"That Kind of Sleep"by Susan Atefat-Peckham
The title of Susan Atefat-Peckham's "That Kind of Sleep" reflects an important quality of the poems within the collection; what is being described is left unnamed and is unnameable, except through how it relates to the world around it, enacted through and embodied in human connections, actions, emotions. The invocation of Iranian mystical poet Rumi at the beginning of each section calls to mind both the poems' roots, and their own desire to show the divinity that exists within humans and their interactions. But we should also keep in mind that this is not Rumi in his original language, as he wrote. This is Rumi in English translation and these are poems about spaces between place and time, about the spaces between worlds, about distances and voices that span them, about "that kind of sleep." The first section of the collection uses the memories of a woman thinking back on her childhood, and the times she visited her family in Iran. Using a rich vocabulary, as well as images of garden, earth, cloth, food, basic elements, the poems succeed in setting the reader in a specific place, yet also inside a memory. They are able to comment on the feelings of the family members who have left and come back as visitors, as well as the ones who stayed behind, without being overly didactic, and leaving us with an image to unfold rather than a message to digest. For example there is the first section's "Chehel Setun Forty Columns." The poem tells the story of a young girl being taken to a place where her father had come as a boy, and dreamed his "immigrant dreams of America," and where her uncle tells her that she no longer understand(s) the words." But as in the other poems, what needs to be said goes beyond words, and the poem ends with this, "My fingers touch still/ water, rippling, again, again, again, circling what I love." What she loves is not named, the circling ripples go on forever, and it can be seen as the cycle of family. The ripples spread out, move further apart, but have originated from the same source and will continue indefinitely, all existing together relationally. The second section of the book deals more closely with a specific topic, the experiences of both traditional and modern Iranian women. These poems move us away from impressions of childhood to more harsh realities of an Iranian female's life as she gets older, further from girl and closer to woman. There is a shift in tone, a definite anger, but one that like the traditional woman exerts a quiet force. However, in these poems we have words, we have a voice, as opposed to an imposed silence. And there is a sort of affirmation and triumph. The poems here are more direct, as they address the more specific female experience. Some excellent images of place give insight into the people being described, reinforcing the idea that time place and age all function relative to each other. "Avenue Vali Asr" discusses the idea of women's silence, and the poem ends with "Hot breath hovers in old wind./ A folded sky spreads in Tehran." We see the waste of things wanting to be said and having to remain stagnant, hovering and closed in, through a description of place and atmosphere. The outside and inside worlds are collapsed to show us an idea made manifest. The third section of the book talks about death, illness, old age. But within it are combined images of birth and life. In "Nikita's Grave" the narrator speaks of the death of her infant sister in bleak images and hollow words. However the poem ends in a sort of affirmation. "I settle along/ spaces people weave, petals crotchet black/ branches white before they fill with green." Even after the black of pain and white of emptiness, there is always a returning of the green. This echoes the cyclical quality that pervades the poems, that of an arrival and a departure as merely two points on an unending circular journey. And following this journey we move to the last section of the collection. At the beginning of this final section we have a poem that talks about death and the spaces left by those who die. But this poem proceeds to tell us that "there is no difference between one kind of sleep/ and another." It shows death and life as part of the cycle. And from here we move into a faster paced narrative section of 16 short poems in which we meet specific characters of a family. By positioning this section here, with its obvious sense of narrative, we get the idea that all that has been discussed previously, the memories, events, emotions, death always moving to life, is part of these specific people. The people are the embodiments of all these things, which are human and holy, incarnated through our actions and connections with others. Overall, Susan Atefat-Peckham's collection of poems, "That Kind of Sleep" takes us through history and memory without naming for us what we are looking for. There is a sense that what happens is important, the people that surround us are important, and we are connected to each other through time, space, memory and history. There are some repetitious images, sometimes an overly sentimental tone, but on the whole the poems are controlled and structured in ways that allow us to see rather than be told to believe. The range of scenes and of voices throughout the poems allows the reader to be surrounded by humanity, by the family. They whirl us through time and experience, whirl like the old master Rumi, round and round in the circular motion of existence.
Ruchi Mital, Tribes, June 2002