Review

The Book of Sleep
by Eeanor Stanford (Cape Verde 1998–2000)
Carnegie Mellon Press,
January 2008
72 pages
$14.95

Reviewed by Eric Torgersen (Ethiopia 1964–66)

    INCLINED AT FIRST to resist The Book of Sleep by what seemed, for poetry, a  formulaic title (Book of Dreams, Book of Nightmares, Book of My Nights), I was won over first, as I browsed, by its smallest poem, the lovely five lines of “Fontanel”:

    Bruised peach,
    pellucid
    skullcap, trap —
    door. I cannot be
    gentle enough.

         “The Book of Sleep (XXIX),” almost as short, gives the same pleasure at seeing everything done exactly right.
         Reading more systematically, I was drawn in further by the book’s second poem, “Self-Portrait, Cape Verde,” which opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil: “It is better to say, ‘I am suffering,’ than to say, ‘this landscape is ugly.’” Here’s the poem:

    How dare you say the plow is beautiful?
    Or the gnarled fist of manioc, the kerosene burned down
    to a scorched wick.

    The first person in Creole, you don’t open your mouth:
    N.         N ta.                  N ta bai

    How heavy this body has become.
    The child who died of fever.
    The velvet dress, earthen dance floor. Cigarette. I’m so tired
    of translating.
                 Xan xinta li fuma nha cigarru—

    It was never my knuckles against the washboard’s ribs.
    Or my grief, when the rain came,
    and carried the pigs and goats into the sea.

         What RPCV does not know the guilty feeling of being exempt, and the fact beneath it that we go home from this place of (among other things) suffering, and they stay? I value too the way the epigraph adds complexity to the thought. This referentiality, this bringing her reading to bear on a poem’s core of felt experience, is a frequent feature of Stanford’s work, and to me a real strength. Another characteristic is the inclusion of untranslated text from several languages, which works here because it enacts the numbness of “I’m so tired / of translating.” In “The Refugees” there’s even a bit of overheard Amharic to please this old Ethiopia hand.
         The book’s center is not the Peace Corps experience, but that of new motherhood: the wonder in “Fontanel,” the various small intimacies shared with the new son Ezra, sometimes through a fog of sleeplessness and exhaustion. This is “Changing Ezra, 2 a.m.”:

    The map above the changing table
    holds him in its thrall. His scream
    hovers, then dissolves, a squall
    dissipating over the South Pacific.
    All he sees is contrast: one country
    blurs into the next.

    The plates are shifting.
    They drift toward each other,
    away from that mutable ocean
    where once he swam so fluently.

    Remember the garbage barge that left New York
    and sailed halfway around the world,
    only to return to harbor?
    Even Haiti couldn’t be convinced to take it.

    Geography is finite, that’s the problem.

    But night — its borders are permeable, his cry
    the coyote that ferries me across.

         I’m not perfectly sure that the introduction of the garbage barge here is necessary rather than merely ingenious or unexpected, but the poem is resonant and ends well.
         Here, finally, is “February, Mid-afternoon: Nursing Ezra”:

    The still water of his face:
    the way expression
    passes over it, his brow ruffled
    by some distant storm. Next door
    someone practices scales
    on the trumpet, each note
    a luminous balloon let go
    above the neighborhood.
    Where is the poem without ambition?
    Even the trees preen
    against the sky’s flat mirror.
    Even the glass of water on the table
    trembles.

         As a first book, The Book of Sleep delivers much and promises more. It has plenty of skill and ambition. Stanford brings both intelligence and feeling to bear on meaningful  subjects. Always polished, the poems are rarely content to be mere exhibitions of technique. As yet, it is most compelling for its content; if there is, at this point, a Stanford signature, it lies in the fullness and complexity of her response to experience. The formal toolkit she employs so skillfully is by and large a standard one, and I don’t hear, as yet, a distinctive voice by which we could recognize a Stanford poem on an unfamiliar subject. But developing these is what the rest of a poet’s life is for.

    Eric Torgersen has retired from teaching writing at Central Michigan University. His newest book is the novella The Man Who Loved Rilke, reviewed in the July 2008 issue of Peace Corps Writers. His other books include two more novellas, four books of poems, and the study Dear Friend: Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Torgersen lives in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan with his wife, the quilt artist Ann Kowaleski.