Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod
by Traci Brimhall
Copper Canyon Press, 2020
“And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord,
and dwelt in the Land of Nod.
– Genesis 4:16” (35)
In her latest collection, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod, Traci Brimhall takes on the impossible task of all mothers: she tries to sing us to sleep. But even sleep can’t save us from the violence and chaos of the world. Even in sleep, there is a haunting, a symbolic language which speaks to us of the world we will return to upon waking.
A handful of narrative threads run through this collection, and find their footing in Brimhall’s lyric essays, which detail pregnancy and birth, a trip to the Arctic, the sudden death of a mother, and the murder trial of a departed friend. In the midst of this real-life violence, Brimhall writes lullabies, and finds in the symbolic language of dreams and Christian myth a way to hold both love and grief, desire and the certainty of death.
The book begins in the metaphorical language of the Bible, which Brimhall both relies on and rejects. She writes:
“Offer me a metaphor, God said.
Abraham stretched Isaac out on a rock, Like this?” (6)
Brimhall is interested in investigating our capacities for cruelty. She writes of the sacrifice of children and the murder of brothers, which mark the pages of the Bible. And she finds in herself the same capacity for violence. In “Self-Portrait as Milk Hare in Active Shooter Alert,” she writes, “I won’t die for these students” (23). Later, in “Murder Ballad in the Land of Nod,” she admits: “…when I see that my friend’s family wants the death penalty, something deep and feral in me says: Good.” (38).
This possibility – for violence, for sleep – defines Brimhall’s investigations in the Land of Nod. Nod is the place of exile where Cain was sent after murdering his brother Abel in a field, and the place where he was given a wife and son, to begin a world anew. In the Land of Nod, which is also a place of sleep and dream, nothing is real but fantasy. In this way, Brimhall rebuilds the Land of Nod in her own image, as the collection plays with the sleeplessness of an Arctic summer, of early motherhood, of grief. She writes in “Murder Ballad in the Arctic:” “I’ve come here looking for Nod — Cain’s biblical place of exile and the drifting space of dream in lullabies” (16). As the collection continues, she considers the refrain of sleeplessness, comparing nights spent awake with her child to “a walk into a dark field” (57) — the same “dark field,” perhaps, where her friend’s corpse was uncovered. The poem becomes a protracted dream in which the symbols of lullabies recur in the waking world, and there is no reprieve, even in sleep, from a perpetual and insistent chaos.
At the center of Brimhall’s collection is the murder and subsequent trial of a friend. Though many other griefs color these pages – Brimhall also discusses the end of a marriage and the death of her mother – this murder trial is the most public, and the most savage:
“When I imagine my friend’s death, I try not to think of the hours he spent in the truck afraid, watching the mile markers, thankful, perhaps, for each minute, each humid breath” (39).
This incident forces Brimhall to consider the romanticization of murder, not only by the media, but also by her own wandering mind, desperate to fill the gaps in her friend’s story. Brimhall places herself in the body of her dead friend and in the bodies of his three murderers in order to complete the story for herself. In “Crime and Punishment,” she writes:
“I place your body in a field. I place it
in a closed casket. I place it in a paragraph” (32).
Her embodiment of that violence pulls her further into the imagined Land of Nod; a place of exile, a haven for both dreams and murderers.
For Brimhall, Nod is the surreal dream of Arctic summer in a world without night. It is the humming television as a child fusses himself awake. It is a place where murderers are forgiven, and where they are given the choice between electrocution and lethal injection. It is the sin of untamed sexual desire, and deep love. It is the confusion of sleep with waking. It is the dreamy way we subconsciously punish ourselves, to find control in the traumas enacted upon us. It is our ability to look at the worst, the most appalling parts of ourselves. To hold and rock the child, as we know the child will, someday, perish.
Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod is an exploration of myth, but that is too simple – at its heart, the book asks us to investigate the myths we make of our own lives, our own fantasies. It also asks us to keep space for them. In the final poem, “Dear Eros,” Brimhall writes:
“I don’t want suffering to offer its thesis I want out
of exile and back to a garden…” (73)
Brimhall sings to us of her own nightmares, both lived and dreamt. In her lullabies, every human is fallible, and capable of both surviving and enacting pain. That is the beauty of these poems. They look us dead in the heart, and forgive us all our sins.