The Chinese Insomniacs

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Josephine Jacobsen’s most recent book of poetry, The Chinese Insomniacs: New Poems, is her fifth volume of verse in a career which began with the collection For the Unlost in 1948. Hers has been a distinguished record: in addition to her poetry, she has published two books of criticism—one on Samuel Beckett, the other on Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, both in collaboration with William R. Mueller. She has also published three volumes of lectures, two of them growing out of her tenure as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973. A 1979 collection of short stories, A Walk with Rashid, rounds out the record.

Jacobsen is a poet’s poet. The verses in The Chinese Insomniacs—divided into three sections, entitled “Personae,” “Poems,” and “Notes Toward Time”—are tight and spare, technically polished, and intellectually penetrating. Time, love, and death are the subjects; Jacobsen confronts them as eternal riddles. Love is often a blessed solace in these poems. The poet must cease contemplating the mysteries of his own past and his approaching end, and turn instead to the present, where passionate or spiritual love can sustain him. Finally, the poet must move beyond time. “A date is only a mark on paper,” Jacobsen writes in the title poem. “It has little to do with what is long.”

That title poem, “The Chinese Insomniacs,” introduces ideas which reappear throughout the collection. The poet is often alone in life, but in the companionable past he knows that he can find kindred spirits who, like him, once mused and brooded through the quiet hours. “It is good to know the Chinese insomniacs. How in 495 A.D., in 500 B.C., the moon shining, and the pine trees shining back at it, a poet had to walk to the window.” From their restless thoughts, those poets fashioned works of art which have outlived them. They said “something difficult to forget, like music counts the heartbeat.” They “made poems later out of fragments of the dark.”

Two other poems in this collection pick up the idea in modern times. In “Rainy Night at the Writers’ Colony,” the poet lies awake and senses the presence of poets who, in other years, inhabited this same summer refuge. Dead poets “stalk the air, stride through tall rain and peer through wet panes where we sleep, or do not, here.” Their presence does not frighten the living; rather, the past supports the endeavors of the present: “What they did, we know,” but now “it is we who are here,” we living poets who must master the same task, the same difficult feat of tricking sense out of obdurate language, reason out of the babel of disorder.

“Bulletin from the Writers’ Colony” is the third of Jacobsen’s poems on the subject. Here the poet figure is a more aggressive hunter after truth. The woods around the writers’ colony are filled with deer hunters stalking game; their rifles crack, and one can spy their red shirts through the leaves. “Today winter’s dog, autumn, snuffs through the leaves ahead of his...

(The entire section is 1263 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Commonweal. CIX, September 24, 1982, p. 502.

Library Journal. CVI, October 1, 1981, p. 1930.

Nation. CCXXXV, October 16, 1982, p. 371.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, April 19, 1982, p. 13.