Wide Slumber For Lepidopterists – a. rawlings

Coach House Books1552451690

so we dream the same

do we dream the same

Physically this book is as intimidating as the butterfly on the cover; the muted greens and tans, along with its small size, give Wide Slumber the impression of being precious. But the pure joy and pleasure of ferocity that rawlings attacks language with inside the tiny covers is enough to marvel even the most seasoned readers.

That’s not to say that the book is a harsh read; it is really anything but. The lines move with a breath grabbing fluidity and the diction (and its subsequent breakdown) is superb, round and brittle like the insects of title. But it is really the sound of these poems that hold the work, and all its intricately tied themes, together. From the opening, it is the aural that is taking precedent: the “a hoosh a ha,” sound of flapping wings starts small, sparse, then intensifies, breaking to a hurried and chaotic climax. This refrain of sound, of a concrete noise and not a description of a noise, enters the reader’s mind, relaxing, almost mimicking careful breathes. The sounds become about rhythm and natural cycles; every time the “a hoosh a ha” comes, there is a loosening in the chest, like a long exhale.

It is really quite amazing that, in a world where scientific rationality and language has co-opted the everyday thinking, the romanticism of words and sounds can remain. In fact, rawlings does a wonderful job of stealing the scientific language back for the poetic, by both reclaiming the mounting process and vocabulary of the entomologist and the disease language of sleep disorders: she begins by dictating the mounting of various bugs, the pining and the display; she also names and modifies the various sleep disorders like apnea, dissecting these terms and modifying them for her own understandings and methods. What is most impressive is where she takes this reclaimed scientific process and applies it then to language: “Pin words near vowels to avoid tears. Place paper over words to curl while drying”. The words become beautiful for their construction, the easy balance of vowels and consonances, their rhythmic intones.

But once the language is claimed and pinned, it is undone: rawlings moves into more concrete poems, allowing the shapes of the words and the white space meld with the letters to evoke the image. The semantics and bones of words that she fought so hard to reclaim are morphed again, like the pupa, into something beyond its base meanings: rawlings jams words together, using the impressions of two words and molds them together to create one new sensation (such as “slumberflies” and “flitoral”). Her disintegration and reworking takes the language beyond the museum effect of words as specimen; the words are not something then to be found in a dictionary or studied through history; these words are fresh, are new born, are emergent. It forces the reader to interact with language in a unique way and the hard work that comes with reading a dense text like Wide Slumber is well worth the payoff.

If I do have one suggestion to make it’s that you read the glossary first: there are a few unfamiliar words that really enlighten the text once given the proper definition.

Handle this book carefully, not lightly. It is not precious but imbued with the restless sleep of passion, a half awake dream that emerges into the bright daylight blinking and unreal.