively represent the problematics of commodity arrangements under economic conditions of globalization. To conclude, let me turn now to a third lyric impetus that Mullen mobilizes as a representational strategy: the riddle. As a poetic form, the riddle describes something in terms of something else. In this sense, riddles model defamiliarization, the form of making the world strange that, for Viktor Shklovsky, was central to the literary.40 For Tiffany, the riddle simultaneously obscures and illuminates its object: it "withholds the name of a thing, so that the thing may appear as what it is not, in order to be revealed for what it is."41 For Northop Frye, the riddle has a close parallel in the figure of speech known as the kenning, which functions through "oblique description.42 Frye names the vignettes in Tender Buttons as an example; even though Stein's poems frequently name the object they describe, often providing the solution in the title, these poems mark, for Frye, a clear affinity with the riddle tradition.43

Drawing on the poetic tradition of the riddle, Mullen's commodity poems do not announce their object at the start; they describe it in an elliptical style, by recourse to a series of associations, including what it looks like, what kind of package it comes in, what language might appear on that package, and what function it ultimately serves. In a poem about laundry detergent, for example, Mullen writes:

Bad germs get zapped by secret agents in formulaic new improved scientific solutions. Ivory says pure nuff and snow flakes be white enough to do the dirty work. Step and fetch laundry tumbles out shuffling into sorted colored stacks. That black grape of underwear fame denies paternity of claymate raisinets. Swinging burgers do a soft shoe, gringo derbies tipping Latina banana. Some giggling lump of dough, an infantile chef, smiles animatedly at his fresh little sis. They never gets a tan in the heartwarming easy bake oven because they is eternal raw ingredients for programmed microwavering half-baked expressions of family love.44

Here, the repetitions, puns, and double meanings seem to set up a kind of riddle to be decoded and solved. The poem does not announce the product it stands in for at the start but describes it by reference to the task it accomplishes (doing the dirty work), its advertising promises (zapping bad germs), and the way it looks (white powdered flakes). Each poem stands in for a different commodity, demanding that we identify the commodity by taking the multi-perspectival descriptions of its attributes as clues. Not all of these descriptions can be assimilated into a single perspective or conception; by the end of the poem, we have moved from the supermarket to the domestic sphere, from an advertising promise to a scene of "family love." Mullen's riddles develop not through a single, unifying comparison but by multiplying associations, making the product strange by drawing ever-widening circles that encompass more and more of the social world that connects people and things. In S*PeRM**RK*T, the riddle doesn't just reveal the proper name of the commodity, but the structure of the whole web of social relations established by the commodity form, an entire social order that takes shape around networks of production and exchange.

At the same time, riddles have a strong bias toward the comic, "toward humor and joking, to puzzle and paradox."45 In these connections to both oblique description and comic recognition, we might think of the poetic riddle alongside the strategy of signifying. Drawing on Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Elisabeth A. Frost has argued for understanding Mullen's word play, particularly her puns and figurative substitutions, in this context. Frost understands signifying as a strategy Mullen uses to stage a dialogue between Gertrude Stein's linguistic play and Black Arts poetics. Quoting Gates, Frost describes signifying as "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 a subject, never quite coming to the point.'"46

In their reliance on associative logic, we might read Mullen's commodity poems against similarly elliptical advertising campaigns, where the product itself all but disappears. Instead of foregrounding claims that might differentiate the product from its competitors, high-profile brands like Gap and Nike, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, produced advertising campaigns organized around a series of associations about the kinds of experiences their products might enable, or lifestyle they might fit into.47 In this context, we might revisit the infamous United Colors of Benetton's "All the Colors of the World" advertising campaign, which became a staple of its marketing repertoire in the 1990s. Beyond standing in for an ascendent 1990s-era liberal multiculturalism, Benetton's ad campaign was more focused on the cultural associations it wanted to promote than with its actual clothing. Like these postmodern advertisements, Mullen's riddles function through an associational logic that imbues the commodity with all sorts of qualities that extend beyond its design or function. At the same time, though, their focus on qualities both physical and lexical can directly be attributed to the product. These associations offer not an arc of transcendence, but a return to the material lives of everyday goods, and, specifically, the way that everyday goods, under conditions of free trade, are newly entangled with processes of racial formation. Reading Mullen's representations against the history Brenna Greer traces of midcentury Black-engineered professional advertising and public relations campaigns representing African Americans as American citizens, we might see Mullen's engagement with advertising as part of a longer history of melding Black consumerism and politics.48

Riddles frequently endow objects with the ability to speak, relying on the poetic figure of prosopopoeia so that an object might pose a question, asking us to guess its identity; the poem above similarly gives way to a scene of animation. The second half of the poem expands on the tumbling laundry transposing the product from the supermarket shelf into the home, the poem imagines it in the process of being used. This takes the form of a kind of movie, not the spy thriller we were promised by the label, but an old Hollywood romantic comedy, a day at the races with song and dance. Animating the laundry itself, turning it into something other than clothes swirling together in the washing machine and tumbling in the dryer, the clothes dance, tip, giggle, smile, and bake. The laundry seems to spring to life, perhaps through the magic of the formulaic new solutions, the ivory soap flakes, and the process of representing a household commodity laundry turns into a scene of animated dancing.

Giving commodities the ability to dance in part alludes to Marx's description of commodity fetishism as a kind of social hieroglyphic, one that, like the riddle, needs to be deciphered.49 In light of Mullen's description of her work as concerned with "the domestic space that is the woman's space and with ideas of consumption, our investment in objects, our consumer fetishism," we might read Mullen's use of riddling as analogous to Marx's social hieroglyphic.50 In this context, looking at the technique of signifying alongside the concept of the social hieroglyphic, we can see the riddle as a form that brings together the rhetorical forms of Black vernacular with those of the commodity fetish. At the same time, the poem's animation of commodities references specific racial stereotypes that form the foundation of popular advertising campaigns: the California Raisins (the "claymate raisinets"), a fictional music group used for advertising and merchandising campaigns, originally for Sun-Maid on behalf of the California Raisin Advisory Board; and, Chiquita Banana ("Latina banana"), United Fruit's singing, anthropomorphic cartoon who first helped establish the singing commercial as a twentieth century form, and who, alongside Carmen Miranda, put a friendly face on foreign labor exploitation and political repression.51 Evoking both Sianne Ngai's understanding of animatedness as a racializing technology and the racist stereotypes of minstrelsy, particularly with the reference to Black American vaudeville actor Stepin Fetchit, these instances of animation track a shifting relationship between racial form and the commodity form. Through the rhetorical trope of animation, Mullen pairs the riddle of the commodity form with the riddle of race as a kind of floating signifier, one that is shaped and transformed over time, alongside shifts in patterns organizing consumer behavior.

In the poem above, the shifts reorganizing patterns of consumption are both transnational and intergenerational. The "black grape of underwear fame" references Fruit of the Loom, an American clothing manufacturer particularly well known for its underwear. Its logo is made up of a red apple, green and purple grapes, and white currants, and its late twentieth-century television commercials featured anthropomorphized fruit in the form of mascots dressed up as produce. That this "black grape of underwear fame denies paternity" suggests a story about Fruit of the Loom under the intensification of free trade, an intergenerational commodity story organized around changes in domestic production. As debt financing became increasingly difficult to manage, Fruit of the Loom closed most of its US factories and moved production abroad. The relationship between the black grape of Fruit of the Loom underwear and the black grape of California Raisins tells the story of globalization as a riddle about a single commodity.

Situating Mullen's lyric alongside contemporaneous narrative, historical, and sociological accounts of consumer goods brings to light how S*PeRM**K*T engages with what was a defining issue of the 1990s: the question of how to understand the world economy of physical stuff, a question newly animated by what was coming to be known as globalization. In this sense, the contexts of advertising, retailing, and shopping that I have drawn out might be properly understood as sub-contextual features of commodity histories, historical dimensions that helped give shape and sense to everyday consumer goods. Understanding these consumer behaviors and advertising histories as part of the problem of commodities helps specify how S*PeRM**K*T takes a lyric approach to this problem, and allows us to map Mullen's poetic forms onto patterns of global economic cognition. Listing becomes a way of representing shopping as a newly visible form of household labor; canting offers a way of charting the growing role of the retailer in not just distribution but also manufacturing; and riddling takes on the changes in advertising under deindustrialization. These lyric categories and consumer histories not only give shape and meaning to commodities in an era of globalization, but, in doing so, they determine how race appears or disappears as form: as iteration, as genre, as type. Particularly in the context of an era that celebrated a kind of multiculturalism defined in market terms and shaped by the imperatives of globalization, S*PeRM**K*T's poetic forms draw and perpetually redraw the relationship between racial representation and patterns of consumption, between racial form and commodity form. In this way, reading form against history in Mullen's lyric approach to the commodity in the age of globalization provides a new perspective on the connection between the consumer and racial politics of the 1990s.

Anna Zalokostas is a PhD candidate in English at Northwestern writing a dissertation on the literature of globalization in the 1990s.

Banner Image by lyzadanger licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. Harryette Mullen, Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2006), 65. []
  2. Ibid., x. []
  3. Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?" The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3-18. Life Magazine, June 1996. []
  4. For more on liberal multiculturalism as a distinct racial regime organized around the incorporation of antiracism, see Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). []
  5. Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003). []
  6. Harryette Mullen, "Poetry and Identity," in The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2012), 10. []
  7. Ibid., 11. []
  8. See Timothy Kreiner, "The Politics of Language Writing and the Subject of History," in "Deindustrialization and the New Cultures of Work," ed. Annie McClanahan, special issue, Post45, no. 1 (2019). []
  9. Elisabeth A. Frost, "Signifyin(g) on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino," Postmodern Culture 5, no. 3 (1995); Deborah Mix, "Tender Revisions: Harryette Mullen's Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T," American Literature 77, no. 1 (2005): 65-92; Amy Moorma Robbins, "Harryette Mullen's Poetics in Prose: A Return to the Modernist Hybrid," in American Hybrid Poetics: Gender, Mass Culture, and Form (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014); Juliana Spahr, "'What Stray Companion:' Harryette Mullen's Communities of Reading," in Everybody's Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001). []
  10. Anthony Reed, Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011). []
  11. Christopher Chen, "Race in the Democracy of Goods," in Literature and Race in the Democracy of Goods: Reading Contemporary Black and Asian North American Poetry (London: Bloosmbury Academic, 2022); Bronwen Tate, "Reading Affect in Harryette Mullen's S*PeRM**K*T," Contemporary Literature 61, no. 3 (2020). []
  12. Bruce Robbins, "Commodity Histories," PMLA 120, no. 2 (2005). []
  13. Michael Pollan, "Naturally," New York Times Magazine, May 13, 2001. []
  14. Benjamin Lorr, The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket (New York: Penguin Random House, 2020), 191; Andrew Ross, No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Workers (New York: Verso, 1997), 291.[]
  15. Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Toronto: Vintage, 1999). []
  16. See Jacob Edmond, Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019). []
  17. See Jahan Ramazani, Poetry in a Global Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020). []
  18. See Robert E. Belknap, The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); Roger A. Hornsby et al., "Catalog," in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th edition, ed. Stephen Cushman et al. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 214. []
  19. Harryette Mullen, "An Interview with Harryette Mullen and Cynthia Hogue," in The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2012), 242. On the affective dimensions of the supermarket as a space of labor and routine, see Tate, "Reading Affect." []
  20. For a historical account on food shopping as difficult and time-consuming work, and the ways in which chain stores in the twentieth century sought to make shopping a passive experience rather than active work, see Tracey Deutsch, Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010). []
  21. For more on literary and cultural representations of the supermarket, see David Alworth, "Supermarket Sociology," New Literary History 41, no. 2, (Spring 2010): 301-327. []
  22. Adam Hayes, "Market Basket Definition," Investopedia (2022). []
  23. Matthew Hart, Nations of Nothing But Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5. []
  24. For important contributions to these debates, see Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (London: Falling Wall Press, 1975); Angela Y. Davis, "The Approaching Obsolesce of Housework," in Women, Race, and Class (New York: Vintage, 1981); Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004). []
  25. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (New York: Penguin, 1989), 9. []
  26. Farah Griffin, Michael Magee, and Kirsten Gallagher, "A Conversation with Harryette Mullen." Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY-Buffalo, 1997. []
  27. Mullen, Recyclopedia, 79, 71. []
  28. Ibid, 82-83. []
  29. Ibid, 85. []
  30. Ibid, 67. []
  31. Lorr, The Secret Life of Groceries, 62-63. []
  32. Klein, No Logo, 12-14. []
  33. Stacy Mitchell, Big-Box Swindle: The Trust Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006). []
  34. Griffin et al., "A Conversation" []
  35. Daniel Tiffany, "Fugitive Lyrics: The Rhyme of the Canting Crew," PMLA 120, no. 1 (2005): 82-96. []
  36. For Tiffany, vernacular language historically designating the speech of household servants functions as a kind of "foreign body lodged in the system of literary poetry." While vernacular poetries, like nursey rhymes, have been defined in opposition to their literary counterparts, Tiffany argues such vernacular forms like canting were significant resources for the lyric. Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 19. []
  37. See Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012). []
  38. Lorr, The Secret Life of Groceries, 27. []
  39. For more on the racial meaning of Mullen's puns, see Mitchum Huehls, "Spun Puns (and Anagrams): Exchange Economies, Subjectivity, and History in Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge," Contemporary Literature 44, no. 1 (2003): 19-46. For Huehls, Mullen's puns, anagrams, and other word games (specifically in Muse & Drudge), provide a way to "to signify with simultaneity, to resist essentialized readings, to reveal suppressed facets of signification, and to demonstrate how an apparently dominant term is always inextricably bound to that which it dominates" (45). []
  40. Andrew Welsh et al., "Riddle," in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1199-1201. []
  41. Tiffany, Infidel Poetics, 42. The poetic tradition of riddles is, for Tiffany, different from the phenomenon of the commodity fetish, in which objects come to life only at the moment of exchange. In riddles, objects speak on the occasion of their manufacture or under the condition of ownership. []
  42. Northop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 280. []
  43. Northop Frye, "Charms and Riddles," in Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (Bloomington: Indiana Univeristy Press, 1976). []
  44. Mullen, Recyclopedia, 85. []
  45. Ibid., 141. []
  46. Frost, "Signifyin(g) on Stein." []
  47. For the convergences and divergences of advertising and poetry in the 1960s and 1970s, see See Jasper Bernes, "Lyric and the Service Sector: Frank O'Hara at Work," in The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017). []
  48. See Brenna Greer, Represented: The Black Imagemakers Who Reimagined African American Citizenship (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). []
  49. See Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, introduction by Ernest Mandel, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 163-167. []
  50. Mullen, "An Interview with Harryette Mullen and Cynthia Hogue." []
  51. For more on Chiquita Banana and the globalized banana industry, see Cynthia Enloe, "Going Bananas!" in Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014). []