The Mind Set Alight: Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book & Kathryn Nuernberger’s Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past

Kristina Marie Darling

Suzanne Buffam. A Pillow Book. Ann Arbor, MI: Canarium Books, 2016. 104 pages. $14.00.

Kathryn Nuernberger. Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2017. 100 pages. $19.95.

Emanuel Levinas once described light as “awakened consciousness,” the mind made real by an entire world bearing down on the senses. Perception is more than the simple act of apprehending; memory comes to us first through the body, as does grief, and wishing, and terror.  With that in mind, the unfolding of conscious experience is inevitably an embodied endeavor, as much as perception is bounded by time, narrative, and history.

Two recent collections of lyric prose offer representations of consciousness, history, and the body that fully acknowledge this complexity. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book and Kathryn Nuernberger’s Brief Interviews with The Romantic Past trace the lovely arc of the mind through “the Siege of Paris,” a woman’s sleepless year, and dimly lit rooms “at the turn of the tenth century.” By moving through time in a nonlinear way, Buffam and Nuernberger show us that there is never a perception “happened across in the dark;” rather, to apprehend the world is to be inundated with its discontents and the various narratives of history and difference to which they give rise.

Though somewhat divergent in style and approach, Nuernberger and Buffam share an investment in revealing thought as not only embodied, but also inherently relational. In these skillfully constructed collections of lyric prose, the boundary between self and world falls away; “wing-beating swans” spark the inner life of Nuernberger’s lively narrator, and likewise, the presence of the protagonist’s husband, “picking nettles in the graveyard,” alters the trajectory of the mind, even in what may appear to be her most isolated moments.

 

Brief Interviews with the Romantic PastIn Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, the senses are a source of constant transformation. “Her white dress of a body cleaves the foreground of flames,” Nuernberger writes. Here and elsewhere in the book, one’s physical being is a catalyst for metaphor, the imagination, and its lavish topographies. In much the same way that Madame Blanchard’s “white dress of a body” quickly becomes image and emblem, the “youngest brother” is described as having to “live with a single wing dangling off his body like a form of amputation or miracle.” We find ourselves increasingly—and purposefully—unsure where the body ends and myth begins. Nuernberger, subtly and skillfully, presents a vision of physicality and the senses as mediated by the various narratives that circulate within culture. Within the imagined landscape of this collection, these mediating forces range from prevailing ideas about femininity (and the difficult loveliness inherent in the “little jewelry box of a life she had”), to aesthetics (for example, the “strange and unexpected beauty of sound”), and science (“ . . . the corpse of a hanged man has been laid out on the table and the gallery teems with men trying to understand what it means to be alive . . . ”).  One’s experience of any “pretty thing, fluttering over the flowers” is never truly one’s own, but rather, it is always informed by one’s place in a larger cultural landscape.

In these gorgeously rendered essays, we find a narrator who inevitably, and candidly, allows “the mind to inflict its impressions on the body.”  Her “hands” and “milky face” becomes ledger, repository for narratives that are rarely—if ever—her own. Nuernberger writes, for instance, in “Why the Dauphin Won’t Consummate the Marriage,”

The gates at Versailles had been left open for so many years, they could not be shut against the mob because of rust. Any man with a sword at his side was welcome to walk through the palace. Any woman with a proper dress could come to watch her queen eat. It was the duty of the royal family to let their people see them live.

What’s perhaps most telling about this passage is the way Nuernberger situates the body—and its accompanying perceptions—within a larger narrative of nationhood. For the queen, to “live” in one’s own skin, to move through the various rooms of the palace, is also to function as symbol, as archetype. Every “woman in a proper dress” who arrives as spectator, every “man with a sword at his side” who traipses through “the gates at Versailles” serves as a reminder of the mythologies that make her, for which the queen is only a conduit. As she sits down to “eat,” and as she prepares each morning “to live,” she is never alone with her senses because she is never alone with herself. Here Nuernberger reminds us, with subtlety and grace, of the constant presence of the other within the self, that “slowly burning” light that allows us to see where one’s fingertips end and “the wind-whipped night sky” begins.

 

Much like Nuernberger’s Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, Suzanne Buffam’s gorgeous hybrid text interrogates the boundaries between self and world. Yet A Pillow Book also prompts us to consider the implications when self becomes world, the subject having taken the detritus of culture—its “exhaustive catalogues of petty grievances,” its ongoing “blather”—to create an insular, entirely self-contained psychic landscape.

Presented in a series of discrete prose meditations, which take the form of lists, histories, and micro-narratives, the luminous fragments in Buffam’s collection orbit gracefully around the recurring theme of sleeplessness. In many ways, she proffers the text as a metaphor for the narrator’s “restless” and “oversensitive” mind, its surface a ledger onto which the narratives of twenty-first century culture have been written, erased, and revised. Indeed, A Pillow Book retains a palimpsestic quality, as the symbols, myths, and images that populate shared culture are appropriated and transformed:

I and It, by Martin Buber.

Queen Lear, by William Shakespeare.

Moby Dick, by Gertrude Stein.

End Game, by Dr. Seuss.

Complete Poems, by Sappho.

Here literary history is reimagined as metaphor, made to enact what is purely an interior drama. The common language of culture is rendered suddenly unrecognizable, as it is fashioned in the likeness of the individual psyche, made to reflect its entirely singular preoccupations. While it is impossible to occupy only “the gauzy white stuff of dreams,” Buffam shows a psyche that has willfully, recklessly, distanced itself from the conversation that sustains it. Yet it is a disturbance of the body’s equilibrium that ultimately unhinges the narrator’s mind. Every fragment of the larger world— and its accompanying narratives—are brought to bear on the ache of a body is persistently, relentlessly “unwell.”

For instance, Buffam writes:

Among the Ngoni of modern Tanzania, the feather-stuffed pillow is considered so intimate a possession it is often buried with its owner. When a chief among the Shona of modern South Africa dies, his pillow is passed on to his successor, who prays to it, as to the spirit of his ancestor, in times of crisis before sleep. Among the Luba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when the body of the deceased is unavailable for burial, as is often the case given present political realities, his or her pillow is buried instead.

Here the nerve-wracked physical body is revealed as both a confinement and a beautiful escape. Indeed, Buffam posits sleep as a domain unto itself, much like the underworld of ancient mythologies. Yet she also portrays this imaginative topography as incredibly “intimate,” specific and tailored to—no, arising from—that individual’s psyche. Although the “successor” prays to his “feather stuffed pillow” before “a time of crisis,” Buffam shows us that the true catastrophe is not the political but rather it is existential. Sleep itself is revealed as a “burial,” as the protagonist retreats deeper and deeper into her own subjectivity.

 

If the mind is made real only by the world’s intrusions, then perhaps narrative is an attempt to document that process of becoming.

Certainly, Buffam’s A Pillow Book and Nuernberger’s Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past offer vastly different ways of conceptualizing the relationship between perception, consciousness, and the lovely arc of story.  Yet the two collections raise similar questions about the possibility—or impossibility—of an unmediated experience of the world around us. For both Buffam and Nuernberger, the presence of a shared imagination, this collective consciousness, helps us find order and structure for the unbounded chaos of perception. What’s more, these gifted and dexterous writers remind us that once the “daylight” and “the sparkle and splash” of water have been apprehended, it is the presence of this common language that allows to us—finally, and inevitably—to speak.

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