Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Pillow Book - Suzanne Buffam (House of Anansi Press)

Today's book of poetry:
A Pillow Book.  Suzanne Buffam.  House of Anansi Press.  Toronto, Ontario.  2016.

A Pillow Book

A Pillow Book is a type of private diary.  Ambling around inside Suzanne Buffam's A Pillow Book is about as much fun as you are allowed to have with a book of poetry, it's as much fun as you are going to find.  Buffam makes splendid lists and you all know how much Today's book of poetry loves lists.  Buffam starts with lists, not literally, but her lists are the best.  How she got this much wit into one little pillow is remarkable.

The rest of the connect the dot compendium is a riotous assemblage of a particular Holly Golightly meets a hipster Zen chronologicalist.

Beautiful Names For Hideous Things

Concertina wire.
Orb Weaver.
White flight.
Night soil.
Crystal meth.
Lhasa Apso.
Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Peach Tea.


Today's book of poetry simply loved following the flawless logic of Suzanne Buffam's musings about any and everything.  She is ahead of the pack.  She will make you laugh out loud and then make you catch your breath.

Dubious Doctors

Dr. Who.
Dr. No.
Dr. Zhivago.
Dr. Moreau.
Dr. Strangelove.
Dr. Feelgood.
Dr. Dolittle.
Dr. Spock.
Dr. Jekyll.
Dr. Faustus.
Dr. Pepper.
Dr. Dre.
Doctors who drink.
Doctors who don't drink.
All Doctors of Literature.


And Today's book of poetry is leading you astray, A Pillow Book is not at all centered on lists, we were simply enjoying them so much we put two together so you'd get the drift.  Most of this cornucopia of delight is held in the short prose passages Buffam peppers at us.  Somehow each is almost perfectly weighed and served with the right degrees of both glee and pathos.  Suzanne Buffam isn't making your everyday bed for her pillow book.  A Pillow Book is its own private universe and that Buffam has let us in is something we shall be grateful for.


     A Great Book can be read again and again, inexhaustibly, with great
     benefit to great minds, wrote Mortimer Adler, co-founder of the
     Great Books Foundation and the Great Books of the Western World
     program at the university where my husband will be going up for
     tenure next fall, and where I sometimes teach as well, albeit in a
     lesser, "non-ladder" position. Not only must a Great book still matter
     today, Adler insisted, it must touch upon at least twenty-five of the
     one hundred and two Great Ideas that have occupied Gread Minds
     for the last twenty-five centuries. Ranging from Angel to World, a
     comprehensive list of these concepts can be found in Adler's two-
     volume Sytopicon: an Index to the Great Ideas, which was published
     with Great Fanfare, if not Great Financial Success, by Encyclopedia
     Britannica in 1952.  Although the index includes many Great Ideas,
     including Art, Beauty, Change, Desire, Eternity, Family, Fate,
     Happiness, History, Pain, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, Time and Truth,
     it does not, alas, include an entry of Pillows, which often strike me,
     as I sink into mine at the end of a long day of anything, these days,
     as at the very least worthy of note. Among the five hundred and
     eleven Great Books on Adler's list, updated in 1990 to appease his
     quibbling critics, moreover, only four, I can't help counting, were
     written by women -- Virginia, Willa, Jane, and George -- none of
     whom, as far as I can discover, were anyone's mother.


These missives are written in English but Buffam's sensibility might actually be foreign, no, not foreign but perhaps like Claire Randall/Fraser in Outlander Buffam is travelling through time and collecting the goods on us mere mortals.  She may be a time traveller.  

What Today's book of poetry means is that to be able to focus and report on a culture with such accuracy you either have to be alien to it to see it in clear light or a time traveller like Buffam.  No other explanation will do.

Buffam moves past witty into another type of humour.  She is in Eva H.D. territory, Buffam has the same sort of universal clever and it's got a type of intoxication all its own.  

Ignore At Your Own Risk

A train whistle.
A knowing wink from a drunk.
Campus security update alerts.
Warming currents.
Vows made in the dark.


Buffam's A Pillow Book is a charmer.  Other women have ploughed this ground, Dorothy Parker may have got here first, Fran Lebowitz certainly claimed this ground with aplomb (we cannot possibly express how much we admire Lebowitz), and there was a woman I knew in university about forty years ago named Kristy Eldredge, she also lives in New York City.  It's a sophistication that is warm and welcoming but comes with the appropriate sharp knives.


     The skeleton of the stocky, sixteen-year-old Neanderthal boy known
     to us as Le Moustier was discovered curled on its die in the foetal
     position in the dim glow of a cave in Peyzac-le-Moustier, France,
     in 1908 AD.  Beside his dusty remains, over forty-five thousand
     years old, lay a small handaxe and the scattered bones of wild cattle.
     Miraculously intact, the boy's toothy skull, with its lumbering brow-
     ridge and sloping forehead, rested on a small, undisturbed cairn
     of ancient stones.  His bones were promptly sold for a handsome
     fee by an amateur Swiss fossil hunter and suspected German spy
     to the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Berlin, where all but his badly
     damaged cranial remains were destroyed in the flames of World War
     II.  Le Moustier's pillow, which as far as I can discover is the oldest
     one know on Earth, has not survived.  The foxes have their holes,
     the birds of the air have their nests, bu the Son of Man hath no
     place to lay his head, says Jesus in the Gospel According to Luke.


Our morning read was a great one.  Everyone in the office takes a turn in our read and so do any guests who happen to wander by and hang around.  We had a new mailman this morning and I invited him in.  He was old-school and having no part of any antics of any type, and he wasn't happy.  He dropped off several small parcels and said he'd be back with the truck for the larger boxes.  He was kind of grumpy so I didn't remind him that Suzanne Buffam pays his wages and if she hadn't come through the door along with all the other poetry he wouldn't have a job.  I don't think hearing that would have made him happy.  But I did want to shout "poetry pays your wages!"

You can see what kind of cloud of unreasoned turmoil I live in.  Books like A Pillow Book are problem solvers.  When I read poetry this smart it clears the air for me.  When I read books of poetry like this it is like that first big breath of fresh air when you open the door in the morning, all of a sudden - you know you are awake and in the world.

I stood on our stoop and debated saying more to our tired mailman but could see he wasn't having the sort of day where he'd appreciate further debate.  Back in our office the staff were passing Buffam's A Pillow Book back and forth like a giant burner at a Grateful Dead concert.


     The pillow has a certain sacredness, reports Lafcadio Hearn, also
     known in some circles as Koizumi Yakumo, in his 1894 account
     of life in the Far East, Glimpses of Foreign Japan. Only this I know,
     that to touch it with the foot is considered very wrong: and that if
     it be kicked or moved thus even by accident, the clumsiness must
     be atoned for by lifting the pillow to the forehead with the hands,
     and replacing it in its original position respectfully, with the word
     "gomen," signifying I pray to be excused.


Suzanne Buffam's A Pillow Book is more fun than any book of poetry has a right to be.  Brilliant, funny, illuminating, clever and so on.  If all poets were this smart we'd be running the world.

Image result for suzanne buffam photo

Suzanne Buffam

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 the Globe and Mail. Her second collection of poetry, The Irrationalist, was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. 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.

"A Pillow Book is one of the most finely controlled, subtly structured books of Canadian poetry in recent memory..." 
     - Globe and Mail

"Suzanne Buffam’s third poetry collection, A Pillow Book (House of Anansi), takes the reader into the haze-filled world of the insomniac, turning the half-muddled thoughts of sleepless-ness into irreverent, sharp and meditative poems." 
     - Maisonneuve

"Buffam’s pillow may not inspire sleep, but it does inspire smart, relevant writing." 
     - Arc Poetry Magazine

Suzanne Buffam
reads from The Irrationalist
Video: Griffin Poetry Prize



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