With five previous books to his credit, Philip Booth has written well-unified collections of poems before, but his latest, Before Sleep, attains perhaps the strongest unity. The interaction between poems is so tight, in fact, that while many of the poems could be successfully extracted and anthologized (and should be), others require their context for full significance and most of the poems gain greater resonance from their context. Moreover, Before Sleep, unlike Booth’s denser recent books, is quite effective when read at one sitting, although it also repays close reading to discover the interplay between poems and their consequently richer significance and to appreciate Booth’s splendid control of language and form.
Like his earlier books, Before Sleep has parts, not consecutive, however, but concurrent, as evident in the Table of Contents, headed “Poems/Night Notes.” The forty-three poems bear appropriately capitalized titles in roman type, with page numbers listed, while the eighteen Night Notes seem to drift on the page, indented and interspersed between listed poem titles, with no page numbers specified and with the first lines given, in italic type, rather than specific titles.
The reader discovers that these Night Notes are often commentaries, serious and literal or ironic and oblique, upon adjacent poems. They represent a new direction for Booth in the manipulation of voice and style and allow the poetry a range of perspective not quite possible in the standard format of poems simply following one another throughout.
Although Booth’s style had been previously moving toward more improvisatory forms and away from the tight formal structures of his early poems, in Before Sleep, he eschews all rhyme and even slant rhyme completely; some stanzas remain intact, but only in the sense that a poem may be divided into couplets or triplets with lines of approximately equivalent length, although syntactically the “stanzas” run on into each other and lack any formal stanzaic patterns within themselves. One of the most significant shifts in style is Booth’s reduction of his use of figurative language, especially in the Night Notes, which even lack concrete images for the most part, concentrating on simple verbs, pronouns, and some abstractions, the key one of which is “nothing.”
“Nothing” seems to be the dominant theme of the book: “more than/simple absence,” it is rather “the acute/presence of absence,” in other words the nothingness that waits beyond death. It is not mere nightly slumbers that the title refers to, but the long sleep which advancing age forces one to confront. This book serves as a memento mori, not with the grimness of the Middle Ages but rather with a calm, rational acceptance that nevertheless does not deny the infinite worth of life. Through this book, Booth presents his meditations, sometimes explicit, yet more often implicit, on how to live “before sleep.”
Much of this book depicts a kind of withdrawal to what is essential. This is not a new quest for Booth, but now it is pursued with a stricter concentration and a more compelling urgency as he finds himself well into his sixth decade. This is a time for self-assessment, a time “Not to Tell Lies,” as he titles his opening poem, which shows that the poet (in the third person) has “come to a certain age,” to a house older than he is, “to a room/which corners the late sun.” In the quickly lengthening, then gradually shortening lines, Booth seems to re-create the progression of his career, as the focus moves from the poet to the furnishings of his room, which include recollections of Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau, two fellow painters of inner and outer seascapes and landscapes. As he describes his bed and sleeping position (“compassed barely west/of Polaris”), his verbs embody the sea metaphor so important in his earlier work. After this sole use of figurative language, he lists the powers in which he believes, abstractions which are nevertheless concrete in their active force: “gravity, true/North, magnetic North, love.” At last he focuses on “the clean page in/his portable,” upon which he wishes “to say all of it” and “tries/to come close.” It is through accurate naming, as he says elsewhere in the book, that he can re-create reality, without the “lies” of elaborate metaphors or tight but artificial formal structures. Such precise truth seems especially necessary to achieve “before sleep.”
After the thorough attention given this room, there follows an admonitory Night Note, reminding that, “Aside from the life/I live inside it,/this room is nothing”; he must not “live/as if nothing/were more important,” that is, than his own living. These are the first occurrences of “nothing” in the book, but as the book proceeds, its meaning is filled in to suggest the nothingness of death and questions about the meaning or meaninglessness of life.
Some of the most memorable occurrences in the book appear in a Night Note sequence dealing with a dry-humored, imperturbable New Englander, put in intensive care after an accident, named Noam (an apt New England name suggesting the extinction of...
(The entire section is 2172 words.)