At the turn of the tenth century, Sei Shōnagon, lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Empress, wrote her Pillow Book by candlelight. A fragmented collection of lists, anecdotes, and descriptions of daily life in court, she kept it in a drawer inside her pillow of polished bamboo. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book is a modern riff on Shōnagon’s work: lists, descriptions of dreams, scenes from her life, and bits of research on sleep and the history of pillows together form a funny, intimate and thoughtful meditation on insomnia.
Beyond the pillow theme, Shōnagon’s genre is the perfect form for a book about sleeplessness, as it reflects the random, fragmentary nature of thought while lying restless in bed. Many of Buffam’s lists—such as “Moustaches A to Z,” which lists famous moustaches for every letter from Anwar Sadat to Zorba the Greek—are exactly the kind that would occupy the insomniac mind. Yet they are far from facile. Lists like “Things that have Lost Their Power” and “First World Problems A to Z” are both delightfully witty and profound commentaries on contemporary society. “Books I’d Like to Read Someday” includes clever surprises like “End Game, by Dr. Seuss” and “The Interpretation of Dreams, by Jorge Luis Borges,” while “Altered Proverbs” ends with the poetic revision “The truth is stranger than the sum of its parts.”
Like Shōnagon, Buffam’s speaker is servant to someone she calls “Her Majesty”—her young daughter. A Pillow Book is not only about insomnia, but also the difficulties of raising a preschooler and the strain that parenthood puts on marriage and the writing life. On these subjects, the writing is refreshingly raw and unapologetically frank. As the speaker describes a dream in which she is peeing with the door open at a party, the metaphor is clear: the fights and resentments that are normally kept private are laid bare in these pages. Buffam’s voice is at times bitter, sarcastic, and self-deprecating, yet the negativity is not alienating, but comfortable and intimate.
A Pillow Book is suitably prosaic, closer to a long lyric essay than a prose poem. But this is not to say that the writing lacks in poetic craft—vivid images, such as the sun dropping “like a coin into a slot on the wall”—are enhanced by juxtapositions that are playful and often profound. Together, the book strikes the perfect balance of music and meaning, of humour and gravity, of personal reflection and historical context.
Buffam’s writing is as intimate as handwritten notes kept inside one’s pillow. Yet it also looks outward, locating one woman’s experience within both the sleep-deprived culture of twenty-first century America, and a thousand years of human history. From the ancient Egyptian wooden block to the patented, phlalate-free, hypo-allergenic, medical-grade foam insert lit by the blue glow of a phone, pillows are both a reflection of our times and a unifying symbol of a basic human need. Buffam’s pillow may not inspire sleep, but it does inspire smart, relevant writing.
Jennifer Delisle is the author of The Bosun Chair, forthcoming with NeWest Press. Find her at www.jenniferdelisle.ca and @JenBDelisle.
ENJOY A FRAGMENTED COLLECTION OF ARC‘S POETIC DREAMS!