How Poems Work: “Enough” by Suzanne Buffam

From The Irrationalist.


I am wearing dark glasses inside the house
To match my dark mood.


I have left all the sugar out of the pie.
My rage is a kind of domestic rage.


I learned it from my mother
Who learned it from her mother before her


And so on.
Surely the Greeks had a word for this.


Now surely the Germans do.
The more words a person knows


To describe her private sufferings
The more distantly she can perceive them.


I repeat the names of all the cities I’ve known
And watch an ant drag its crooked shadow home.


What does it mean to love the life we’ve been given?
To act well the part that’s been cast for us?


Wind. Light. Fire. Time.
A train whistles through the far hills.


One day I plan to be riding it.


*** TONIGHT *** Join Suzanne Buffam, Damian Rogers, & Sarah Burgoyne
Thursday, November 3, at 7:30 PM, Grey Nuns Building M100, 1175 Rue St. Mathieu


“Enough” is a commentary on gender roles and tradition. In the poem, the narrator folds the sheets, pulls taught the blankets, leaves the milk out to curdle, forgets to smile. “Enough” is a portrait of domestic discontentment, an exercise in disillusionment. The narrator is bitter. She does not put sugar in the pie. She is not allowing her pain to become sweetened, more palatable for you—though her “rage is a kind of domestic rage.” Her rage is quiet, calculated. It cannot be consuming or destructive. This is how she communicates the apathy she endures. The way of life she speaks to is one of tradition, one of femininity, the kind that the narrator explains: “I learned… from my mother / Who learned it from her mother / And so on.” It is natural, like subconscious action, but as insidious as subconscious action, too.


In the eighth and ninth lines, Buffam brings Greek and German language into the poem. She does not know the word for what she is feeling, but she dreams of learning that it exists in another language. Perhaps it is too painful to know a word for it in English. How freeing it must feel to know that there is so much to discover, but how stifling it must feel to be trapped in inaccessibility, in inexperience. “The more words a person knows / To describe her private sufferings / The more distantly she can perceive them.” The more that one learns, the smaller the world becomes, and one can observe things with a certain degree of detachment, including their own woes of internal toil. The narrator struggles with this. She busies herself with small things, like recounting what she knows and where she has been. Does her life have value when she is fulfilling a role “that’s been cast for [her],” rather than a role of her own choosing? Is it enough?


“Enough” challenges the ideology that existence enough should be satisfying. That the values that are projected upon people based on their circumstances should decide their life for them. That domestic life should be enough. By the concluding line, it is revealed that perhaps the poem is not asking for this empty lifestyle to be enough. Rather, the title suggests that the narrator has had enough of it. She is ready to make her own choices. Buffam knows the narrator is watching herself as if she is in a surreal situation that has somehow happened, that perhaps the narrator did not agree to, that the narrator feels trapped and subdued in. The poem comes to an end as the narrator comes to terms with the action that she must take in order to fulfill herself. Bitter from beginning to end, it emerges as an aimless complaint and concludes as a personal call to action. Buffam breaks the pattern of couplets. She leaves the final, rebellious line alone on the landscape of the poem.


How Poems Work courtesy of Ally Turner.

How Poems Work: A Selection from Suzanne Buffam’s “A Pillow Book”

From A Pillow Book, pages 41-43.


Some nights I visit Inés Fernández, the forlorn school teacher from southwestern Spain, who yawned once in the sun at a passing religious procession, felt a brief, searing pain through the back of her skull, and never slept another wink all her life. For the next thirty years she sat up through the night in an armchair in the corner of her bedroom, watching her husband dissolve into dreams in their bed. In the silence and emptiness, she told Rose Grady of Weekly World News, I feel as though I am the only person alive in the world. First published on the 23rd of February, 1989, under the headline “Woman Hasn’t Slept in Thirty Years!” her grainy portrait still haunts some twilit corner of the internet today. Slumped in a bathrobe in the shadows, her spouse long departed, her thin hair wrenched into an angry topknot on her head, she clutches at the dull, black beads of her rosary and eyes the empty future in grim reprise of the Byzantine Lady of Perpetual Succor framed in dark wood on the wall above her chair. In the foreground, blindly reaching for the viewer from its perch atop a narrow pillow, sits a porcelain infant with its chubby arms outstretched.



Feminists on a list-serv.
Office potlucks.
Endogamy taboos in ancient Greece.
Betty Davis’s eyebrows.
Boys at a bris.
Backstage at a folkfest.
Dickinson’s dash.


A man is chasing me through a dark house. I do not recognize the furniture, but the staircase in the moonlight, as I hurtle down the banister, looks familiar. The front door, I discover, is bolted shut from the outside. I try the back door, which opens, to my horror, onto a series of inner doors, each smaller than the last, each one shaped like a girl’s diminishing silhouette. The final passage is a toddler-sized hatch I must squeeze through as through a swinging doggy door. I hesitate on the threshold, afraid of getting stuck. I am rescued before dawn by Her Majesty climbing beside me into bed, wedging her head next to mine on the pillow and announcing that my nostril breath smells like spaghetti.



Crows on a fence post.
Ex-lovers on Facebook.
Facing-page translations.
Fellow commuters.
Last season’s computers.



The Andromeda Galaxy.
Pen pals.
Laughter on the far side of the bay.


Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book is a collection of short poems that exists in response to Sei Shonagon’s own Pillow Book from the year 1002, as well as various other pillow books since then. Though the poems can be read individually, they stack upon their neighbouring poems and borrow from one another in such a way that reading only a single poem would lose one of the book’s most fascinating dimensions. These poems flit between the cusp of sleep, light nightly “napping,” and REM sleep, while also offering late night research and reading as well as a wide range of late night lists that one might come up with as a modern-day version of “counting sheep.”

“Some nights I visit” becomes a call out to all late night attendees of the internet who similarly find themselves in the company of the outrageous information that is spread there. Whether true or not, there is a correlation between the speaker and this distant sleepless woman on the internet. The sleeping husband is occupying the space of sleep while both wives “haunt some twilit corner of the internet,” and the porcelain doll, a figure of nightmares, is both the holy infant of the “Byzantine Lady of Perpetual Succor” as well as a reflection of “Her Majesty,” Buffam’s chosen title for her daughter throughout these poems. “Her Majesty” then serves an interesting purpose, as both a nightmare and saviour for the speaker, rescuing them “before dawn” from a night terror, while still providing a brutally honest, childish complaint about “nostril breath smell[ing] like spaghetti.”

The juxtaposition of contrasting images becomes the port by which the reader looks into the moments that exist between sleeping and being awake. The detached lists that appear to have little narrative, and exist instead as semi-logical progressions that frame daily life as instances of vastly varying moments, are countered by a rather clear narrative that appears in the midst of dreams and in moments searching on the internet or in books, things that typically appear dissociated from what is called “waking life.” These lists and prose poems together become an amalgamation of what can be correlated between being asleep and awake, and allow the reader to question what belongs to the day-lit world and what belongs to the pillow.


Join Suzanne Buffam, along with Damian Rogers and Sarah Burgoyne,
Thursday, November 3, at 7:30 PM
Grey Nuns Building M100, 1175 Rue St. Mathieu


“How Poems Work” courtesy of Ben Neelin.

How Poems Work: “The Stricture” by Lisa Robertson

From Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip.


‘The 69 heads of Messerschmidt cast in lead are not heaven.’

‘The magnetic cures of Mesmer on the plastic soul are more

difficult to characterize.’

‘The heavens of Flanders are like textile in lustrousness –

a bridal textile.’

‘We see the classic theme of a woman suffering, with pearl-

sized nipples, pink cotton billowing or nacrous skin

sprouting feathers.’

‘Here is a perfume burner of Khorasan, a bird sitting on top.’

‘Birds perch on heaven habitually. They are not certainty-



I wanted to think into the stricture of appearances.

There was a time when I came close.

To help the problem I changed into a clematis, I changed into

a dog, I changed into a perfumed smoke.

Some of my organs were outside history, which gave me an


Place here the idea of a necessary inconspicuousness.


‘This is wrong’

‘This is beautiful’

‘This is social’

‘This is not thinking’


It is the handiwork of appearing only.


This is the topic we discussed in your kitchen this winter.

I said I didn’t know what thinking is.

You said you were trying to understand your sense of an

inner voice, which was separate from thinking.

I didn’t understand.

I let myself go blank.


I began by taking everything that was doubtful and throwing

it out, like sand.


*Information about a live marathon reading of Debbie: An Epic and Lisa Robertson & Laura Broadbent’s reading at Concordia on Friday Oct. 21st is below.


The poem opens with nonspecific claims from at least one unidentified, quoted speaker. We are told that “the…heads…are not heaven,” and “the magnetic cures…are [even] more difficult to characterize.” We do not know what the heads are, but we know what they are not, and we know that the cures are more difficult to characterize than these heads that are only characterized by their lack of description. These claims are presented as truths, and we are meant to accept them despite not knowing much and not even knowing the identity of the speaker, the authority. The first stanza is full of allusions to different times and places, pulling the reader from Flanders, to Khorasan (pre-2004 Iran), to heaven. We are inundated with images that increase in lushness, beginning with the heaviness of lead, the smooth synthetic of plastic, onto textile—bridal textile—and “pearl-sized nipples, pink cotton billowing” (here, Robertson names the textile and brings in colour). Then we are met with images of birds: the suffering woman sprouts feathers, a bird sits on a perfume burner, birds perch on heaven…

I was intimidated by this sensorial blitz at first; it is confusing. However, confusion is not a negative state in which to encounter a poem. It provokes thought, it is a productive feeling—like the birds, who are “not certainty-seekers,” Lisa Robertson welcomes uncertainty in her poetry. The speaker admits uncertainty in trying to think about the stricture of appearances and can only “[come] close” to thinking about it. Consider the relationship between the images in the first stanza and the stricture of appearances. A stricture can mean either a simple restriction, or a critical or censorial remark or instruction. We know that information is being censored, but how are we to engage with a poem called “The Stricture?” Is the whole poem, itself, a stricture, and in what way?

Robertson employs gendered language and imagery to explore the historical trajectories of women’s oppression; the theme of a woman suffering is, after all, “classic.” The suffering woman who sprouts feathers parallels the speaker’s metamorphoses in the second stanza. In this initial transformation, in the growing of feathers, the woman almost becomes a bird (another “classic” theme), seeking uncertainty and freedom from suffering. In order to even try to think about the stricture of appearances, which is deeply engrained in both sociocultural ideologies and in the body, the speaker transforms into different bodies and defies the stricture of her own body: she becomes a flower, a dog, and even smoke (perhaps the “perfumed smoke” from the Khorasan burner), which is not living, has no organs, is not even a solid. The stricture of appearances is so entangled in impositions of womanness or womanhood that one can only come close to understanding—or even thinking about—it if one’s organs, specifically one’s reproductive and sexual organs, are outside history. History dictates how we perceive things like standards of beauty, for example, so the stricture is historical and history itself is a stricture, critical and censorial. Confusion is necessary because confusion disrupts.

The next stanza makes firm claims but, again, we do not know who is speaking. Is this a dialogue? A series of remarks from one person? The speaker, or a judge? What follows is more gendered language and imagery: we read “handiwork” and think “handicraft,” or what is traditionally written off as “women’s work.” We are brought into the space of the kitchen, the pelvis of the house, which is a gendered space, also a stricture. Space, in Robertson’s poetry, is never incidental. Time and space seem layered and nonlinear, from the transient images and temporalities in the first stanza, to the modalities of occupying space, either as a shape-shifting smoke cloud or a dog—how do these bodies penetrate space differently, and isn’t the idea of “penetration” also gendered? We must also consider the space of the page, another stricture, upon which the elements of the poem exist.

“You” enters the poem in the second last stanza—but who is “you?” Perhaps “you” is the inner voice of the poem, which is otherwise thinking. We know that, in her poetic practice, Lisa Robertson researches ferociously before writing. So while the content of the poem can be very cerebral, very complex and layered and factual, perhaps the “you” is the opposite. The “you” is here to induce confusion and to disrupt. The speaker responds to “you” with, “I didn’t understand,” and claims uncertainty within their own narration. In throwing everything out that is doubtful, the speaker “[goes] blank.” Therefore, everything is doubtful, and uncertainty inhabits this limitless, liminal space. However, “[going] blank” is perhaps not entirely possible. In order to go blank one would have to free one’s organs from history and escape the body. Language functions in the poem like it does on the body: language is also a stricture and lives both on the page and within us. We are left with the image of sand, which, in relation to history, evokes the hourglass, time in flux, unfixed and uncertain. The speaker’s time is up, the poem is up, but the poem remains. Even if all the copies of this poem were to dissolve into smoke tomorrow, the poem continues to exist, at least in the context of this exchange, immortalized in this way and defying the stricture of time.


Come to an evening with Lisa Robertson and Laura Broadbent tomorrow, October 21st, at 7pm. York Amphitheatre, EV 1.605, 1515 Rue St. Catherine. Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic will be performed in its entirety on Friday, October 21st in LB 671.05 at Concordia University’s LB building from 2 PM – 5 PM.




dream/arteries to be Taught in BC High Schools

“A hundred years ago…the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru set sail for Canada with 376 Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu migrants travelling from Punjab, India. They were refused entry at Vancouver, even though all passengers were British subjects. The Komagata Maru sat moored in Vancouver’s harbour for two months while courts decided the passengers’ right to access – and while the city’s white citizens lined the pier taunting those onboard. Eventually, Canada’s racist exclusion laws were upheld and the ship was forced to return to India.”

– Talonbooks

Phinder Dulai creates a collision between poetry and history in his recent collection, dream/arteries, which has been recommended for British Colombia’s high school curriculum. “I think I might be the first South Asian of Punjabi descent who’s book has been included [in the curriculum], both this year and any time before.” Read Dulai’s full comment here.

Phinder Dulai will be reading tonight, Tuesday, October 11th, at 7pm in room LB 6.646,
1400 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W – Concordia University Library.