Traci Brimhall’s fourth poetry collection, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod, was written during the murder trial for a slain friend, which coincided with pregnancy, a trip across the Arctic, the death of her mother, the birth of her son, and the end of her marriage. Like Brimhall’s previous work, these poems are deeply rooted in the poetics of surrealism and the deep image, plumbing the depths of mythic and personal memory. Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod also displays Brimhall’s virtuosity with poetic forms—it features ballads, epistolary, lyric essays, and recurring reflections on the nature and form of the lullaby.
Brimhall’s previous books are Saudade (Copper Canyon Press), Our Lady of the Ruins (W. W. Norton), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in The Believer, Best American Poetry (2013 and 2014), The Nation, the New Yorker, Orion, Ploughshares, and Poetry. She has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the National Endowment for the Arts. She’s an associate professor of creative writing at Kansas State University and lives in Manhattan Kansas.
Traci and I spoke about her longstanding relationship with death, violence, grief, and rage. Her fascination with these subjects, as well as her affinity for the poetics of duende, permeates her previous books as well, and was engendered by a series of devastating losses. We started our conversation at a Louis Tussaud Waxworks museum that included a very cheesy haunted basement. Despite the obvious camp, I became frozen by fear in the meat locker inspired by Saw. As unflinching in life as she is in her poems, Traci jumped into action, leading my whimpering mess by the hand back to the bright upstairs lights of wax apostles enjoying the Last Supper. It is hard for me to imagine an experience that could be more like walking into the world of a Traci Brimhall poem than that afternoon.
The Rumpus: You traveled to the Arctic to research this book! What was that like?
Traci Brimhall: Cold! And I puked! I blame the sea sickness, not the small human in utero. But also it was an experience that made me feel frightfully alive. Some of that frightful aliveness was, surely, the embryonic stowaway (who also gave me powerful dreams), but it was a landscape I had no other context for. In this age of digital photography and the internet, I feel like I have seen so many places, even without having traveled there, but the Arctic made me feel small and like a stranger to the world. It’s a place where even my nostalgia for it has hints of the sublime I experienced there.
Rumpus: I found myself thinking a lot about the limits of imagination as I was reading your book. In “Murder Ballad in the Land of Nod,” the speaker meditates on violence and vengeance while awaiting the trial of three men who murdered her friend. Regarding the death penalty, she says, “My moral imagination failed.” In other poems the speaker describes that expedition to the Arctic in search of the mythical land of Nod, the place of lullabies and dreams where Cain was exiled after murdering his brother. In writing this book, how did you manage to court the imagination while also embracing its absence or failures?
Brimhall: I used to tell my father that laws existed for people with no moral imagination, that if you could imagine how your actions would hurt someone else, you wouldn’t do those things. But I also know that after my friend’s murder that what my hurt wanted was a kind of vengeance that my mind does not agree with. My heart—that part of me that should know empathy best—felt justified in that cruelty. My moral imagination, which I had claimed was all that was necessary for goodness, failed. And perhaps that’s the problem of seeing anything as only a positive is probably unwise. Imagination can be a way to explore or express, but it can also be a way of evading or, in my case, justifying a failure of feeling.
Rumpus: In the midst of these poems about that struggle with anger and grief (not to mention motherhood and the erotic, which we will get into), there is also a deeply sustained attention to the particulars of non-human life. In “Oh Wonder” there is “the garden spider who eats her mistakes,” “the coral spur of a dove’s foot,” “a million pound cumulus,” and “the orca who pushes her dead calf” alongside the speaker’s young son’s expressions of grief. How do you cultivate and balance different kinds of attention in your poetic practice?
Brimhall: I don’t know! That’s such an unsatisfying answer, I know, but I think the fact that I am kind of an imprecise person with a short attention span does sort of facilitate this. I get captivated by something and like its shininess and then jump away to something else that looks cool. I love that most forms of writing do serve to show the mind in motion, and mine is a little scrap heap of facts and, hopefully, tenderness about what I observe in the world and in people.
Rumpus: I appreciate the honesty of that answer, and the honesty in your work about unknowing. I love this image your mind as a scrap heap. Can you tell us about your writing process? Do you have an actual scrap heap of clippings or a messy notebook?
Brimhall: I do! It’s also how I manage a to-do list. Everything in my life is basically a scribble. It’s also hard to describe an exact writing process, because it has changed a lot over the years. I used to have elaborate rituals that took hours and a time of day it had to be. Ah, youth… As a new mom, it was panicked and weepy twenty-minute escapes to get anything that maybe made sense down on paper. For a while I practiced “stolen time” and would arrive to meetings and social events a little early and try and use the pressure of the deadline of someone else’s arrival to get a line or two out. I’ve never had the same process work every time. It’s like dating a shapeshifter. You figure them out and then they morph and don’t like the things you used to do to/with them, and you’ve got to learn them all over again. The only thing that has stayed true is that I have to log the time even when I don’t feel like it. I try and keep the standards for myself really, really low so I can shrug off the terrible ones. I write lots of bad poems, but the only way to get to the good stuff is to wade through all the garbage in my brain.
Rumpus: You’re funny and self-deprecating when you talk about your process and everything you don’t know. But you’ve written many essays that involve handling lots of archival materials, not the least of which are Amelia Earhart’s lost poems, which you wrote about in “On the Lost Lyric Poetry of Amelia Earhart” for Lit Hub. Reading this book was the first time I’ve seen the lullaby engaged with as a serious poetic form and you allude to all kinds of study of that tradition. From your perspective as someone deeply versed in poetics, can you describe what a lullaby is and how it works?
Brimhall: I spent a great deal of time with Lorca’s essay “On Lullabies.” I love that it’s a form, like poetry, that exists independently in different cultures, and yet one thing that all cultures that sing lullabies have in common is the simpleness of the melody. It must be melodic and soothing, and at least for Lorca’s assessment of the Spanish lullaby, that allows the singer to hide the complexity of the confession. He references lullabies that speak of death and even one that encourages the baby to sleep so the neighbor can sneak over for some, um, afternoon delight. So when writing lullabies, I leaned into the strange and lyrical without too much concern about making a logical kind of sense (and as a sleepless new mother, that was pretty easy). I liked pairing that with essays that I titled “Murder Ballads” which explored events and feelings around my friend’s murder. As a form, murder ballads also tend to be far more explicitly narrative, and I liked that formal and stylistic contrast in two types of songs within the book that echoed the tensions of love and grief that exist throughout.
Rumpus: There are a series of “Dear Eros” and “Dear Thanatos” letters through the book. Even in poems that are not part of the series, death and love are constantly intertwined. I’m thinking of poems like “How to Write a Love Poem,” which opens, “Begin with the blackbirds you shot for menacing / the finches.” Freud’s theories and Lorca’s duende loom large in your allusions—how has your thinking about the relationship between sex and death evolved as you created this book?
Brimhall: Death and I have had a very long relationship. My mother used to talk about her own a lot and sometimes courted it. I had that switch flipped in my brain as a teenager and have had that darkness drive as a companion for more than half my life. The “Dear Thanatos” series are poems I have written for years in between other books, poems that I saw as “one offs” or “one night stands” when I wasn’t in love with a project or just needed a break. Darkness has always been available and productive for me, but I think that means it’s also not a difficult vulnerability.
Love and tenderness are much more challenging for me, and deciding to write “Dear Eros” poems to balance out the Thanatos series was one of the final decisions I made for the book. Love definitely has its darkness, too, as was very apparent when I started to write to it. It was also much longer, more narrative, and more direct than darkness. Love, in fact, was downright chatty. It wasn’t wholly good or positive or uplifting. Love is some of the hardest shit we do. But that willful urge to just dig in and get full-hearted is what I want for both my poems and my life.
Photograph of Traci Brimhall by Colin MacMillan.