Monday, April 17, 2006

a. rawlings' Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists

In her first trade poetry collection, Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006), Toronto writer, editor and Lexiconjury co-organizer angela rawlings works from two threads into a collection built around and out of language itself, from the various states of sleep (more precisely, sleep disorders, including narcolepsy, hypnic twitch, insomnia, somnambulism) to the development of lepidoptera (the birth of egg, larval hatching, a caterpillar's life). Involved with writing and Toronto for the past few years, self-proclaimed multidisciplinary artist angela rawlings has worked with The Mercury Press, the Scream Literary Festival, Sumach Press, Word: Toronto's literary calendar, as well as one of three co-editors (with Calgary poet/editors derek beaulieu and Jason Christie) of the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005).

Dedicated to "Northern Ontario," where rawlings is from (the Algoma District), the book works in sections such as "figure 1 : EGG - INSOMNIA," "figure 2 : EGG, LARVA - DYSSOMNIA," "figure 3 : LARVA - NREM," "figure 4 : LARVA, PUPA - REM," "figure 5 : PUPA - PARASOMNIA," "figure 6 : IMAGO - AROUSAL," as well as appendix, glossary and "EPIGRAPHS AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS" at the very end. I like that the small dirty brown cover, bound on its short side at 7 x 5 inches and 112 pages, can fit thick in the travelling pocket almost like a field guide for sleep, for watching the development of sleep and moth movement, complete with language example and illustration.

Here's a fragment of the " figure 1 : EGG - INSOMNIA" section, where she writes:

Slow light touch of hand on wing, scales brush off like butterfly kisses, hand on brow, eyelash dew and fog, breath and fur our entrance and we caress the dulled wet passage, the flicker of soft quiet like sound or sand, when larva eats its eggshell and becomes pupa a hoosh

we tongue our shell, our conch, we smell the honeysuckle sweat heavily in the night air. a hoosh The fragrance a push of belly against abdomen, tongue buried deep in the suckle the honey and the brush-foots wake and crowd, thrust or pulse, spastic praxis, massive pulse out of sync. This is not what this is no, we intended, we thought sleep and none came we come. ha a a ha Horned caterpillars epilepse, wood nymphs spin and hang crude cocoons

we hold our slow high flight (p 15)

There have been other writings on sleep lately, including a talk that Canadian poet Anne Carson gave at the League of Canadian Poets AGM in Montreal two years ago, returning to the waking world as the essay “Every Exit Is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)” in an issue of Prairie Fire (Vol. 25, No. 3, Autumn 2004), and later as part of Carson's Decreation (New York NY: Knopf, 2005), where she begins by writing “I want to make a praise of sleep. Not as a practitioner–I admit I have never been what is called ‘a good sleeper’ and perhaps we can return later to that curious concept–but as a reader.” (p 19). Carson later goes on to write:

It is in these terms that I wish to praise sleep, as a glimpse of something incognito. Both words are important. Incognito means “unrecognized, hidden, unknown.” Something means not nothing. What is incognito hides from us because it has something worth hiding, or so we judge. (p 20)

Another piece, closer to home (somewhat) is Prince George, British Columbia writer Rob Budde in the piece "A Sleep of Faith," originally published as a chapbook by Budde's own wink books (2005), and reprinted in his trade collection Flicker (Winnipeg MB: Signature Editions, 2005). As much as rawlings, the notion of play has always been an important element of Budde’s poetry, and this piece is no different, working a dart and a hopscotch skill through such reflections from the opening line “sleep as if sleep exists anyway” (p 75), or further on, as he writes (altered slightly from the earlier chapbook version):

preemptive sleep, just in case

sleep like at a poetry reading, polite, filled with linguistic virtuosity,
easing your way to the cheese platter

staring at white paint and not knowing the difference

repose via repository

sleep is overcoded; sleep is underfunded

sleep as if shopping for something you already have

sleep as if your regular breathing is an integral part of an elaborate
ecological which operates the entire earth and its
convenience stores

sleep in moss, mushrooms burgeoning from your eyes, a sphagnum
cornea (p 76)

Budde moves through his sleep as something hidden and unknown, while at the same time, understanding that “faith” is something that can not necessarily be known but can be developed; can be explored but never explained. The whole notion of faith, certainly, is to believe in something that can never be proven, as he ends with:

a court order for order when none will be had, sleep as a public
protest, a concerted civil disobedience, a police line broken–sleeping
off the chaos, sleeping off the anarchy

a paddle in water, a float over there (p 84)

Still, it might be Carson's sleep that exists far closer to the fitful and fitless sleep/s demonstrated in the poetry of angela rawlings, as in this fragment taken from near the end of the book, the "figure 6 : IMAGO - AROUSAL" section, writing:

It's a story it's not a story it has elements of story. 'Y' is a letter. 'Rots' are four letters. The caged body deteriorates, rails.


Pre-end. Exhale three dead white moths - cream moths. Moths with thick, furry antennae. Tickle the epiglottis and struggle to exit. The story is stuck in details. Images bedrail themselves, quilt and sheet themselves, thick no entrance. Exit.

There is no argument, then, let the body do the body does. (p 90)

It seems interesting that rawlings would choose to merge what could be considering yin/yang elements of a disorder (sleep) with order (the natural occurrence of lepidoptera), as one idea reacts up against another one, much as in her piece LOGYoLOGY (a version of which appeared in Calgary's dANDelion magazine, volume 29, number 2, and expanded at; as she wrote beside her name in the dANDelion issue, " LOGYoLOGY is a community of body-related -logies exploring personal experience with sex and sensuality in poems." (p 106). In Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, rawlings' words manage to replicate the fluttering of butterfly/moth wings, and the movement of sleep.

Among the essential elements of rawlings' collection is the notion of notation and play across the page—words and letters work as essential shapes—making most of the pieces in this elegant book nearly impossible to replicate in such a format as this (given my lack of technical skills), as well as the images of butterfly, egg, jar and cocoon by artist Matt Ceolin. In the press releases for the collection, that includes a page long interview with the author, rawlings had this to say about the connections between moths and sleep disorders:

"The phrase 'wide slumber for lepidopterists' occurred during a free-writing session and rattled around in my head for a week. The subjects intersected. What happens when a person obsessed with a subject dreams at night; does the subject matter affect how they think, how they dream, how their bodies process information? I'd been toying with this question for a while, in terms of my own tendency to write poems while dreaming. If a poet writes poems during sleep, how might a lepidopterist work while she sleeps? What effect does intimate examination of insects have on long-term information processing and subconscious behaviour?

A 'pataphysical question cropped up, too … What happens when you breed the vocabularies and ideas of two disparate subjects together (in my case, lepidoptery and sleep/dream studies)? What does the spawn of incompatible bedfellows resemble? From that perverse breeding, Wide slumber for lepidopterists was born."

[a. rawlings reads at poetry cabaret #2 on April 21 with John McDonald and Gary Barwin as part of the ottawa international writers festival]

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