Newsletter #130 June 2022

Newsletter #130 June 2022
March 13, 2023 Christina Mullin

Hendrik Kerstens,  “Cosy”

June, 2022

Welcome to Plume #130 –

June, and a first for the newsletter, I think: I want to draw as much attention as possible to a magnificent new anthology: Tree Lines: 21st Century American Poems. Also — happily for you, readers!– in a departure from my usual practice of addressing whatever subject comes to mind in my own words, instead this time allow me to quote from the media release, which includes purchasing information and speaks more eloquently than I could on the anthology’s poems (a number of them from Plume contributors) and raison d’être:

“Just in time for Earth Day and Arbor Day, Grayson Books has published Tree Lines: 21st Century American Poems, an anthology that includes work from 130 contemporary poets, including U.S. Poet Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and other outstanding writers. The poems launch conversations about our tender, fierce, and awed relationship to trees in cities and forests, in orchards and open fields. This important new collection reflects contemporary American poets’ heightened awareness of place, close observation of nature, and concern for the earth’s changing climate. A portion of the book’s proceeds will be donated to the National Park Service Foundation.”

And while I have you, and though I could have closed my eyes and found a perfectly suitable example of the pleasures the book contains,  I chose the poem below, from Jane Hirshfield.


It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.
Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.
That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—
Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

c) Jane Hirshfield, originally from GIVEN SUGAR, GIVEN SALT (NY: HarperCollins, 2001); used by permission, all rights reserved.

Wonderful, no?

Now, to return to our regular format, let’s turn now to Joseph Campana’s thoughts on insomnia as represented in literature (including his own sleeplessness), with an “exquisite” example — Philip Sidney’s  Astrophil and Stella 39.

For me, sleep has often been elusive. My first successful poems were late-night contemplations and visions, dreams without dreams, at moments I wished I were falling asleep or when my body missed the narrow window of sleep and surged back awake. I would be lying if I didn’t say I took equal parts pleasure and pains in this state. That’s changed over the years, but when I was younger, it was invigorating to be alone with thoughts and words late at night, when I was supposed to be asleep and when whatever revelations the world might hold would be experienced by the weary few who, like myself, could not release ourselves from the waking world.

An extraordinary literature of sleeplessness tracks back through the centuries (no doubt longer). I remember in graduate school reading Chaucer’s poetry, his dream visions particularly, in one of which a sleepless poet prays to Morpheus and even offers to build him the most beautiful bed ever as an offering if only he will grant him the balm of rest. From that point of view, there is a beautiful if still frustrating sleeplessness—an art of insomnia, a creative sleeplessness—that haunts poets and draws might-have-been dreams into the waking world and further still onto the page (or screen: as you will). From another point of view, there is a pandemic of sleeplessness that precedes the actual pandemic (which itself threw supply chains and sleep cycles alike into chaos). For some, insomnia is merely a byproduct of modern conveniences that results in a sleep industry full of mattresses and white noise machines and self-help books. For others, like Jonathan Crary (whose 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep provokes nightmares), sleeplessness is the product of a vicious world view in which the idea; scenario is that all work (and all commerce) takes place 24/7, destructively irrespective of the needs of body or mind.

I am not the champion insomniac I was years ago, but even so I have no solution for the global dilemmas of sleep in our time. Yet as I was reading through a series of Renaissance English sonnets for another essay, I found myself incapable of being immune to the charms of sonnet 39 in Philip Sidney’s sequence Astrophil and Stella. As for Chaucer, so too for Sidney: sleeplessness may be the province of the melancholy-inclined poet but it results from the frustrations of love. Sidney begins by hailing sleep, calling to it as if to an elusive lover: “Come sleep, O sleepe.” A series of analogies arise, each equivalent to this longed-for state:

the certain knot of peace,
The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
Th’ indifferent judge between the high and low.

I appreciate poems that leverage the list, a form that can seem no more significant than instructions for one’s love as he visits a grocery store. Sleep is the place of calming, of peace, sure, but it is also the place where the mind (its restless “wit” or its tendency to “woe”) come to be appeased. In sleep the impoverished and the imprisoned find the desired oppositions to their states. Sleep is the place of neutrality, even, an “indifferent judge between the high and low” which I take to be a state of economic, even celestial, levelling.

The fascination of this poem is how it alternates between moments of envisioning and describing the experience of sleeping through analogies such as these and exhortations to a figure we might capitalize and call Sleep. “With shield of proof,” the speaker begs, “shield me from out the prease / Of those fierce darts despair at me doth throw.” Depression haunts the mind when adverse circumstances haunt one’s life. Sleep is a shield, therefore, a calming influence that can “make in me those civil wars to cease.” Exhortation leads to bargaining as Sidney, like Chaucer, offers the “good tribute” of excellent furniture for the sleeping body:

smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland and a weary head.

Again, the lyric derives power from a familiar but still evocative list. No white noise machine, no, but otherwise one sees the needful things, the things needed to sail through the gates of ivory and horn to the land of Morpheus. This being a love sonnet written in the wake of Petrarch and in the midst of a veritable sonnet fight club in Renaissance England, the sleeplessness was always the insomnia of frustrated love and the poem was always going to return to the beloved, in this case Stella, whose image Sleep could see in the mind of the sleeper because he would only dream of her. This is the gambit of Shakespeare’s sonnet 27, a poem written after Sidney’s, where he wishes for sleep at the end of a wearying day so as to dream of his beloved. What I marvel at, in Sidney, is that for 13 of these 14 exquisite lines, one could easily not think of the lover or the beloved. Maybe this is the balm of sleep performed by the lyric. Even as sleeplessness is part of the grammar of love sonnets, it too can blot out the torture of frustrated love—at least for a brief time, which is the time of lyric itself. Let’s hope “brief” is not the time of sleep, which I wish you (and myself) in abundance.

Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 39
(“Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace”)

Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
Th’ indifferent judge between the high and low.
With shield of proof shield me from out the prease
Of those fierce darts despair at me doth throw:
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland and a weary head:
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.

For a biography see the Poetry Foundation.

What else? Ah, of course: Plume Poetry 10 is coming in late July or early August. We are in the final printing now, and will resume partnered readings from the book before long.

Our cover art this month is Hendrik Kersten’s “Cosy” For more information on the artist, a good start might be made here and here.

Finally, as usual, some recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors:

Kimberly Johnson                  Fatal
Jay Hopler,                             Still Life
Kathleen Ossip                       July
Elizabeth Metzger                  Bed
Diane Seuss                           frank: sonnets 
Stephen Dunn                        The World Not Yet Fallen: New and Selected Poems 
Billy Collins                             Musical Tables
Simon Perchik                        The Elliot Erwitt Poems

That’s it, for now.

I hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume