Friday, November 23, 2018

The Haunted Sleep

The Haunted SleepThe Haunted Sleep by Jonathan Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I cannot tell you whether or not the choice of cover art for this slim volume was intentional. I can tell you that it is meaningful: The Queen of Clubs, faceless, hollow, her head a gateway to void, one hand upraised (as Mary's is frequently represented in medieval and renaissance art) to heaven, the other holding a dagger, ready to strike. There is no deception here, things are what they seem. The Haunted Sleep awaits us all.

Wood presents with a series of prose poetry and verse. I admit that it took a moment for me to key in to the syntax, as it is often "experimental" in nature. Narrative flow is often implied, but never explicit. And yet, there is a skeleton, if you will, to which the words always return, a base of existentialism that sometimes dips into pure nihilism, but sometimes embraces the need to accept and embrace inevitable fate in a way that is bounded by paralytic complacency, on one hand, and futile, but optimistic action, on the other.

At times, the nihilism can be overwhelming. But as the reader pushes forward, they will find that the void and the stark recognition of its final, utter blackness, is a baseline for experience. There are moments of . . . not hope . . . rather, acceptance of the mystery of what does or does not lie beyond. "In Lonely Distant Temples We Dream of Freedom from the State," for example, points to the "little death" of the French as one moment, lasting merely seconds, when we are truly free of everything, even the self. It is a minor escape, but an escape, nonetheless, from fear and oppression, available to all.

My parents both passed away this year. Mom in February, Dad in April. They were hospitalized within one week of each other for different reasons. But neither of them came home. And, in fact, we had to make the decision in both of their cases to take them off life support. I spent every day of my Dad's last two weeks with him, knowing he was dying of a cancer that was riddling his brain. He had a very difficult time communicating, since he had a tracheostomy and since he was losing his facility for speech and coherent thought quickly. But in the snippets of conversation we were able to have, I knew that he knew that Mom had passed (this was not a foregone conclusion - it's too long of a story to share here, but he knew that she had passed, forgot, remembered, several times). Maybe two days before he died, I asked him if he was ready to go, to which he nodded, feebly, "yes". I asked him if he wanted to see Mom again, to which he also responded positively. Now, say what you will about people's belief or unbelief in life after death, but my father found comfort in the knowledge that he would see his wife again and also, I learned through further conversation, in the possibility of seeing his parents, aunts, uncles, etc.

Because of this, "Folk Memory," which is a prayer, a ritual, to one's ancestors, struck deeply. It is the most hopeful of pleadings to the ancestors in the dead of winter. It is a matter-of-fact acceptance of the inevitable, with a touch of hope that while we sleep in winter, winter will, ultimately end.

Threaded throughout the volume (it is, incidentally, a beautiful artifact, in and of itself) is this acknowledgement of death. It is open eyed, morbidly candid, and seems to open a Hegelian dialectic between utter hopelessness and overly-naive optimism. This dynamic doesn't take place by comparing the two, but by walking toward the void, noting the banal along the way, and seeing the abyss as a way ahead, as the only way ahead, never slackening one's pace, even as the vast awesomeness (I use the term in it's sense of "full of awe") opens its unstoppable maw to engulf the individual, who is then free, finally free, from the pains, stresses, and complications of mortality. Carpe Diem , even when the day is the Day of the Dead.

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