When I first saw the title of Eleanor Stanford’s book, I laughed. What better title for a book of poems about motherhood than The Book of Sleep? For a new mother, sleep, and the lack thereof, become obsessions. For a poet, obsessions become poems.
Readers of Literary Mama’s poetry section might recognize Stanford’s name, as well as the book’s title. The final poem of the book, “The Book of Sleep (XXXIV),” was published in Literary Mama under a slightly different title, “The Book of Sleep (XXV),” which can now be accessed in the poetry archives. This poem is one of 21 The Book of Sleep poems loosely related in theme and form. Interspersed among these are stand-alone poems that cover subjects as diverse as watching a newborn sleep, traveling to and living in the Cape Verde Islands, and musing about Carolus Linneaus and Charles Darwin. Stanford’s voice is in turns quiet, colorful, confused, amused, and even oracular as she describes her experience as a mother, traveler, observer, and spiritual being.
The Book of Sleep poems share a particularly dreamlike, disjointed quality, incorporating lines written in other languages, page numbers from unnamed sources, quotations, and non sequiturs. Yet the poems are anchored by clear imagery and colloquial language. For example, “The Book of Sleep (VII)” begins with a simple image: “The deer climbs into the yard at night. / I find her grazing in the garden.” The next strophe, however, consists of two italicized lines in Italian, which seemed like a non sequitur until I found that they were from Dante’s Inferno: they translate roughly to “as sleepy as I was at the moment / when I lost the right way in my journey.” The following section continues the allusion to the Inferno‘s circles of hell:
The Fifth Circle: New Jersey cul de sac,
sleepless women, hair unbrushed,
pushing strollers. Infants squall.
Cold spring drizzle. The wind
These sidewalks lead nowhere.
And the cherry trees weeping on the wet grass,
and the swimming pools
still draped in their winter shrouds
In this vision, mothers swirl around the neighborhood like Dante’s damned, and the natural world reflects the speaker’s depressed state of mind, with “weeping” trees and pools covered with “shrouds.” Although the strophe ends without punctuation, suggesting a speaker unable to complete a sentence — perhaps because of her despondency or sleeplessness — the images are precise and telling. The final four lines of the poem grow increasingly surreal:
A searchlight slashes its wide path. Hoof beat,
streak of blood on the hurricane fence.
And the Madonna with her long blue robe
And the Madonna with her sword of sorrow
The poem is fragmented in both its language and imagery, conveying a woman whose surroundings reflect her inner landscape. The speaker’s status as a mother is not specified, but the focus on the mothers in the cul de sac suggests a speaker who sees motherhood as meaningless routines performed by “unbrushed” women. The final references to the Madonna also suggest sadness, futility, and sorrow associated with motherhood. The combination of fragmentation and the depressed tone reminded me of those early weeks of motherhood, when day and night, past and present, outside and inside blur together like a waking dream or nightmare, especially for those mothers who have suffered postpartum depression.
Stanford’s ability to convey interior landscapes through exterior imagery highlights many of her poems. She often blends the two to create intriguing effects or questions for the reader. In “Changing Ezra, 2 a.m.,” she states: “Geography is finite, that’s the problem. // But night — its borders are permeable, his cry / the coyote that ferries me across.” At two in the morning, night seems like a physical location, though a “permeable” one, and a baby’s cry can be the only connection to the “real” world. By suggesting that the lines between what is inside and outside are not fixed, she causes the reader to wonder, Where are we when we feel disconnected, when we are on the outside looking in? What does it mean to be “outside”?
This feeling of being the outsider tempers the wonder present in her poems about her travels. In “Self-Portrait: Cape Verde,” the speaker finds beauty in simple objects, but then second-guesses herself: “How dare you say the plow is beautiful? / Or the gnarled fist of manioc, the kerosene burned down / to a scorched wick?” Objects of local functionality appear exotic and beautiful to her, reinforcing her position as an outsider in this culture. In the poem’s conclusion, she is aware of her separateness when it comes to moments of importance:
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.
Even as the speaker describes the beauty and grief of this place, she cannot fully share in the experiences she describes, except as an observer.
Likewise, in “The Refugees,” the speaker is unable to talk to the refugees, although the refugees’ language “is the language / of my father, of the place he left before I was born.” But she still strives to connect with them. Because she cannot speak the words, she vows to “swallow them: // dorowat; amhari; injera / spread with clarified butter; the lamb stew / we eat with our hands.” The words she swallows are words for food; even if people don’t share a language, they can forge connections through universal experiences, such as sharing a meal. Despite their outsider status, the speakers in Stanford’s poems often find hope and beauty in small actions and objects, suggesting an ongoing engagement with the people and places around them.
Motherhood, too, she seems to say, can be a foreign country, at once remote and connected. In “Letter in July,” the speaker describes feeding her son his first bite of solid food and his reaction: “half celebration, half a spoonful of regret.” The repeated line in this poem, “Farewell, small island of ours,” also celebrates and expresses regret about her child’s growing up. Just when she becomes accustomed to the wonder, awe, and confusion of being out of her usual context, she is forced to return to the mainland as the child grows out of absolute dependence on her. As she did with the night in a previous poem, Stanford explores the landscape of motherhood as if it were a physical location, striving to find where she belongs within its boundaries.
Stanford’s search for meaning in motherhood leads her to expand the definition of place. She steers us through familiar and unfamiliar lands, as if through a dream-haze: memories drift up, sometimes whole and clear, sometimes fragmented, and the author takes notes. Even as she writes her own version of The Book of Sleep, she is aware that hers may not be the first. In “‘The World Was Created by Ten Utterances,'” a speaker comments that “The Book of Sleep / has already been written / by someone else” and proceeds to describe bringing the dusty book down from her bookshelf. However, when I researched “The Book of Sleep” as a title, I found that it exists as an object only within the author’s imagination (and now, as her printed creation). When Stanford concludes the poem by “ask[ing] Adonai / to write us into The Book of Sleep for another year,” she blends Judaic mythology with her own, asserting the existence of (or the need for) a universal Book of Sleep even as she creates her own version. In this way, her book — like poetry, like parenthood — is both personal and universal, intensely private and shared by all.
The Book of Sleep reads like a mythological text created from the fragments of one woman’s life. Stanford links dreams and memories of countries foreign and familiar, internal and external, and in so doing, questions what it means to be an outsider at home or abroad, within a community or within one’s own thoughts. Far from sleep-inducing, The Book of Sleep successfully traverses the lands of the sleeping and the awake in poems both sharp and blurred, accessible and confounding, but always arresting and artfully composed.