Beyond the Violence of Memory: a Review of Traci Brimhall's Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
In his 1928 lecture in Madrid, the poet Frederico García Lorca shared his observations on the gentle ghoulishness of lullabies, their soothing melodies often hiding something sinister or sad. He said that “In melody, as in sweet things, history’s emotion finds refuge, its permanent light free of dates and facts." In her essay, “Murder Ballad in the Arctic,” poet Traci Brimhall meditates on that quote from Lorca’s lecture from a boat in the Arctic, yearning for a life beyond the stark light of history.
The duality of the lullaby as a source of comfort and the vocalization of a nightmare is the heartbeat that pulses through Traci Brimhall’s Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod, released from Copper Canyon Press today. The collection, Brimhall’s fourth, weaves a complex journey through birth, death, love, and grief. Lorca’s ideas of grimdark lullabies come into sharp relief through the book’s two largest threads: the birth of Brimhall’s first child and the violent murder of a friend.
As a poet, Brimhall is a singular talent when it comes to crafting tension and cultivating desire, both at the line level and through the story of a poem as a whole. Like grief itself, there are times where those appetites for knowledge, for peace, are difficult to look at. There are moments when the speaker’s young son and her late friend occupy the same space, are spoken of in the same breath, and the anxiety of these moments is palpable as a heartbeat. “Murder Ballad Awaiting Sentencing,” the third essay in Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod’s Murder Ballad triptych, is perhaps the most startling example of this tension: Brimhall must navigate her son's intense bout of sleep regression in the midst of both awaiting sentencing for one of her friend’s murderers and trying to lay her own mother to rest. The essay comes at a moment in the collection when pain has ossified into something quieter than anguish—when a new mother’s exhaustion is echoed in the glacial wheels of justice. These two disparate griefs come together in a way that is unsettling, not for its dissonance, but for the way they feel like the same song in different keys.
But just as Lorcan lullabies create some of the collection’s most compelling moments of tension, they also highlight some of the softest moments of grief that Land of Nod has to offer. When Traci Brimhall’s speakers return to the field where her friend died, the lines serve as a sort of tender crime scene recreation, offering gentler deaths than the one her friend was given. Rather than lingering on the violence of the act, poems like “Pastoral before Decomposition” tenderly “imagine darkness as clear as it was before God // learned to speak,” and “the grass, how it must have nodded along” in this killing field remade in a softer image.
In other poems, such as “How to Sugar for the Atlas,” that grief lullaby transcends comfort and allows for a resurrection, not to bring home someone who has been lost, but to create a second death in a space that will keep him close and whole. This imagined selfish act, a “kind of cruel others will understand,” speaks to the complexity of grief, its own kind of bargaining for something to hold on to beyond the violence of memory.
Fans of Brimhall’s work will find no shortage of the poet’s profound love for research, and there are sly moments of levity, or love, or sensuality that cut through the sharpness of grief like the jokes told at a wake. In this, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod is a nuanced exploration of the subject, equal parts love letter to death and the life that survives it.
Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod is available from Copper Canyon publishing. Preview the collection with "How to Sugar for the Atlas," reprinted in Lammergeier's spring issue, and check out our interview with the author.