How Poems Work: A Selection from Suzanne Buffam’s “A Pillow Book”

From A Pillow Book, pages 41-43.

 

Some nights I visit Inés Fernández, the forlorn school teacher from southwestern Spain, who yawned once in the sun at a passing religious procession, felt a brief, searing pain through the back of her skull, and never slept another wink all her life. For the next thirty years she sat up through the night in an armchair in the corner of her bedroom, watching her husband dissolve into dreams in their bed. In the silence and emptiness, she told Rose Grady of Weekly World News, I feel as though I am the only person alive in the world. First published on the 23rd of February, 1989, under the headline “Woman Hasn’t Slept in Thirty Years!” her grainy portrait still haunts some twilit corner of the internet today. Slumped in a bathrobe in the shadows, her spouse long departed, her thin hair wrenched into an angry topknot on her head, she clutches at the dull, black beads of her rosary and eyes the empty future in grim reprise of the Byzantine Lady of Perpetual Succor framed in dark wood on the wall above her chair. In the foreground, blindly reaching for the viewer from its perch atop a narrow pillow, sits a porcelain infant with its chubby arms outstretched.

 

NOT RELAXED

Feminists on a list-serv.
Office potlucks.
Endogamy taboos in ancient Greece.
Betty Davis’s eyebrows.
Boys at a bris.
Backstage at a folkfest.
Dickinson’s dash.

 

A man is chasing me through a dark house. I do not recognize the furniture, but the staircase in the moonlight, as I hurtle down the banister, looks familiar. The front door, I discover, is bolted shut from the outside. I try the back door, which opens, to my horror, onto a series of inner doors, each smaller than the last, each one shaped like a girl’s diminishing silhouette. The final passage is a toddler-sized hatch I must squeeze through as through a swinging doggy door. I hesitate on the threshold, afraid of getting stuck. I am rescued before dawn by Her Majesty climbing beside me into bed, wedging her head next to mine on the pillow and announcing that my nostril breath smells like spaghetti.

 

THINGS THAT ARE DISTANT THOUGH NEAR

Crows on a fence post.
Ex-lovers on Facebook.
Facing-page translations.
Fellow commuters.
Last season’s computers.
Yesterday.
Today.

 

THINGS THAT ARE NEAR THOUGH DISTANT

Paradise.
Hell.
The Andromeda Galaxy.
Pen pals.
Laughter on the far side of the bay.

 

Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book is a collection of short poems that exists in response to Sei Shonagon’s own Pillow Book from the year 1002, as well as various other pillow books since then. Though the poems can be read individually, they stack upon their neighbouring poems and borrow from one another in such a way that reading only a single poem would lose one of the book’s most fascinating dimensions. These poems flit between the cusp of sleep, light nightly “napping,” and REM sleep, while also offering late night research and reading as well as a wide range of late night lists that one might come up with as a modern-day version of “counting sheep.”

“Some nights I visit” becomes a call out to all late night attendees of the internet who similarly find themselves in the company of the outrageous information that is spread there. Whether true or not, there is a correlation between the speaker and this distant sleepless woman on the internet. The sleeping husband is occupying the space of sleep while both wives “haunt some twilit corner of the internet,” and the porcelain doll, a figure of nightmares, is both the holy infant of the “Byzantine Lady of Perpetual Succor” as well as a reflection of “Her Majesty,” Buffam’s chosen title for her daughter throughout these poems. “Her Majesty” then serves an interesting purpose, as both a nightmare and saviour for the speaker, rescuing them “before dawn” from a night terror, while still providing a brutally honest, childish complaint about “nostril breath smell[ing] like spaghetti.”

The juxtaposition of contrasting images becomes the port by which the reader looks into the moments that exist between sleeping and being awake. The detached lists that appear to have little narrative, and exist instead as semi-logical progressions that frame daily life as instances of vastly varying moments, are countered by a rather clear narrative that appears in the midst of dreams and in moments searching on the internet or in books, things that typically appear dissociated from what is called “waking life.” These lists and prose poems together become an amalgamation of what can be correlated between being asleep and awake, and allow the reader to question what belongs to the day-lit world and what belongs to the pillow.

 

Join Suzanne Buffam, along with Damian Rogers and Sarah Burgoyne,
Thursday, November 3, at 7:30 PM
Grey Nuns Building M100, 1175 Rue St. Mathieu

 

“How Poems Work” courtesy of Ben Neelin.

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