Kelly Egan reviews Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book

Suzanne Buffam
A Pillow Book
Canarium, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-996-98270-2

To say, A Pillow Book is Suzanne Buffam’s 3rd collection of poetry, one immediately runs into the quandary—is it a collection of poetry? Fully crafted and formed, and not simply, well, notes? The idle, pre-dawn scrawlings of an insomniac that found their way into publication? I would argue the collection is both, notes and form, or rather, notes as form. And in fact, as its title proclaims, A Pillow Book is not the first of its kind, but receives its form from a very famous classical Japanese collection of “idle musings,” The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Just how to classify Shonagon’s giant collection of diaristic revelry has been the subject of centuries of scholarly debate. For Buffam’s parody, I’ll take a stab at it. The collection includes:

• Random snatches of research on multicultural sleep lore and the history of the pillow
• Other random information from the internet
• Dream transcription
• Tender and trying moments with a toddler daughter
• Other random domestic scenes
• Nighttime can’t fall asleep scenes
• Musings and tidbits about Sei Shonagon
• Awkward social moments in the adult and academian worlds
• Lists, lists, and more lists

But, you may be wondering, what does a courtly handmaiden in classical Japan have in common with a young literary mother in modern-day Chicago? As Buffam shows us, poignantly and comically, everything and nothing. In lining up the resemblances, Buffam highlights the differences.

There is the nighttime. While in Shonagon’s text we get the sense of a shadowy, sequestered world behind the screens of the inner court where the handmaidens dwell, receiving nighttime guests and passing furtive notes in a perpetual twilight—Buffam suffers from insomnia. She too dwells behind screens—plasma ones filled with late night click bait (“one hundred and one worst red carpet disasters of all time”); she too traverses long twilights—punctuated by car alarms, live feeds, fitful dreams interrupted by toddler cries, the general anxiety of impending academia— If Sei’s book is a tome of idle musings, Buffam’s on some level, asks, is it possible, in the glare of the 21st century consumer-class West, to be idle without going nuts? The answer is largely a snort and a no but also a tentative, part-sarcastic-but-also-part-not-sarcastic, maybe. With the caveat that you would need a wry sense of humor to grasp it.

After tracing hearts with the tip of my finger across Her Majesty’s back ad nauseam in the dark until losing it at last and storming off to fold socks, I step outside for a smoke under the stars. I bring my tepid Sancerre. I collapse in a wet deck chair and exhale, triggering the trigger-happy floodlight above the garage, which blinds me briefly and goes dark. For the first time all day, I’m fully awake. Snow blows in pillowy drifts along the brick wall to the west. Clouds glide overhead, downy rafts beyond reach. I pick a fixed point in the velvet abyss and make a wish: May all kamma be resolved and the mind-flower of wisdom bloom in Nibbàna’s eternal spring. And may I squeeze back into last year’s jeans. My star winks and turns red, and then banks to the right and heads east, in the general direction of dawn. In the distance, someone laughs, and then spits.

The product of a culture, era, and status steeped in a highly refined and precise set of aesthetic conventions, Shonagon fixated her astute sensibility on anything evoking (or shamefully failing to evoke) her ingrained Japanese notions of beauty. Her musings are thus enormously attentive to the material world, to nature and architecture, to the details of the fabrics comprising an outfit or the furnishings of a carriage. Both fabric and flower alike seem to fall into the same overall realm of importance—that of aesthetic pleasure.

Flowering plants – The carnation pink. The one from China of course, but the native pink is also splendid. The yellow valerian and the balloon flower.
              The morning glory. Pampas grass. Chrysanthemums. Wild violets. The gentian – the way it branches is unfortunate, but I love how it appears in its brilliant colour when all the other flowers have withered in the frost.

                                                                                                                The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

While Shonagon’s book is at times comical in its snobbery (“Nothing need be said on the subject of the spindle tree”), Buffam’s book is almost always comical in its ironic parody of Sei’s fixations. Or at least, in what happens when the values of Japanese court society are extended analogously to modern America. For this too is a world obsessed with the material. And Buffam too, seems to derive some sense of duty and pleasure in the process of simply naming the things that populate her world.


Aeroccino machine.
Baby bullet.
Chapati maker.
Dehydrator jerky gun.
Fusion juicer.
George Foreman Grill.
High-velocity wall-mounted wind machine.
Japanese fish-shaped hot cake maker.
Kitchen anti-fatigue mat.
Laundry pod.
Magic Bullet Express Deluxe 25-piece Mixer & Blender with Bonus Ice Shaver Blade.

If Shonagon’s fixation with the material made sense within the context of her culture and place in society, so does Buffam’s. As Sei was listing the things she saw around her, so is Buffam. If Sei’s lists amount to a sense of what her society considered important—so do Buffam’s.

Finally, in Sei’s time and place, this sense of importance ultimately deemed the content of her lists fit for literary compilation. In Buffam’s time and place, so too—?

Well, yikes. Or, hooray? Either way, questions: What type of material is appropriate for poetry? What type of form? These were the questions raised by Sei Shonagon’s work in her time and they are also questions raised by Buffam’s in ours. In classical Japan, women were excluded from formal training in Chinese letters, and thus from the official conventions of the Japanese literary world. The private diary, or pillow book, was one of the few written forms available to them, and the flowing Japanese hiragana script the only syllabary. This colloquial yet elegant language, more informal and immediate than the rich yet cumbersome Chinese, became a vehicle for women to express private emotions and subjective perceptions of their world. Unfettered by convention, these revealing and candid accounts gained a reputation as a form of their own known as onnade, or “women’s writing.” So compelling was the release from the confines of tradition that even male writers began to adopt the form, speaking through the voice of a female narrator. In this way, a national language and literature came into its own.

Why Shōnagon? asks a wizened monk in a vintage Benihana hat sharpening his knives in the front row.

I ask, what, with this 3rd collection of Buffam’s and with “the notebook” in general, is coming into its own?

A murmur rumbles through the conference room.

Although diary writing and cross-genre experimentation are certainly nothing new, Buffam writes in relation to ever-evolving contemporary experiments in which the idea of the “notebook” as a form in and of itself and experiments in just what a “notebook” can be seem ever more prominent.

Out the window, a solitary black pine twists against a watercolor wind.

I think of Anne Germanacos’ Tribute, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and Kimiko Hahn’s Narrow Road to the Interior, just to name a few. Memoir and research, and their attendant unit, the sentence, factor into compositions that are also musical and associative.

On a folding chair in the corner, looking bored and vaguely hostile, like a night guard at a shopping mall, sits a massive biomorphic pillow with sky blue eyes. When I smile, it shows its teeth.

Notably, both Hahn and and Buffam have elected to resurrect classical Japanese texts as inspiration for their modern-day notebooks. Maybe it’s not surprising that a generation increasingly compelled toward the loose informality and inclusivity of the notebook would call upon a lineage with such a rich history of the form.

I mean, my inquisitor inquires, plucking a paper fan out of the air beside his head and giving it a flick of the wrist, who do you think you are? Um, I stammer into the microphone, which turns into a pair of melting ivory chopsticks in my hand, could you repeat the question in Japanese?

Perhaps the best example of the informal as a form in and of itself—of, say, insomniac scrawlings as beholding their own innate structure to be crafted into representation—is found in Buffam’s lists. For a form generally considered to be spontaneous, raw, and preparatory, Buffam’s lists have a sculptural quality, in which the shape of stream of consciousness comes into focus and vibrates with a painstaking air that seems directly related to a brain in the grips of insomnia.


A train whistle.
A knowing wink from a drunk.
Campus security update alerts.
Warming currents.
Vows made in the dark.

Along with their deadpan dismounts, there is something bizarrely arduous about the quality of these lists that bespeaks their composition in the borderless tunnel that is the insomniac night. The conceit, indicated by the title, feels like an idle enigmatic task our speaker desperately gives herself to complete into the void. Items in the list rise admirably to the challenge, often responding to the conceit on different levels of interpretation, and again bespeaking the mind’s reaching out in all directions to weather—or harness—its restlessness. While one can imagine Buffam started with larger lists that she then edited down to these spare maneuverings, the result, regardless of the actual method of construction, amounts to the sensation of each item as a hard-won rung on a thought-ladder of survival through the long night.


Feminists on a list-serv.
Office potlucks.
Endogamy taboos in ancient Greece.
Betty Davis’s eyebrows.
Boys at a bris.
Backstage at a folkfest.
Dickinson’s dash.

Indeed, this book is not relaxed. But then, nor are the intersections of new motherhood, modernity, marriage, art, femaleness, and academia. One does not exist at these junctures as a polished, finished thing.