A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam (House of Anansi) contemplates the ordinary object of the pillow as the buffer between internal and external life. Inspired by Sei Shōnagon’s famous Pillow Book, Buffam creates her own series of short reflections of daily life with her husband and young daughter, lists of thematic or alphabetical things (my favourites include Moustaches A to Z, Altered Proverbs and Things That Make My Heart Beat Faster), and odes to the sleep that eludes her.
Weaving through each passage is a pillow: historical pillows, insomnia or dreams spent on pillows, pillows sat on in Japanese restaurants, and the items she finds underneath her daughter’s pillow. Each new pillow marks the text’s restlessness, moving between lists, forms and genres as Buffam observes the muted passing of time; however, instead of measuring out her life in coffee spoons, Buffam counts the pillows that mark her days. Not quite essays, not quite poetry, Buffam’s prose is a quiet and lyrical celebration of the anxieties of life and motherhood.
What I liked most about this book was the struggle of form and content, the internal insomnia of the text that explores the liminal space of the pillow, where the privacy of sleep meets the demands of family life. I’ve returned to this book several times for Buffam’s humorous lists, and expect I’ll be back again for her dreamy stories.
This review first appeared in Geist 102.
Stephin Merritt’s 101 Two-Letter Words (W.W. Norton) is a collection of illustrated poems based on all the legal two-letter words playable in Scrabble. Merritt originally began writing the poems as mnemonic devices during downtime while on tour with his band, The Magnetic Fields. Each four-line rhyming poem is accompanied by a humorous illustration from New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast; running themes include sloths, songwriting, Scotland, and vampire dogs. Perhaps my favourite was OH, which proposes new curses (“oh, cheesemongers! oh folk art!”) or RE, which is a take on different pronunciations of the word (“Re: about, in memos / Rays: how microwaves make pork”). Merritt’s poetry is like The Gashleycrumb Tinies for Scrabble lovers: a witty, charming, and slightly macabre ode to language.
This review first appeared as “All My Little Words” in Geist 95.
The appeal of Nox (New Directions), Anne Carson’s collection of poems eulogizing the unexpected death of her brother Michael, is not only its skillful verse but also its unusual format: it is printed on a single long piece of paper which is folded like an accordion into a sturdy box.
The book opens with Catullus’s ancient poem of brotherly loss in Latin (Catullus 101); Carson proceeds to give a dictionary-length definition of each word in the poem on the left hand pages, while the right sides are reserved for Carson’s poems, black and white photographs, collages, graphite smudges and/or fragments of handwritten letters, each appearing to be pasted onto the pages. The poems themselves are understated remembrances of Michael’s “windswept spirit” and his absence in her adult life.
The power of the collection comes from the juxtaposition of the debris of Carson’s sorrow and the Latin vocabulary that makes up Catullus’ 2000-year-old elegy: Carson suggests that grief, like the work of translation, is forever a work-in-progress.
This review originally appeared as “Grief-in-Progress” in Geist 85.