The Great Past Tense: On Sean Bishop’s The Night We’re Not Sleeping In

Anna Journey

Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2014. 65 pages. $14.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

“Dear fat sagacious angels in the cumular eaves,” Sean Bishop writes in “A Bit of Forgiveness,” “why is it / that today, eating pork chops of all things, I’m thinking / of the time I stabbed Phil Kimble with an oak branch I whittled, / for no good reason?” As these lines from his debut collection make clear, Bishop is a versatile poet—meticulous and muscular—capable of making sly shifts in tone (from wit to pathos), diction (from baroque to plainspoken), and image (from phantasmagoric to ordinary). Bishop’s project is largely elegiac in The Night We’re Not Sleeping In, which was selected by Susan Mitchell for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. A number of the poems concern the death of the speaker’s father. Bishop’s poems arise from an obsessive imagination, and in addition to conjuring the absent figure of the father, they repeat a variety of images and motifs, including mythic or fabular characters (a wayward Adam, a Styx-like “boatlady Karen,” a “pull-tooth barber”), cosmic phenomena (black holes, dispersing galaxies, inelegant moons), and a robust bestiary whose creatures often imply our human capacity for barbarity and ruin (lions, lambs, wasps, toads, beetles, ticks, pigs, pickerel).

The poet’s persona is often that of the tragicomic wiseass: ironic, chagrined, vengeful, witty. Delightfully, a speaker in a Bishop poem is as likely to say, “It was the Great Past Tense and everything was lovely,” as “It may iridesce like weird lichen in the night.” Bishop, ever the confident mixer of dictions, evokes a coal-mine canary through highfalutin, deliberately purple anachronism (“that oft in the dark and brute weight of their debts / they ruffle their feathers and start to sing”), and, in the same poem, deadpans: “Citizens, Parishioners, have you ever been dying? / I have. It’s a fairly shitty business . . . ” In The Night We’re Not Sleeping In, vexed registers dominate Bishop’s poems, and he wields his grim indignation to defy conventional elegiac gestures toward consolation, complicating their affect through thrusts of black humor, tonal ruptures, and a densely musical yet conversational idiom. Bishop has a knack for coolly controlling invective or satirical jeers within an elastic, laid-back mellifluence. His pointed irony (“The signed agrees to breath, to the lungs’ soggy bellows”), sardonic jabs (“Here’s to killing”), and abiding irreverence (“and the big moon sags like a tit o’er the meadows”) lend a discordant counterpoint—at times an absurdist horror—to even his most poignant interrogations of loss. It’s the tension within Bishop’s conflicted poetic gestures that makes him such a striking contemporary elegist.

His poems often recall the post-apocalyptic imagery of 1970s neo-surrealism (in particular the fabular work of Edson, Lux, Merwin, Simic, and Tate), and, more recently, the loopy bravado of Mary Ruefle; the epistemological rhetorics of Nick Lantz; and the blackly comedic, beast-haunted mythos of Zachary Schomburg. Although Bishop is a Millennial, his abrupt syntactical and dictional shifts share an affinity with a number of Gen X’ers writing in the third wave of the perennially hip New York School (such as Joshua Beckman, Matthea Harvey, and Matthew Rohrer), with their wacky tonal frittatas, urbane plain-spokenness, and jittery ellipticisms. Bishop often hybridizes the New York School inheritors’ flare for associational jumpiness with the fabulist’s interest in reimagining fractured myths that reveal the ordinary yet dazzling violence of the human adventure—how “once more our old wounds / like milkweed pods have opened, and we’re lovely again // as our winces break off in the wind.”

In addition to being an innovative elegist, Bishop is a writer committed to the poetic sequence. Section one of The Night We’re Not Sleeping In contains the mythic “Adam” sequence in which Bishop reimagines the Biblical Ur-man as war-mongering, wounded, and hapless (he’s Blake’s fragmented Albion, minus all Romantic hope of reintegrating into a higher unity, as in Bishop’s “Adam before the Advent of Psychiatry”). Section two features a selection of poems bearing the identical title “Secret Fellow Sufferers” in which the speaker delivers meta-monologues to the book’s readers, members of a complicit yet furtively mute Greek chorus. Section three contains the numbered sequence titled (after the I Ching) “To Throw the Little Bones that Speak,” in which Bishop employs techniques of chance (the random selection of lines followed by elaboration) to evoke a contemporary Hades and its gender-bent ferryman Charon (the “boatlady Karen”) alongside gothic imagery that occasionally recalls the lurid fantasias of the “swamprat Rimbaud” of the seventies, Frank Stanford (“black bogs // where the roasted geese can roost forever”). The book’s fourth and final section reprises Bishop’s “Secret Fellow Sufferers” treatise.

Bishop’s elegies fall, with varying degrees of overlap, into the following four subgenres, which he disperses heterogeneously throughout the book: 1.) the ironized bureaucratic form, such as a contract or memo, in which legalese acts a mode of grotesquerie; 2.) the elliptical fable that employs mythic or folk characters as it swings from hyperbole to litotes and from archetypal to personal agonies; 3.) the self-critically baroque or performative lyric that luxuriates in extravagant imagery and music even as it rails against artifice; 4.) the elegy localized in an ordinary context rather than a mythic framework. While all of Bishop’s various elegiac subgenres innovate and beguile, it’s perhaps this fourth type of elegy that represents his most accomplished verse.

Take, for example, Bishop’s “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane,” which begins:

Dear dead dad: a birdlike therapist
demanded of me this letter. It’s winter:

out on the tarmac sleet cakes the wings
of the morning’s latest delays

and the terminal’s filling with bodies and bodies
that only want to go.

In the poem’s ironic adaptation of an anti-poetic form (in this case, the therapeutic epistle) and address to the absent father amid the unassuming banality of an airport, it belongs to both the first and fourth types of Bishopian elegy. Although “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane” begins in invective (“Dear dead dad”) and irreverence (“a birdlike therapist / demanded of me . . . ”), its resentful tone soon shifts to one of numbing detachment (“It’s winter: // out on the tarmac sleet cakes the wings”), which then gives way to an embittered recognition of grief (“the terminals filling with bodies and bodies / that only want to go.”). There’s a lot going on, tonally, here, amid Bishop’s feints and darts and startling undercuts, as if to suggest the absurdity that accompanies one’s experience of grief (or in writing a letter—or a poem—in order to assuage it). There’s also a deeply sophisticated musical architecture beneath Bishop’s colloquial idiom filled with unfussy, one-syllable words and spondaic rhythms. Bishop’s is a muscular music, woven with alliteration (“Dear dead dad”), assonance (“food stain blooming,” “the turkey was burnt”), slant rhymes (“letter” and “winter”), and approximate end-rhymes in which deliberately showy pairings toward the end of the poem shock with blue or gallows humor (“ask” and “ass”; “chocolate mousse” and “both of us lose”).

Bishop’s alliterative, rhyme-rich invective addressed toward the speaker’s deceased father can’t help but conjure Plath’s “Daddy”—that twentieth-century masterwork of controlled anger and black humor. Unlike Plath’s tightly wound nursery-rhyme cadences, however, Bishop employs a more flexible, expansive syntax. In Bishop’s “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane,” the speaker recognizes in the quarrelsome efforts of the airport mechanics his own unfixable circumstance:

                              Outside Gate 2A,

the mechanics have wrenched a gear from the plane,
squabbled, locked up, and walked off.

And this is why I thought of you today:
how the surgeons sighed and argued;

how your brain, like an injured animal, sulked
and told them nothing. Tomorrow

it could be a branch the width of your wrist
that reminds me, the cleft in a stranger’s chin,

or a food stain blooming in the cookbook you left.

The above passage recalls the gracefully conversational middle-period work of Larry Levis, perhaps in particular Levis’s “Winter Stars,” an elegy for his father, still living yet lost to dementia: “Tonight, I’m talking to you, father, although
/ It is quiet here in the Midwest, where a small wind, /
The size of a wrist, wakes the cold again— /
Which may be all that’s left of you & me.” Like Levis’s elegy, Bishop’s balances a meditative lyricism with a measured wryness, tempering any potential for simplistic nostalgia. In Bishop’s elegy, the father is defined by images that reinforce his irrevocable absence: “a branch the width of your wrist,” “the cleft in a stranger’s chin,” “a food stain blooming in the cookbook you left.” Everywhere the speaker glances, it seems—at an airport crowd, a winter landscape, a cookbook—he sees acute reminders of his father’s death. Bishop ends “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane” in a crescendo of virtuosic sonics, poignant yet peculiar imagery, and jabs of black humor:

Since you can’t ask,

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

Throughout the poem, Bishop employs a number of tropes conventional to the genre of elegy, including vengeful cursing (“Dear dead dad”), repetition (the anaphoric lists), images of resurrection (the airplane, the “bodies and bodies / that only want to go”), floral offerings (the “blooming” stain the father left), autumnal references signifying cycles of change (Thanksgiving occurs in the fall and originally celebrated the harvest season), and the substitutive elegiac token (the wishbone), which is often a shattered (Freudians would say castrative) sign, as in Milton’s painfully plucked berries in Lycidas or the broken sprig of lilac in Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Instead of moving from grief to consolation, as is the elegiac convention, Bishop dwells in the agonizing permanence of the loss (“both of us lose”). Levis, too, refuses consolation in “Winter Stars,” ironizing the potential for a reunion between son and Alzheimer’s-stricken father through a depiction of a numbed and hollow rapprochement: “Look, it’s empty out there, & cold. / Cold enough to reconcile /
Even a father, even a son.”

Whereas Levis’s closure in “Winter Stars” operates through irony, Bishop opts for an outbreak of subversive humor in the final lines of “Letter to Toss from the Airborne Plane.” The image of a piece of wishbone “flying off // into the chocolate mousse” is shocking and darkly funny. And the end-rhymes between “chocolate mousse” and “both of us lose”—a sweet confection and a bitter loss—surprise us in their paradoxical union even as they mourn the sundering of the physical body of the father from the world of the senses: that realm of savory holiday dinners and brothers who sometimes behave like asses. The wishbone (which conjures the “birdlike therapist” as well as the “injured animal” of the father’s brain) is a broken body, like the father’s, the airplane’s, and perhaps the speaker’s, too, we gather. Like the jaggedly snapped wishbone, so, too, is the experience of grief shattering and imprecise, fraught with impossible wishes. Finally, it’s Bishop’s deeply dry transformation of the Thanksgiving gathering into a danse macabre that reveals his sensibility at its most poignant and rebellious. Death unites all, Bishop suggests, even the burnt turkey and frothed egg whites. Although the poems in Bishop’s arresting debut won’t console, they offer instead their searing wisdom, wicked humor, and magnificently kinetic lyricism. Or as Bishop’s quintessential sufferer says, in “Adam Home from the Wars”: “I 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.”

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