Sean Bishop’s debut collection of poems is not, as the foreword states, for the faint of heart. These are poems of longing and loss, of wishing and wishes, of desire, and of the unequivocally true knowledge that wishes do not, and will not, come true. These poems unsettle the ground and call into question our own connections with our family and with language, as well as our religious and secular understanding of the world. Throughout The Night We’re Not Sleeping In, we have a speaker trying to be heard by an absent father, an absent god, or his fellow partners in suffering. At times, the speaker seeks forgiveness:
Dear fat sagacious angels in the cumular eaves, why is it
that today, eating pork chops of all things, I’m thinking
of the time I stabbed Phil Kimble with an oak branch I whittled,
for no good reason?
—from “A Bit of Forgiveness”
The largesse of the opening address that morphs into an honest and nearly surreal question about motive, violence, and memory is the essence of a Bishopian sentence. There is respect in this address, and an innocence in the question, an admission of the guilt of hurting someone out of boredom, and the moral perplexity of cause and effect.
The poems in the book rest in between worlds. In one world, we have a speaker in the process of wishing against pain, against the memory of a hard death, but the wish isn’t plaintive. The wish doesn’t ever sound or feel failed, impractical, a last attempt to survive.
[that] the wishbone wouldn’t break in half,
but thirds, the top part flying off
into the chocolate mousse.
So what’s that mean? somebody laughed,
and I said, both of us lose.
—from “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane”
In the preceding poem, the speaker writes this letter on the word of “a birdlike therapist.” The poem is an act of closure, a one-sided communication with the speaker’s dead father. But the speaker can’t let it go; he tells his father what happened at the holiday dinner, explaining how the uncle, the dead father’s brother, “wasn’t such an ass.” This isn’t the letter of a man ready to move on; this is the letter of a son trying to keep everything in place. And the wish at the end doesn’t conclude anything as much as it suggests the impossibility of such a simple thing as a conclusion.
Whether it’s Adam speaking to us about God and the new world, or the speaker toward his father, or even the poet to his “Secret Fellow Sufferers,” throughout the book we have a person reaching into the void and trying to call to a missing figure.
This night could be the dock on the night
of the lake’s first freezing. It could be the frost
making glass of the water. It could be the fish peering through
at the stars, which could be swiftly falling knives.
—from “Secret Fellow Sufferers, [please join me in compiling]”
The build of “could be,” one after the other, is a hope and a wish, a subjunctive grasping at straws. Consider what Adam did with language when naming the animals as the gold-star standard for language, creativity, and how a son should act for the speaker in these poems. The speaker here tries to use language as best he can: to make magic, to create something new, to change the past, and to understand the present.
But, simultaneously, the book is a lament on the knowable limitations of the power in human language and poetry. Even Orpheus, the greatest singer of us all, even his music, in the end, wasn’t enough to bring back Eurydice. Sure, he got down there with it, but his humanity stopped the rest of it from happening. But he got close. He had a shot. As such, the poems in this collection never simply exist as decoration or musical interlude. These aren’t poetic exercises. These poems matter. These poems are incantations and prayers to the dead and to the gods.
The way the anglerfish might rather be
just the light it hangs in the Atlantic night,
or the moon might want to live as only
the cloistered stones adored by NASA,
today in this inner-life dusk I’d like
to become a smaller, simpler portion of myself.
—from “Notes Toward Basic Betterness”
In the third section, a shift occurs in the tone of the book. The third section consists of Karen and Jack, a substitute for Adam and Eve. In this case, though, they are once removed from the garden, maybe under a witness protection program. Now they’re Jack and Karen, and the third-person omniscient narrator, our god, here, would have us believe that he bets a lot, is aware of promises made and broken, and considers his creations his “little pickerels.” And they have that, yes, the right to pick what they do next? The right to choose?
Let’s say the heebie-jeebies are a kind of flea
and the underbed shadows are only dust.
Let’s play the game where there is no death.
Let’s trust the few signs that we’re still alive:
soul sloshing like backwash in the breathing body,
this cat’s incessant scotchbrite kiss,
the old growing out its fur.
—from “To Throw the Little Bones that Speak”
The heartbreak of this section is in the speaker’s desire to connect with Jack and Karen, though he has, by all accounts, created them. And if we consider the title of the section, we see a creator bound by chaos and interpretation. The casting of bones, that type of fortune-telling or divination, speaks to an arcane but highly powerful sense of old magic and religion.
The important thing to consider, though, is the matter-of-fact in Bishop’s approach to heady, abstract persona poems. These could, in lesser hands, become maudlin attempts at disentangling “God’s plan” for some clichéd nuggets the speaker can gnaw on to pacify himself for a while longer. Instead, Bishop walks in, sangfroid in his pleading, and tells it like it is. Or like it could be or could have been. By the end of the book, I feel no conclusion, no closure, because the speaker—no matter what face the speaker wears—feels no conclusion about pain and loss. Instead, I see a person waiting, his head tilted slightly up, knowing he will never hear back from the gods he’s called on, but hoping he will. Praying he will.
Patrick Whitfill's reviews and poems appear or will appear in Colorado Review, Kenyon Review Online, Subtropics, Threepenny Review, West Branch, and other journals. Currently, he teaches at Wofford College and co-curates the New Southern Voices Reading Series.
The Night We’re Not Sleeping In
by Sean Bishop
Sarabande Books, 2014