The Sleep that Changed Everything
Lee Ann Brown
Wesleyan University Press, 2003
$14.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8195-6622-5
There has been some talk around the use of the term "experimental"
to describe some contemporary poetry. Often reviewers make quips about
changing poetry into some sort of science. Other critics have suggested
the possible shapes of emerging poetic trends; terms such as "joining,"
"hybrids," and "free multiplicity of form" have
been used to describe recent poetry that mixes poetic styles from
across the aesthetic spectrum. Such poetry might appropriately be
termed experimental when it describes, for example, a Shakespearean
sonnet written with Dickson's lyrical fragmentation about the strange
underbelly of our world as described by quantum mechanics. "Thy
experiment" writes Lee Ann Brown in "Quantum Sonnet"
"is way past way
Convert play's determining eye
/ To sight."
In addition to many such "joined" poems, there is more
person behind the poems in Brown's latest collection, The Sleep
that Changed Everything. This is not to say that these poems are
more confessional than her poems in Polyversethough they
occasionally areor less faithful in their embrace of avant garde
moresthey aren't. The Sleep that Changed Everything collects
work that fulfills the great expectations Brown's pervious book suggested;
in Sleep she continues to capably explore the threads presented
in Polyverse, while confident enough to also defy those expectations.
Returning in this edition is Brown's wry wit "Shake me
to my roots / But please can you make it not hurt / so much"
("Poet's Complaint"); her word play"be careful
// It's porn out there" ("Rose Clothed Ahead"); and
her sexiness"set down your work & / tongue & groove
/ me again" ("Open Sez Me (T&G.)")
New to Brown's fans is her more frequent use of public poetic forms
"Procrastination Sonnet," "Sonnet Around Stephanie,"
"Ballad of Amiri B. (60's)," "Ballad of Vertical Integration,"
"Ballad of Susan Smith," and "Villanelle to Beth"
among others. In addition to these, acrostics, blues, pantoums, and
odes make this collection an odd and delightful hymnal.
Thoughts about multiplicity and the process of poetry emerge over
and over in these poems. "(Something about // transforming //
everyday? (life) // into // poetry (?!)" she writes in "Esmerelda
Suite." Her aim though is not to recount her life's amusing anecdotes"I
am not a product I" ("Vibratory Ode")instead
"writing without remembering" ("Insufflation.")
The pull between everyday life, memoryless writing, and, as she writes
in "Involute," privileging "any one / bead of the necklace
/ or borrow[ing] a boring music?" allows Brown to write "for
the 'ing.'" These poems are reflective, experiments that are
unwilling to settle. Coupled with a gesture towards radio tuning,
she writes "The single solitary singer // is not // is
not tuned into // one frequency only."
Employing a broad range of forms, Brown also writes directly about
political issues in poems such as "Political Funeral in Black
& White, What Can I Do?" and "Ballad of Vertical Integration."
In the former, the subject is the death of Matthew Sheppard, the gay
man tortured and beaten to death outside of Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998.
What can I do about this now?
I can think of him
I can write this poem
Etched into all our skins are the descriptions we read
of his body and what they did to it
Once read they may be covered
but they remain etched into us our skins
We are changed and we must change
We must other our lives
How how how could this happen
We all know how this happened
For a poet such as Brownfrom whom one expects unexpected clever
turns of mundane phrasessuch straightforward language is truly
surprising. In this instance, the unusual simplicity of the language
draws attention to the surreal idea she proposes: that the act of
reading has literal mental and physical impact. Brown continues in
this straightforward vein by closing the poem with a direct plea for
an inclusive view of humanity.
"Ballad of Vertical Integration" is the second poem in
the collection that refers to Charlotte, North Carolina, civil rights
activist Harry Golden's idea that "If some folks can't sit down
somewhere then everybody STAND / We'll learn & eat VERTICALINTEGRATION
in this land!" Brown goes on to write
Now it's year 2003just look around you how
Things aren't quite as far along as they ought to be somehow.
This ballad is a call to arms to open up our eyes:
Each and every one of us, Golden can arise.
The first of the Harry Golden poems, "A Call for Vertical Integration
in the Eye of the Storm," compares the "Purple & blue
Tiffany combo in the / Church of my childhood" to a burned African-American
church: "I / Saw the Black Ash of a Church Burned on its / Sure
Foundation." Brown's willingness to explore formal options produces
three distinct, powerful poems that address our "Social eels."
The fifth and final section of the collection, Inflorescence, is
dedicated to Brown's maternal grandmother who passed away in 1999.
"Some people aren't long / for this world // What can I do?"
she asks at the beginning, "Not leave them alone til / then that's
for sure." These spacious, fragmented poems chronicle her grandmother's
final days, managing to avoid mere sentimentality. In "Obaa I
Remember" Brown recounts a series of unconnected childhood memories
of her grandmother. She treats these memories plainly without conclusion
or comment thus portraying memory as the unruly crowd it is. "You
started me on my lifelong love of language / to the tune of Twinkle
Twinkle Little Star" she writes in "Obaa Agnes Inflorescence"
an elegy to the woman she describes as "generous sunshine."
This section ends, appropriately, with "(the goodbye)"
your absence makes a space for me to be
thinking you are still there like a moth
dusting me with listening from a distant
These poems ultimately, while conventional in subject matterthe
loss of a loved one, are unconventional by successfully portraying
the process of loss and thorough in their deconstruction of loss's
Several years ago, then poet-laureate Robert Hass called Brown "one
of the wittiest and most inventive" of the younger generation
of poets. Far from disappointing that prediction, The Sleep that
Changed Everything reveals a poet who combines adroit ability
with an expansive range. Brown's relentless experimentation establishes
her as a poet who blazes the trails poetic trends follow, even when
those trails seem to lead back into the main at times.
Review of Telling
It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s / edited by Wallace Mark
and Steven Marks
House of Poured-Out Waters by Jane Mead
of Middle Ear by Forrest Hamer