The Night We’re Not Sleeping In by Sean Bishop


Sean Bishop. The Night We’re Not Sleeping In. Sarabande Books.

Sean Bishop’s debut collection, The Night We’re Not Sleeping In, begins as a musical contract: “The signed agrees to breath, to the lungs’ soggy bellows” (“Terms of Service”). It quickly becomes clear that, for the speaker, the bargain we’ve struck is about waking to the terms that already bind us. Like Milton in the voice of Lucifer, Bishop conjures rhyme-studded, rhythmic, brilliantly sardonic verse to tempt us into a hard, unblinking look at the violence around and within us.

Selected by Susan Mitchell for the 2013 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, Bishop’s collection is, first and foremost, an elegy. From a whirlwind of mixed registers, he works dark humor and apocryphal inventiveness to reanimate the loss of his father. The biblical Adam, the quintessential sufferer cut off from his own father, serves as guide through the long history of violence and loss—from the fall of man to the fall of Rome to a distant, dystopian future, haunted always by “the Great Past Tense”:

Yes, when the orchard’s dolled up in pastels
and the finches scrawl cursive across the sky
and the big moon sags like a tit o’er the meadows,
I’ll trade in my Glock for a pocket of dew.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I’ve made for my wound a poultice of wounds,
and the ones I wounded made poultices too.
We’ve come here, this evening, to give them to you.

(“Adam Home from the Wars”)

Bishop’s metaphors are as venturesome as his diction, incorporating not only biblical figures but red-shifted galaxies, pet black holes, a Styxian “boatlady Karen,” and more. Yet it is Bishop’s personal stake in understanding violence and loss that makes this collection most memorable. In “Reading Dante in the ICU,” he jabs at society’s attempt to cover up death with “the gift shop’s plush koalas and chrysanthemums, / its aisles and aisles of light-dazed kittens.” He contrasts these clichés with a memory of mercy-killing an injured cat, and the knowledge that soon…

the surgeon will call me in, and frown,
and smooth his green gown, and give me
the odds. And then I’ll be left to the hoses

inflating my father with breath. Some things
I’ve done in this world I know
I’ll have to do again.

It is the speaker’s own complicity in violence that further complicates these elegies. Early in the collection, “A Bit of Forgiveness” details a boyhood memory of stabbing a friend in order to “poke a small window / into the piñata of myself.” It is from this rupture of self and other that Bishop presses fiercely inward. This is a patently masculine approach to grief, reminiscent of Larry Levis’s middle-period elegy “Winter Stars,” in which he relates the violence committed and suffered by his dying father.

Bishop’s dependence on metaphor (and impersonal conceits like the legal contract, anonymous letter, or mathematical story problem) layer additional formality over this already self-repressive masculinity. At times, this calls to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s heightened sense of irony and loss, and her self-aware, skillfully crafted rhetorical distance. But it also threatens the project as a whole, enacting the very glossing over it criticizes in poems like “Reading Dante in the ICU.” What saves the collection is that, by the end, this frenetic metaphorical and rhetorical angling has come to embody a process of grief, an intellectual attempt to contain and confront it.

The speaker’s vulnerability erupts now and then, crucially heightening our sense of what is at stake. In “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane,” the speaker reluctantly complies with the demands of “a birdlike therapist” by writing a letter to his “Dear Dead Dad.” Out of this reluctance, Bishop’s metaphorical skill shines forth in its full, heartbreaking power:

I’ll tell you the turkey was burnt this year,
that your brother (for once) wasn’t such an ass,

that the wishbone wouldn’t break in half,
but thirds, the top part flying off

into the chocolate mousse.
So what’s that mean? somebody laughed,

and I said, both of us lose.

Bishop climbs a ladder of metaphor after metaphor in the collection’s final poem, “Notes Toward Basic Betterness”—over half a dozen in only thirteen couplets—in a desperate attempt to conceptualize recovery. But from these seemingly haphazard connections, something like redemption emerges. If Bishop began with a contract, he ends by addressing us directly, trying to explain his frenetic metaphorical thinking:

How the moon, now that I think of it,

might rather be the golf ball abandoned on its surface,
or one just like it: a dimpled concept of itself

the people of Earth can hold and consider,
so that it might feel at last what I

am feeling for you right now,
secret reader.

A shift in metaphor has taken place here, as it is not that Bishop has found, in the “golf ball,” a vehicle in which to locate the gratitude he feels; rather, he is doing the feeling himself.      Throughout The Night We’re Not Sleeping In, Bishop strains for new metaphorical footholds, smashes together dictions and registers, and scours tiny tragedies to get at the root of pain. What we are ultimately left with, however, is more than a disturbing, darkly humorous, and rhetorically memorable book. We are left with the conviction, shared by Milton’s Lucifer, Bishop’s Adam, and Bishop himself, that it is worth it to go on speaking the voices inside of us, whatever form they take. This is because, as Bishop reminds us in “Secret Fellow Sufferers,” “Of all the voices you hear, / one must be your father’s.”