The Sleep That Changed Everything

Lee Ann Brown

Wesleyan University Press


Tuesday, June 17th, 2003

Reading American poetry after the death of Allen Ginsberg, it is possible to forget that writers have been known to transform the world from time to time. Not that younger poets have forgotten to put “reimagine life” on a to-do list—Lee Ann Brown even made it something like the title of her second book, The Sleep That Changed Everything.

Private cheek pressed in pillow
book damp and red tender tether
Typewriter up and working
Snow is falling on New York
(“The Sleep That Changed Everything”)

It’s a beautiful title, dramatically promissory even, and that the poem prefers not to disclose what everything, what change, or even what sleep it refers to makes no difference: in the expectation of one poem, another poem arrives. It takes place. It is lively, real; it sounds good, it has meanings. It may be enough.

In the vexed and mainly irrelevant arena of allegiances to teachers and predecessors, Brown has pioneered a refreshing indifference to the rivalries between, say, Beats and New York School poets, or New York School poets and practitioners of projective verse, or for that matter between the language poets and the rest of the world. Collaging her influences from all these groups, collaborating with them, trimming her work with declarations that her attraction’s more than textual, she is a central figure to many groups of younger poets. Born in Japan, raised in North Carolina, taking two degrees at the school that shares her name, and settling down in New York, she comes to her rejection of categorization honestly. Among younger poets, her absolute refusal to accept limits on what is permissible has given her something like political power.

So many recent books of poems are interrupted every twenty pages by a Roman numeral, the same styles and subjects picking up where they left off—intermissions disguised as changes. I imagine these poets surveyed their books the way Caesar did Gaul—divided into three parts, the starting point for empire. Brown, on the other hand, organizes her uncommonly long books into sections that differ from each other the way rings in a circus do: present beau hymns to the muses go here next to the N+7 operations on familiar allegiance texts, precisely observed miniatures hover in this corner, Steinian meditations make frequent flagrant rendezvous with the recognizable vulnerable world here at the end. No Roman numerals.

Her first book, Polyverse, collects these diverse chapbook-length series under a contraction of Freud’s term for the undifferentiating sexual experience of infants: polymorphous perversity. What one sees, though, is a compound meaning “all poetries.” The word verse derives from the Latin word for how a plow turns as it makes furrows—that is, the labor of making lines. She has a taste for making as many turns as she can, as well as for Joycean allusive puns (“Wake up—Atalanta’s burning!”) but Brown’s better when she wears many meanings lightly, and best when she lets love and mistakes make the poem go as far as it needs.


Ice Tea
Cream corn
Fried okra
plus one meat

The nouns standing in as adjectives make me smile, but I can’t decide why this poem stays poetry instead of turning into the cafeteria joke “plus one meat” implies: is it her sense of found poetry, or the prosody of the one two-syllable word in the poem falling off before the three hard stresses of the last line? If her poems have a party line, it’s that you can respond to either/or quandaries with both/neither.

But poetry isn’t a matter of coming up with an exuberantly defensible position from which to write. Doubters of her work are directed to the “Vibratory Odes” section of Everything. Describing the change that came over iambic pentameter when the verse paragraph came into flower, Saintsbury writes of the painted monster of end-stopped lines becoming the moving living dragon of the English language. I’m not claiming that Brown effects the same scale of transformation on the innovations of immediate predecessors from Tom Raworth to Bernadette Mayer, but there is something new in her particular concentration in a characteristic meditation on solitude:

Alone, I
have been searching
for you
who is no one
not even an I.

So many things to do
in the world
all with a clean face in the morning
when sounds and light are most
together. Can you bear the stillness?
Repeat it until it becomes exciting
like a jewel

a vibrating thing with no sound

These enjambments and the suspended state of attention they imply coexist with a recognizable and attractive speaker—one who makes no untoward claims on the reader, no self-loathing, no eliciting pity. This simultaneous excitement and detachment calls to mind the state she refers to punningly throughout the book as “vertical integration.” In a ballad for the civil rights worker Harry Golden, she narrates his satirical epiphany on how to thwart Jim Crow laws:

Take out all the CHAIRS from restaurants, cars & schools
Get rid of all the benches—Make way for other rules.
If some folks can’t sit down somewhere then everybody STAND
We’ll learn & eat VERTICAL—INTEGRATION in this land!

Her talisman against ordinary social fear is the dictionary. In her determination to relate the varieties of delicious experience she is unembarrassed to appear artless sometimes; being available to many different pleasures does not guarantee that you will consistently do many different things well. I for one think that the memory of Allen Ginsberg’s Blakean vision and Barnumesque carnival would be better served not by carrying on his later habit of singing poems at readings, but by sing-alongs, or better yet, by looking dead in the eyes whatever it was he did when he wrote “Howl,” “Kaddish,” and “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” At the end of “Vibratory Ode,” she writes “I yearn towards a longer form,” and this fan hopes she’ll go after the dream of the world-changing poem: not a scene of writing, not a coalition-building collage, but the poem in which she makes use of our collective assumption that she has vital information that will lead to our freedom.

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