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.

Damian Rogers reads Suzanne Buffam


Here she’s talking about the Irrationalist. Read the entire piece over on LemonHound.

The wonderful is on full display throughout The Irrationalist. The language is fresh, precise, and natural; the form and structure, both micro and macro, support the voice without overshadowing it. Throughout the book, Buffam references some of the best minds of the Western tradition: Paul Eluard, Nicolaus Copernicus, William James, Henry Beecher, Luis Bunel, Galileo, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, Wallace Stevens, Leonardo Da Vinci, Flaubert, Schopenhauer, Jean Cocteau (plus a passing invocation of Tom Cruise). This may sound like namedropping, but Buffam introduces their ideas only to expand on them from a particular point of view. Again and again this underlines the fact that though each of us lives in an echo chamber, one can only connect to the precepts of others through the framework of her own perspective.

And though these poems find their beauty and strength in their alignment with the irrational, Buffam resists the temptation to simply disappear into a house of mirrors. “Don’t tell me there’s another, / Better place. Don’t tell me // There’s a sea / Above our dreaming sea,” she writes in the poem “Ruined Interior.” These are poems that keep reaching for new imaginative possibilities and yet they are equally concerned with constant reorientation, with a determination to avoid the dangerous cul-de-sac of self-delusion.

In “The New Experience,” she wryly states that “Experience taught me / That nothing worth doing is worth doing / For the sake of the experience alone.” To that I would add that the poem worth reading is not worth reading only for the message it might carry in its lines. After thousands of years of intellectual inquiry, the basic questions remain unanswered. Buffam reveals by example that to look outward — to the philosophers, scientists, and artists that have come before — will always lead you back to yourself.

Which leads me back to the way these poems make me feel as if my awareness of my own surroundings — including my own mind — is enlarged when I read them. I like what Buffam says in these poems, but more than that, I get off on how they operate on my consciousness. All over the world, chemists strive to perfect pharmaceutical formulas so that they can pack into a pill the kind of clear, elevated sensation that Buffam produces with words on paper.

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

Off the Page Fall 2016: Festival Schedule


Off The Page November 3rd – 5th, 2016

Following its stellar spring series in March 2016, Off The Page is back this fall with a fresh lineup of panels and readings. The festival, presented by Writers Read & Concordia University, boasts a busy three-day schedule from November 3 – 5 and will feature Concordia Alumni Suzanne Buffam and Trish Salah as well as Evie Shockley, Damian Rogers, and many more. We are also organizing several panels and we need participants. Listed below are the readings, panels, and confirmed guests as well as the time and venue for each event. For updates go to, or follow @offthepagefest @CUWritersRead on Twitter, and Writers Read Concordia on Facebook. Continue reading “Off the Page Fall 2016: Festival Schedule”