Anthony Seidman’s third collection of poetry, A Sleepless Man Sits Up In Bed, unveils a liminal space parsimoniously claimed by many as a border and invites the reader not only to cross over, but to perforate the concept itself. This collection builds around objects that are seemingly mundane, like an “Uncapped Pen,” until it reaches profundity. Seidman takes something explicit and sublunary – “Coatlicue, Whose Name Means ‘Serpent Skirt’” – and sends the reader on a journey through the ancient and the modern, the past and future, the present and the nostalgic; ages, visions, and states converge in an ornate poetic wandering, submerging the reader into the ebb and flow of continuity and transformation.
Seidman’s liminal space awakened a memory of my days at the university, when I studied border cultures – specifically, the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, with its focus on the (im)possibilities of borderlands, a geographical area sensitive to hybridity. However, Seidman manifests a different approach to dialoguing about the possible domain of the borderland and proves that poetry is a veritable and noble way of engaging the linguistic hybridity, creating a completely autonomous dialogue that can flow independently. This book is a sustainment, or maybe a suspension, of this liminal area, held by a long thread stitched with poems that share rhythm and structure, with repetitions of certain words establishing a thematic backbone. Examples include the black dog, which appears multiple times in the collection – in one instance, as the soul of the poet in “2300 BC Emperor Yao” – and fronds, which recur in descriptions of a goddess’s brow and in those of a verdurous jungle.
“Transmission,” the portal to the collection, in its 18th and 19th lines prodded a memory that dropped my soul into this deepness, an aperture full of imagery and harsh language. I only accepted this as a hostage with Stockholm syndrome would – recognizing a composition that possessed stimulants fusing the poet’s words and my own recollections into a dizzying but reviving experience. As I read “voices reverberating/ through amniotic fluid into an embryo’s sleep” I swiftly scrambled to recollect something, anything, but came up with “interstices” (The Tribolite), or “froths of glossolalia” (Affluent). These lines instilled a need for the poetry and to continue reading. I was hostage to both the imaginary and the real borderland, held rapt by the new voice with which Seidman dispels the banality that surrounds the term “border” today. The most potent way Seidman destroys that vapidity is by the inclusion of modernist artists like Robet Motherwall in “On Two Canvases by Motherwell” and Willem de Kooning in “On De Kooning’s Woman I.” Furthermore, he puts into question the acclaim of the well known Mexican muralist in “On Modigliani’s Portrait of Diego Rivera,” lambasting him as a glutton, as piggish, and as a playboy in heat.
Yes, it may be easy to criticize figures and manipulate them to create a certain tone and world around said criticism, however, it is difficult to bring a new perspective to natural elements, which Seidman accomplishes as well. In Transmission, the wind is “gagging on dust” and keeps a rust flavor; the poet enlivens the concept of August in A Wolf, A Lyre, & One Million Inhabitants by describing it as sour. These poems force the reader to approach everyday elements of life with different eyes. It tells us that the stones have thirst, and that the same river quenches them “that soothes the saintly and mad, river that runs alongside those who can no longer walk, “ as if the river were a philanthropist or sympathetic farmer in the desert lands of the border. There is no other option but to let the lines drive you and sporadically disperse your mind out into the wild of his world. “Let go!” bellows the poet. I respond.
I quickly realized Seidman does not have full control over these poems. There are outside forces that have shaped and molded this collection, and Seidman has reckoned with these forces, which forecast this liminal area millions of years ago, a time completely autonomous of human will. For example, the goddess of his borderland in “Xipe la Segunda,” and Time the destructor in “Jewel of Thirst.” In the former the minuscule is given eternal dimensions:
Because a drop of water creates amoeba,
Insects floating in the embryo of their universe,
And fish flitting at the edge
Where water touches air but is neither
And the feature of continuity operates as it flashes back to “Making the Pact Outside Chihuaha,” where
Lightning cracked the night, struck
where sky meets earth, where black
touches black, and becomes neither.
The poet’s performative repetitiveness instills the concept of a neither, of the (im)possibilities of the border, of a seemingly vast emptiness that Seidman structures with his words, conjuring a liminal space that grows more visible with each line of verse.
Time in this liminal space is the great destructor, tyrannical and responsible for the darkest fears we have. In “Jewel of Thirst.” “The door of fire is water” creating “a thirst never slaked by life, / The door of fire is Time that spawns, suckles, then devours me.” This image helps us understand why the poet’s words seem to be thronged out of his being onto the whiteness, mysteriously creating more spaces of white, juxtaposing the blank white with the dark destruction of time. This same poem advances an apocalyptic omen that is repeated five poems later, in “I come from the Tribe of Clouds,” which embodies the powers at work in the poet’s imagination – powers greater than the poet. One senses them on the days and nights when the sky is clear, but the words still come, brimming over and spilling onto the page:
My words pour
sleet or fire.
The Earth is hard
but below me.
This returns us to the epigraph from Rashi´s commentary on Bereshit (Genisis), recognizing the creation of the heavens, the word, water, fire, and water, the complexity and simplicity of the world – the both/and destroying the idea of either/or.
Anthony Seidman depicts the borderland and its essence as ardent and profound, obliterating any trite dualism – any simplistic juxtaposition of US culture and Mexican culture, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. A Sleepless Man Sits Up In Bed transcends facile labels while mysteriously engendering a pluralistic voice. Seidman metes out both clarity and ambiguity, applying a rich, generous language to a troubled but no less rich history. He creates his personal borderland, bravely exposing his helplessness, his inability to banish the US-Mexico border from the pages of his poetry. It haunts him like the crows in his poem “Hunger,” when a “Hinge clicks open, and crows are/ unleashed, staining the page black.”
Seidman reconstructs the concept of “border” through his own personal vision, waging war war against a deep nostalgia and memory. He poses the questions: What is familiar? What is foreign? “Coatlicue, Whose Name Means ‘Serpent Skirt’” seems to be a bygone ritual necessary to enter into the liminal space, or personal borderland. Seidman addresses “the bonekeeper,” petitioning him, or her, to unlock the soul. One is compelled to read on, confronting one’s own individual torment, the struggle to rest peacefully in one’s complete identity, and in a cosmos that rings “inside the almoner’s empty cup” (“Affluent”). Can the cosmos be more than emptiness? The poet believes it can, and works hard to bring something into being. In his canticle, he summons inspiration, begging for the freedom to “write afire” to “sweat his birth anew.”
The last three poems bring the collection’s themes to a close. In “Saying Goodbye to Carthage,” the poet’s “skein of blood unravels through another border,” bidding farewell to the metropolis. In the following poem, “Funeral Song On The Death of Joaquín Pasos,” which he has translated from the Spanish of Carlos Martínez Rivas – a loving farewell from one great Nicaraguan poet to another – Seidman pays homage to an homage, at once bridging linguistic boundaries and forcing us to reflect on final, irreconcilable separations. The book closes with a farewell to us, his companions, in the a playful but sincere address “To the Reader”:
you are the fleeting
stone & flint, and
conjugated in the
first person plural.
What a beautiful and engaging conclusion to this voyage of poems – an invitation to accept ourselves, an affirmation, “a praise of flesh.”
Paul J. Holzman is a North-American translator and creator living in Buenos Aires. His work is mostly realized in transit where he records soundscapes, writes poetry and fiction, and composes music. Currently he is developing Modern Ablutions, a cold shower induced meditation series.