“Of all the voices you hear/one must be your father’s.” In The Night We’re Not Sleeping In, winner of the 2013 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, the voice we must hear is Sean Bishop’s, as he shares a deeply personal, non-linear search to justify the sudden death of his father. Though the book begins in a place of depression and hopelessness, Bishop eventually learns to cope with his father’s absence and hope that his sadness is only temporary.
The Night We’re Not Sleeping In functions like a self-help manual. Scattered intermittently throughout the book’s four sections are a series of poems titled “Secret Fellow Sufferers,” in which Bishop directly addresses the reader, forging a relationship. Though the desire to impart wisdom and advice on its readers can make the book seem educational at times, it is never pretentious, as Bishop portrays himself as vulnerable, honest, and emotional. Even long after his father’s death, he remains shaken by the tragedy – in “Adam Reports From The Distant Future,” Bishop writes, “Still, the coat rack in half-sleep looked like a body.”
The opening poem, “Terms of Service,” is a prelude to the four sections that comprise The Night We’re Not Sleeping In. As its title suggests, “Terms of Service” reads like a contractual agreement between Bishop and the world around him:
Should the signed become ‘anxious,’ ‘unhappy,’ or ‘rattled’
the signed shall strive to remain in compliance
with his duties, to venture bravely forward, to understand […] some people may depart without notice.
This structure shows that Bishop feels stuck, as though he is legally obligated to carry on with his life as normal when he is too debilitated to do so.
Sean Bishop masterfully employs various tones throughout The Night We’re Not Sleeping In. As opposed to the elevated, formal language in the prelude “Terms of Service,” the first of the book’s four sections is sinister and disturbing, following a demonic reinterpretation of the biblical Adam. In “Reading Dante in the ICU,” Bishop writes, “Today I’d like to talk for a while about death/among the gift shop’s plush koalas and chrysanthemums.” Bishop frequently uses this technique, in which he juxtaposes somber statements with playful, everyday imagery, intensifying the impact of his troubles. Soon, in “Red Shift,” Bishop becomes vulnerable for the first time, no longer hiding behind the vices of his character Adam:
Everything was moving away from me […]
My father’s death was moving away from me—
becoming darker, becoming cooler.
When Bishop finally allows himself to openly grieve, the reader gains more sympathy for the complexity of his struggle – a complexity that is mirrored in the book’s quickly-evolving emotions and failure to follow any linear chronology, jumping back and forth between moments shortly after the death of Bishop’s father to times in the far-off future.
Bishop’s choice to separate the book into sections reflects the progression of his grief. The third section of the book acts as a reprieve, as though Bishop is trying to escape his reality by creating an eight-part story about Karen, a reimagined Hades. When introducing part three, Bishop borrows an epigraph from Aristophanes’s The Frogs, which reads, “Who’s here for rest from every pain or ill?” But even when Bishop tries to distract himself with mythological fantasy, the themes of his writing still center on what happens after death.
As the central “Secret Fellow Sufferers” series develops, the poems both become more hopeful and more directly addressed to the reader, whom Bishop assumes is suffering along with him. The fourth and final section of The Night We’re Not Sleeping In opens with the variation of “Secret Fellow Suffers” that gives the book its title:
Secret Fellow Sufferers,
please join me in compiling
some likenesses to the night we’re not sleeping in […]
It might be my imagination of the funeral suit, dangling
from the actually-empty hanger on the closet door.
By asking his fellow sufferers to join him, Bishop establishes the idea that he’s trying to make a connection with his reader to replace the relationship he lost with his father. In the final poem of the book, “Notes Toward Basic Betterness,” Bishop describes what he is “feeling for you right now/secret reader,” shattering the barrier between reader and writer. In this, we find the true depth of the pain that Bishop is experiencing, transcending outward from the text of the poems. Though Bishop remains lonely and distressed at the book’s conclusion, we see that he is making an effort to move on. Though writing morbid poems about the biblical Adam in psychotherapy and sleepless nights with no end were a necessary component to Bishop’s grieving process, he now wants to better himself, and in turn, better his secret fellow sufferers.