Ken Rumble

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 Polyverse—though they occasionally are—or less faithful in their embrace of avant garde mores—they 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. She writes

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 Brown—from whom one expects unexpected clever turns of mundane phrases—such 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 VERTICAL—INTEGRATION in this land!" Brown goes on to write

Now it's year 2003—just 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 matter—the loss of a loved one, are unconventional by successfully portraying the process of loss and thorough in their deconstruction of loss's language.

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.

EPR #4:
Review of Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s / edited by Wallace Mark and Steven Marks

EPR #3
Review of House of Poured-Out Waters by Jane Mead

EPR #2:
Review of Middle Ear by Forrest Hamer



© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review