Book Review

A tribute to insomnia, motherhood, and the list poem, Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book reads like experiencing a fitful night’s sleep: lines trickle by with the insistence of minutes while the pages, akin to hours, pass with startling rapidity.

Awash in blunt humor and hazy renderings of the quotidian, A Pillow Book is a genre-bending collection containing micro-essays, dream logs, encyclopedia entries, and philosophical musings. Reminiscent of Andy Mister’s Liner Notes and Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable, this book pays homage to an even earlier influence: The Pillow Book written by Sei Shōnagon, an eleventh-century Japanese courtier, whose collection, “with almost a thousand pages of surviving material translated, retranslated, and republished in ever-shifting editions,” leaves the speaker wondering “if any two people ever read the same Pillow Book.” Buffam, in essence, has forged her own pillowy index, a nouveau zuihitsu, both similar and dissimilar to Shōnagon’s. Yes, both works feature lists of “Things That Give a Clean Feeling” and “Things That Give an Unclean Feeling”; however, where Shōnagon was a privileged court lady serving Empress Teishi in Japan, Buffam was a non-tenure track professor at the beck and call of the whims of her capricious young daughter, referred to solely as “Her Majesty.” Such slants inform the poet’s confessional style. In “There are two kinds of insomniacs” she begins:

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.

Buffam’s syntax, imbued with whimsical precision, reflects her attitude toward her disorder: it should be observed through a tragicomic lens––equal parts sympathy and jest. As such, Buffam suggests that insomnia is as much an issue of keeping poor daily habits as it is an actual disorder which, at times, is romanticized by its sufferers, who are not immune to exaggeration:

Insomnia, after all, like boredom and pain, is a subjective complaint, not to be confused with its nastier, “objective” cousin, sleep deprivation, which has other causes, consequences, and clinical presentations altogether. 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.

Is Buffam, in her diagnosis, distancing herself from these soi-disant insomniacs? Or is she implying that she, no different from the others, is prone to exaggeration? This brand of hesitancy and unreliability is paramount to Buffam’s voice as her most profound revelations arise when she contradicts herself, yet maintains an awareness of doing so. Such humility lends a groundedness to her writing, tightening the gap between author and audience while precipitating much of the book’s humor. Take the following passage, in which the poet attends a party “on the lawn of a large, mid-century modern estate,” whose attendees include her parents, husband, “oldest-living ex-boyfriend,” and Her Majesty:

I make a beeline for the bathroom inside, at the end of a long, wood-paneled hall . . . Before the blinding white console, my foundation spills all over the little black dress I have borrowed from a narrower friend. I sit down to pee without closing the stall. A young woman I recognize, a former advisee, emerges from a room across the hall and sees me. I explain that I don’t usually leave the door open like this, and then laugh and say sadly, actually, I do.

Aside from its cheeky ending and affable narrative style, an aspect of this passage which demands further excavation involves the flimsy partition constructed between the real world and the dream world. Whether this is a recalled event or the content of a dream is unclear, illuminating the fragile nature of an insomniac’s everyday life. Thus, questions remain: Did this party really happen? And if it did, does the narrator want us to know?

A Pillow Book’s additional effectiveness stems from its jumpy organization, which holds a mirror to the narrator’s jumbled mind. In one passage, an interpretation of Freud’s dream theories; the next, breakfast with Her Majesty; a page later, the tale of “Inés Fernández, the forlorn school teacher from southwestern Spain, who yawned once in the sun at a passing religious procession . . . and never slept another wink all her life.” As a foil to this erratic framework, Buffam intersperses various lists throughout the book which thread the needle between subtle and irreverent, as in “Over-eager” (“Writers to exchange self-righteous links”), “Not Relaxed” (“Dickinson’s Dash”), and “Beautiful Names for Hideous Things” (“Chlamydia”).

Flippant lists aside, Buffam’s true chops shine when addressing weightier concerns, such as tensions at her job. At the time the poet is an instructor at the university where her husband “will be going up for tenure next fall”; however, she teaches “in a lesser, ‘non-ladder’ position.” At one point, Buffam, while incognito, queries the campus bookstore clerk about where to find one of her books. As the clerk tells her it is no longer in stock, Buffam spots her husband’s latest book, “gleaming in the day’s dying light,” on the Staff Picks shelf along the wall. Aside from feeling jilted by the university system, Buffam divulges the anxieties she has as a professor, especially one who is female and nearing middle age. She writes:

That said, the older I get, the better I become at concealing my fears behind a gay veil of befuddled indifference. It has been some time since a student, more often than not a young man, has corrected my pronunciation of a term in class, or objected to an assignment on theoretical grounds . . . At least now I am old enough––almost twice the age of most of my students––to feel, with some reason, that even if in fact I am not 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. On the other hand, I must also admit that the older I get, the more that knowledge is canceled out, in effect, by the growing domain of my ignorance.

Again, Buffam’s colorful syntax drives her lines, delivering the message that in spite of experience, she still dreads an audience––a fear which not even her age has assuaged. Also presented in this passage is Buffam’s advocacy for the feminist perspective. That her book has been slighted by her husband’s may not be an outright proclamation of injustice, as we are not provided his credentials; however, the quip about impudent male students is pointed, and candidly so. The poet also mentions, more than once, how easily her husband can fall asleep, that he “can sleep anywhere,” and at any time. Does the contrast between the narrator’s insomnia and her husband’s well-restedness reflect the disparity between male and female comfort in society, as well as within the academy? One cannot help but wonder. As far as aging goes, menopause is brought into question, a word which Buffam finds she “cannot utter . . . without pausing to consider the men who dreamed it up.” Humor, again—the knife with which Buffam slices into systemic inequalities.

With its trenchant revelations and droll overtones, A Pillow Book provides a respite for those readers who’d prefer a laugh over a cry––but not a laugh devoid of pathos. Through a curious blend of moxie and self-effacing wit, Suzanne Buffam adroitly steers her poems clear from the shores of irony-for-irony’s-sake, solidifying her third collection as a testament to restlessness, anxiety, and twenty-first-century apathy.

About the Reviewer

Scott Wordsman holds an MFA from William Paterson University. Recent poems of his appear in THRUSH, BlazeVOX, Forklift / Ohio, Slipstream, Main Street Rag, and other journals. He is a Best of the Net 2016 nominee.