Reviewed April 1, 2017 by Daniel Moysaenko.
Suzanne Buffam’s third collection, A Pillow Book, recalls the title of that 11th-century genre-bending mammoth by Sei Shōnagon, but Buffam’s speaker is not all that interested in the particulars of her literary allusion, in insomnia and pillows per se. The chief appeal of the speaker’s abridged edition of the Japanese book, she explains, lies in its “repetitive and inconsequential minutiae” that make it “hard to endure more than a page or two at a stretch,” thereby encouraging sleep. Plus, she adds later, “what I’m writing about pillows is as much about pillows as last night’s dream about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall was about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall." So, it would seem, the original pillow book functions as little more than a touchstone for Buffam, a starting point.
The book’s project unspools as its central focus becomes more about occasion than reference. Shōnagon’s lists and prose accounts of domestic life do offer Buffam a formal avenue, though, in which to turn pillows—blamed for or contemplated on sleepless nights—into loci of parental, romantic, professional, commercial, and aesthetic pressures. A pillow absorbs daily bombardments as the mind cycles through them. Similarly, A Pillow Book catalogues those obsessions in a string of untitled prose poems and titled lists, but it does so in order to drain them of potency for the speaker and readers. Once almost a dozen therapeutic pillows have been inventoried, they might be unburdened. One senses that, as the words journey from brain to paper, one has also eliminated the need for “The Serta Reversible Gel-Memory Foam Classic Pillow. The Dream Form Ventilated Jumbo-Sized Memory Foam Neck Pillow. The AB Marketers Deluxe Memory Foam Ultra-plush Lumbar Pillow."
But dwelling on the writing of such a list might reactivate a preoccupation with pillows and, consequently, with one’s wakefulness. So a well researched yet casual work would be ideal. The speaker provides context for these accumulative bits of text: they are nighttime notes stuffed under her pillow. Whether true or not about Buffam’s process, the off-the-cuff act of composition leaks into tone, while yielding poems of care and precision—a hallmark of A Pillow Book and, to me, the pinnacle of poetry is such effortless writing of a poem of great effort. (This may be categorized as the opposite of sprezzatura, the 16th-century Italian term for a courtier’s ideal of practiced nonchalance, coined by Baldassare Castiglione and common even now.)
Here, weariness dominates but is invigorated by long and syntactically acrobatic sentences as well as dry humor. Buffam’s subordinate clauses and apostrophes, which redirect the reader one way and then another, take full advantage of the prose poem form. Without enjambment, grammar facilitates poetry’s voltas. A feverish sentence amplifies the speaker’s anxiety about her knowledge (or the book’s listing, perhaps):
At least now I am old enough—almost twice the age of most of my students—to feel, with some reason, that even if I am not in fact smarter than they are, thanks to the sheer preponderance of years on my side, I contain a greater volume of knowledge than they do, a fact which surely counts for something, I remind myself often, in the fluorescent bad dream of the classroom.
Wit, also, provides surprising departures from the speaker’s historical and personal meditations. Of the many tools used for regulating sleep schedule, herbal tea toggles between being an earnest part of the speaker’s day and an absurd, even reviled talisman. She sips Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Peach Tea in a public gazebo, includes it as the final entry of the poem “Beautiful Names for Hideous Things," and renames it “Zombietown Abattoir Sleepytime Peach Tea” in the poem “Unpopular Perfumes A to Z.” This meta-poetic repetition gestures at numerous levels of engagement: the speaker’s life, poet’s interests, and writing process. Elsewhere, jabs at bureaucratic realities function in a similar way. For example, the speaker riffs in the poem “Unendurable”:
Old men playing electric guitar.
Dinner with donors.
Dreadlocks on a WASP.
A prenatal pole-dancing class.
An undergraduate who has just discovered Foucault.
Ads for Viagra.
To be noted about “Unendurable” is the turn at the end, from humor to gravity. Such tonal variation feels critical for list poems, which can descend into unproductive repetitiveness. But Buffam writes lists that sound natural and unfussy despite their noticeable form. From “Things That Will Never Lose Their Power” (hemorrhoids being the first entry) to “Jobs from Hell” (including “Eternal Finder of the Ragged Edge of Scotch Tape” and “Cat farmer”), she culls from corners of the mind and Internet to divert attention from sleep before returning to that subject. A reader might feel compelled to count how many of Buffam’s titles borrow from Shōnagon’s 164 surviving poems. But A Pillow Book is not a contemporary version of The Pillow Book. The speaker’s e-cigarette and her daughter’s Hello Kitty Halloween sticker are not set pieces, to be compared to Shōnagon’s perfumed sleeping robe. Being available, daily objects or words inevitably become the scaffolding for daydreams and critical thought. These are not mere time-stamps; instead they propel meditations on a present human condition beyond time.
A reader might also be inclined to hunt down those ancient pillows that A Pillow Book describes in intimate detail, many found in museums around the world, such as a pillow found on the Nile (“a smooth block of unpainted wood with a wide crack running through its middle and shallow indentation on the top”) or a Jin-dynasty ivory stoneware pillow or a Japanese funerary pillow that “cradles the ghost of a king’s noble head." More than any practical or historical inquiry, they engage a sense of loss. Meant for comfort or support, they end up reminding us of those people who have left their imprint and moved on, reminding us of our own wakefulness and impending descent into irreversible sleep. A ceramic boy, clutching a swan and resting his head on a cloud “as forgiving as a tombstone on a battlefield,” with his “right iris, worn to the milky pearlescence of a dead star, stares coolly beyond history” and eerily past the speaker.
Rightfully, the connection between sleep and death presents itself again and again. The association is not new but finds fresh mystery here. “The history of pillows begins in the grave," as that object is the most common archaeological item buried, the reader learns. And the speaker later explains death to her daughter as recycling, a reincarnation cycle not unlike one’s consciousness and unconsciousness, while “stirring in the hot chicken stock I’ve boiled down from last night’s bones." As waking anecdotes and dream accounts pepper the book, one might wonder where insomnia fits in the analogy of life and death, empirical reality and dream. The more A Pillow Book dives into these matters, the more the artifacts and meanings point to death and the beauty of change.
The speaker clings to what the night offers—the moon, silence, time alone—and finds those features spoiled by the need for sleep and its elusiveness. An alternately comforting and distressing fact surfaces, however, about the nature of time and insomnia. “If an insomniac claims to drowse two or three fitful hours on her pillow, studies find, she has probably passed, in perfect peace, at least twice that time,” meaning our agony in the dark is minimal and the sleep we valued for its brevity is not so brief. The book illustrates how objects and abstractions, like love, poetry, and pillows, often sabotage themselves or what they are meant to facilitate. To obsess about these ideas in the form of a list makes sense; to contemplate the detrimental effects of one’s obsessing and to let go in the form of a list is exquisite.
I began wondering if A Pillow Book, in how seductive it is, might saturate my life like an alluring curse and impose insomnia, much like a pillow does for the speaker. I worried that its meditations on sleep and bedtime reading would become my own bedtime reading ad infinitum, so I resolved to put the collection off, superstitiously, but couldn’t. Phrases, images, and forms reverberate. As a testament to A Pillow Book’s urgent yet suspended energy, I return to it. I can’t say goodnight. I pass it on.