INCLINED AT FIRST to resist The Book of Sleep by what seemed, for poetry, a formulaic title (Book of Dreams, Book of Nightmares, Book of My Nights), I was won over first, as I browsed, by its smallest poem, the lovely five lines of “Fontanel”:
“The Book of Sleep (XXIX),” almost as short, gives the same pleasure at seeing everything done exactly right.
What RPCV does not know the guilty feeling of being exempt, and the fact beneath it that we go home from this place of (among other things) suffering, and they stay? I value too the way the epigraph adds complexity to the thought. This referentiality, this bringing her reading to bear on a poem’s core of felt experience, is a frequent feature of Stanford’s work, and to me a real strength. Another characteristic is the inclusion of untranslated text from several languages, which works here because it enacts the numbness of “I’m so tired / of translating.” In “The Refugees” there’s even a bit of overheard Amharic to please this old Ethiopia hand.
I’m not perfectly sure that the introduction of the garbage barge here is necessary rather than merely ingenious or unexpected, but the poem is resonant and ends well.
As a first book, The Book of Sleep delivers much and promises more. It has plenty of skill and ambition. Stanford brings both intelligence and feeling to bear on meaningful subjects. Always polished, the poems are rarely content to be mere exhibitions of technique. As yet, it is most compelling for its content; if there is, at this point, a Stanford signature, it lies in the fullness and complexity of her response to experience. The formal toolkit she employs so skillfully is by and large a standard one, and I don’t hear, as yet, a distinctive voice by which we could recognize a Stanford poem on an unfamiliar subject. But developing these is what the rest of a poet’s life is for.
Eric Torgersen has retired from teaching writing at Central Michigan University. His newest book is the novella The Man Who Loved Rilke, reviewed in the July 2008 issue of Peace Corps Writers. His other books include two more novellas, four books of poems, and the study Dear Friend: Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Torgersen lives in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan with his wife, the quilt artist Ann Kowaleski.