“Not a narrative. Not an essay. Not a shopping list. Not a song. Not a diary. Not an etiquette manual. Not a confession. Not a prayer. Not a secret letter sent through the silent Palace hallways before dawn.”
A Pillow Book, Suzanne Buffam’s 2016 book of poetry, is a great companion for anyone struggling with sleep. During the darkest hours of night and through the early hours of morning, at dusk or dawn, the poems in A Pillow Book possesses the hypnotizing ability to lull readers into a restful trance.
“Recent studies link sleep, or rather the lack of it, to all manner of psycho-physiological disrepair, from high blood pressure to metabolic dysfunction, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s, not to mention anxiety, depression, irritability, and despair. […] Those who sleep fewer, on average, than six hours every night, live, on average, twenty percent shorter lives. Without dreams, we die quicker.” (18-19).
“There are two kinds of insomniacs: those who fall asleep easily, only to wake up hours later to toss on their pillows until dawn; and those who toss on their pillows from the start, only to drift off just long enough to be roused at dawn by the crows. A little game I like to play, when I crawl into bed at the end of a long day of anything, these days, is to guess which kind, tonight, I will be.” (2).
A Pillow Book captures the spirit of insomnia, highlighting the issues associated with the common but overlooked issue that many suffer from. Employing techniques that encourage sleep, Buffam’s poetry acts as a guide on how-to fall asleep, functioning as an example for others on what approaches and techniques to employ when trying to fall asleep. Whether reading the poems in hopes of falling into a lulled trance of sleep, or using them as start points for creating your own pillow book of sleep lists, the book itself is a blessing to those experiencing insomnia.
The poems often address feelings that could be associated with or caused by a lack of sleep (such as anger, irritability, fatigue or depression). By expressing contradicting emotions through the poems (such as gratitude, love, or relief) Buffam creates an interesting juxtaposition between the subject and the cure (ie. poems written to relieve anger speak about love, or poems written to empty the mind list a codex of facts). Some poems assert fiction as fact, in a way that sounds scrambled, as if partial facts have been dressed up by a near-dream state of consciousness. The paradoxical nature of the poems confuses and complicates them, leaving readers strangely healed by the exact opposite of what afflicts them. In other words, sleep is found in making one’s mind busier.
“Thomas Edison invented the light bulb so he could read after dark.” (2).
Some poems are written as lists, themed and alphabetized; some poems are written as letters, apologies, or pleas; some poems are simply observations, research, or useless facts … all poems are reminiscent of the flurry of thoughts held in ones head before bed; useless thoughts keeping one awake, the anticipation of events to come, chores to do, anything keeping the mind active. Buffam suggests that By writing the thoughts down rather than letting them roam, clears the mind and prepares it for sleep, allowing expression to come to fruition and get it out so to speak.
“Melatonin. Lunesta, Nyquil. Zzzquil. Ativan. Ambien. Lorazepam. Trazadone. Warm milk. Hot baths. Counting sheep. Counting backwards from a thousand in French. Still I toss and turn through the night with a pillow on my head and another clutched like a mule between my knees.” (4).
There are certain lines of wisdom, moments when small epiphanies shine through the text and hit home with the reader, proving that stepping away from a situation can bring a fresh outlook and understanding.
“We are what we repeatedly do, was Aristotle’s view of virtue.” (15).
Instilling within us the understanding that both mind and body work in conjunction, this collection of poems balances on a precipice between the unconscious and the consciousness mind. Suzanne Buffam’s poetry truly captures the spirit of insomnia and implores readers to manage their problems with poetry. Embodying the unmanageable and uncontrollable feelings of hopelessness despair that can be brought on by sleeplessness, the poetry transcends insomnia and brings all insomniacs a direct cure: the hypnosis of reading.
AUTHOR BIO Suzanne Buffam’s first collection of poetry, Past Imperfect, won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for Poetry and was named a Book of the Year by theGlobe and Mail. Her second collection of poetry, THE IRRATIONALIST, was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Most recently, she is the author of A PILLOW BOOK (Canarium Books, 2016). Her work has appeared in international anthologies and publications, including Poetry, jubilat, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Books in Canada, and Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets; her poetry has been translated into French, German, Spanish, and Slovenian. She lives in Chicago.