A SLEEPLESS MAN SITS UP IN BED
by Anthony Seidman
Eyewear Publishing, 63 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
When Oswald de Andrade, in his Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto), spoke of “Cannibalism. Absorption of the sacred enemy. To transform him into a totem. The human adventure. Earthly finality,” he might have been speaking of Anthony Seidman’s delighfully profligate A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed.
The sheer exuberance and sense of endless imagistic invention is exhaustive and vivifying. Each word is a firecracker thrown at your head, as you run through a maze—both mystic and vulgar, blissful and grotesque, enjoying a scary magic that leaves you rapt.
To travel at the speed of light
you must become sun chafed
under the weight of a stone,
air glistening in a rope
of water unraveling from a clay jug,
and noon’s sizzling flash on
cars rattling over potholes.
Frequent use of anaphora creates not so much meter as a strong and rudely rhythmic sense of chanting.
The door of fire is a harpsichord of blood.
The door of fire is palm leaves thrown supplicant at the hooves
of a goat.
The door of fire is hope in a maguey thorn.
The door of fire is a needle threading water through the
……………………..eye of a camel.
Yet not all waxes atavisic. Some poems are ekphrastic, bearing keenly observed detail, such as “Vermeer,” with “stitches on his maid’s mustard-colored blouse,” or one sly evisceration of an ostentatious Diego Rivera posing for Modigliani: “you were, and are in this portrait, a playboy/in heat, well-dressed, and piggish.” A satirical eye watches over many of the poems, usually less mocking than attuned to human frailty and the necessary, attendant skepticism of the observer, seldom void of compassion. In “Border Town Graduates”:
Although we’re closer to feeling the grass
pulled over our lips forever,
we still bare our dirty teeth and laugh.
What most captivates me about this collection is surfeit, saturation, proliferation, and profusion, restrained by enumeration as a dispassionate catalogue, the transcription of a trance, the morning after the ecstasy happened.
Desert winds, why did you give me
hands brimming with heat?
Everything I touch burns,
every palm frond becomes seared,
flutters up to the sun, like moths
swarming over the light
of a man praying in the dark.
I seek somewhere so northern
my skin will turn to glass,
and among the green snow-pines,
I will hear the wind click
new consonants from icicles.
A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed has a distinct point of view, one in which, as in Oswald de Andrade’s manifesto, the answer to political depredations is a combination of acid wit and soul-transport. In “Pope Gregory the First,” the speaker directs withering scorn at “You
Whose eye sockets contain orbs of bacterial aspic / Whose teeth dribble the distorted lexicon of the vulgate / Whose patriarchy is a cave of spiders.” Yet a more characteristic attitude toward human strife resides in the book’s shortest poem, “I Come From the Tribe of Clouds”:
My words pour
sleet or fire.
The Earth is hard
but below me.
The book’s speaker is protean, a shape shifter. Each metamorphosis seems to bring him closer to an elusive, yet finally ineluctable truth. The sole solution is to become, over and over, literally and metaphorically, one with the nature that makes constant, stringent clams on our soul.
the jackrabbit scurries over sand to sniff
jagged strips of night, and that these
words sweat dust, that the sky
pours indigo over the desert while
the moon calcifies your thirst.
There is something to be said for closure in a book, and Seidman delivers with a troika of poems, two of them arguably the strongest in the collection. I found great power in “Saying Goodbye to Carthage,” an extended meditation etched in acid and covered in honey. The speaker bids:
goodbye to the hot grottos adrift in smoke
goodbye to the women who never wrote me . . .
rustling like silk when each door I opened
revealed breasts and cunt
turned into a pillar of iodine.
Longing and poignance infuse many of these poems, and cynicism leavens those tender emotions. In a word, the persepctive is mature, not foreclosing hope, yet neither succumbing easily. The second, “Funeral Song on the Death of Joaquín Pasos,” is in fact a translation of an homage by a poet to another poet. In short, three poets stage an atemporal dialogue and Seidman, and also an accomplished translator, conveys the profound dolor of this requiem in a manner that keeps it free of prosaic sentimentality:
It’s difficult to fight against the muddy
Olympus of the frogs. From earliest childhood they’re
trained in the practice of nothing.
It struck me how different this poem is from Seidman’s aesthetic, yet somehow—and I can’t explain how—his bold move convinces, this assertion that the poet has the right to claim Pasos and Martínez Rivas, not as translations, but as brothers.
The farewell of A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed draws on a familiar technique, direct address, “To the Reader,” but it took me by surprise. The closing Empyrean gesture that precedes it feels final. Yet this modest last poem better suits the overall mood of the book, which in the end, for all its extravagence, cherishes simplicity:
you are the fleeting
stone and flint, and
red air conjugated in the
first person plural.
I felt happy to be summoned into that straightforward grammar.
Johnny Payne is Director of the MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. His most recent book of poetry is Vassal. Forthcoming is the poetry collection Heaven of Ashes, from Mouthfeel Press.