John Lowther


While Sleeping by Bill Lavender

While Sleeping
by Bill Lavender
CHAX Press, 2004,

[W]hen conceived as the thought of presence upon a background of disappearance poetry is an immediate action, like every local figure of a truth, it is also a program of thought, a powerful anticipation, a forcing of language enacted by the advent of an "other" language that is at once immanent and created. 
               — Alain Badiou Handbook of Inaesthetics

my ur-text
speaks all around
         — Bill Lavender, poem 269 from While Sleeping


While Sleeping is a book of many small poems fronted by a provocative and atypical introductory essay/poem. the collection of a year. unpaginated but with its poems numbered. diverse in local tactics— specific, notational & phenomenological by turns, textually embedded or infused, discursive, aphoristic, repetitive, echoic, anecdotal, prosaic, neologistic, misspelled, visually augmented, found, rhyming, hand drawn or modified. diverse in subject matters— sleep/dreams, politics, poetry, love. diverse in tones— humorous, philosophical, cynical, resigned, logical, unserious, rationalizing, found-in-thought (akin to "lost in thought"), perverse, critical, onieric, axiomatic, expansive, doubtful, inane, grieving, celebratory, desiring. all brief poems yet able to carry multiple determinations and nearly all of them the leavings of an ever present occasionality which feels a lot like singularity. poetry ever immanent.

I've been immersed in Badiou's Handbook of Inaesthetics concurrent with reading While Sleeping, and my review of it, also here at Big Bridge is very much a companion piece to this one. in Badiou's book, I was intrigued by his idea of the four conditions which produce the truths that philosophy then announces. in his view philosophy does not produce truths, instead truths are produced by their conditions; love, politics, science and art (poetry being his preferred art for discussion). so, the conceit of this review is that, just as Badiou's philosophy has four truth conditions, that so too, Lavender's book has its truth conditions. so, let me be clear, this is not an inaesthetic reading ala Badiou but a reapplication at an angle, to the discussion of While Sleeping.

what then are the conditions of this book? to answer this question, I looked at my notes which had grouped observations by subject area among other classifications and was delighted to find that three of Badiou's four conditions seem to be primary to Lavender's book. those are, love, politics and poetry(art). the missing piece was science, which in Badiou's own work is often figured as mathematics and which forms the ground of one of Badiou's most striking and original assertions; that what mathematics describes is being qua being— his ontology is rooted in set theory, and much of his subsequent philosophy springs from this ("and the numbers/ come alive" poem 165). Bill Lavender's book is also, in a sense, grounded upon something— stretching the term for effect I might say that its ontology is sleep, and as it recurs in the book it becomes clear that, even in the absence of the term, "unconscious" that this is what sleep is getting at. for Badiou, mathematics is a truth condition of philosophy, for Lavender it seems that unconscious is a truth condition of poetry. I cannot help but to make the comparison; mathematics is to philosophy as the unconscious is to poetry.

I propose to take the book as unit, or a bounded whole, as constituting the philosophy of itself— one with swift internal fluctuations from condition to condition. but which, for the purposes of this review, I will consider one at a time, beginning with sleep, dream, the unconscious.

"The world is this nexus, dreamt of blame, linguistic reparation based on a weave of sleeps (...)" sleep is a daily act. part of everyday life. as routine as it gets. and this book is something of a daybook, via sleep as something more expansive than normally construed. as it says in the introduction "It is possible of course to be asleep and awake at the same time, indeed we are mostly..." and it would seem that sleep and writing have a multilayered set of relations as in 53;

3 sleeps:

lured, if not seduced by a bewilderment of sleeps. the sleeps of writing, revising, etc. the sleeps that I mostly engage in while "awake." but even this guess (that I am awake) confronts poems like 38;

it isn't me that's sleeping
you understand


I don't dream any more
or else they're
happening while I'm away

& 49;

what does it mean
   to write while sleeping?
      I'm a little fuzzy on it
myself had it
just a moment ago
       & now it's gone.

poems which combine to complicate anything I might ask about sleep or dreams— pushing me back even from the questions. "Poetry and sleep have always been related to me." note that this must be read as a triad; poetry, sleep and poet. they are relations. intimates. and the poems will in turn present many intimates, friends and relations. "What do we seek when we lie down to rest but a pleasant landscape of language?" sleep and desire. sleep as relief. to accede, succumb, let go. to the poem as much as to sleep. to an other language. condensations and displacements amongst which desires manifest. obstacle courses for wishes.

while the acts of sleeping or dreaming might provide license for this collection, the lucidity of so many of these poems cuts against a reading of poem as dream, handily voiding the need to determine what that would require of a reviewer. & who would claim to ferret out latent content in this text when those processes designated as repression in Freudian theory are here consciously assumed by the poet. poem 185;

I think about certain things
that relax me and let me sleep
and try to avoid those thoughts
that upset me and keep me awake.
If we didn't have the word thinking
how wd. we describe what I'm doing? [1]

this formula "if we didn't have the word ____, how...?" recurs elsewhere in this book. what are these words we use, so comfortably? this concern manifests itself in various ways in the course of these poems. doubts surface, then doubt themselves, then doubt again. we might say that the sleep which we all, wakefully, are unknowingly immersed in, could be called ideology.

with that, let's make the turn to politics; poem 1 tells of aggressive preaching to no one & the author manifesting the contemporary response; "When I/ walk by I try not to look at them" — a saturated social field and anomie delivered in 7 lines. language bombardment accepted/acknowledged and blocked out only imperfectly. in poem 33 an appropriated email text appears "THERE ARE PEOPLE OUT THERE WHO,/ GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY, WOULD DO/ US GREAT HARM" or consider 145;

In the long haul
all governments are democratic
rule by consent
                            even insistence
of the governed. All we want
   out of our slavery:
      to be important enough
      to be spied upon.

that ends with humor. but it aint funny. black humor. paranoia maybe, but this is the message of the news isn't it? "THERE ARE PEOPLE OUT THERE" and its socially embedded means of avoidance?—try not to look at them. (how is it that we desire our own oppressions?) — being important enough to be spied upon promises what?— inscription in the symbolic, the idea of it (the symbolic, the social world) somehow working to sustain you instead of grinding you down. fantasy self-celebrity. be the object of many desires! be an object to yourself. "a fascination with image" — poem 271 — think Imaginary (ala Lacan). fame is yours perhaps. but is also a set up for endless conflict still because;

We americans don't know
how to care for ourselves con
ditioned as we are
to loathe the public space.     — poem 209

we are hereby so constituted. the public space is where the other gets too close. and de facto we treat any other who is reduced to the public space differently — some say they do not see the homeless. we don't desire the public space. we desire the spectacle.

but reflections upon politics or ideology that speak from a curious "outside," pointing at the failures, impasses, dangers, and as much as their diagnoses may cut both ways, even this marginal "safe distance" collapses now and then, dropping us into one of the sites of fracture. consider one of the darkest moments in this book, poem 258;

     there's a cop in my backyard
            with his foot on
                   a (crack)head
the bicycle's gone

the poem moves at a speed that lets something out? evades the censor? makes visible the socially anecdoted justification that is available to some in this culture. and in doing so it offers no screen or judgment. unsettling. "still/ the bicycle's gone" cannot not be read as a justification for cops "cracking heads." and if these are also crackheads, who's to care? can you hear me as dialogue on a cop show?— much more troubling when it appears off screen is it not?

notice too that the poem is one stanza that is visually two parts. this it is divided within itself, just as one's rationalizations pave over the divides. this poem is exemplary as reportage. in the first instance of something awful happening in "my backyard" and in the 2nd as a fragment of the tapestry of anecdote which will have been, in effect, a justification of this. when justifications for action will have been long gone, their moment passed. we see just this first step of an endless process.

but how is it that the thief of the bicycle didnt get away but the bicycle did? as poem, as an address to anyone, this poem offends. but only, perhaps, if we feel it is complete. if we deny the divide that is made visible in the orthography. this is truly the nastiest political moment. and it seems that echoes of it appear in subsequent poems. starting with the one right after, poem 259; "Attention:/ this poem/ has been stolen" but showing up as "fears & lassitude" (261) or paranoia "thought i heard/ something outside" (262) all of which impinges on the stated desire of this book as in 263;

         these days
an ideal I
    never quite attain

the normative usage here swamps most readings of this poem, but listen to the line breaks. "an ideal I" is asleep? surely, as an ideal, it is "never quite attain[ed]". and if sleep is political? ideological? "like a fiction—/ it draws you in." (36) then we might read 120 with the word "ideology" instead of the word "sleep";

the architecture
of things that tumble down
the scaffolding
that lets all fall

if we didn't have the word ideology, how would we describe what i've done to this poem? using a formula from this book to allow for dream-like displacement/ metonomy, as if, again, an unconscious process was consciously assumed. but this displacement reads as a joke. and indeed everything is falling down. slapstick in a way. but still there is the amusement of the word ideology doing so many distinct things, being a question about itself as well as its position and anything else that might fill it.

without comment (in the way that dreams invade consciousness as we drift in an easy chair) sleep is no longer the dry empirical evidence hiding the lushness of dreams from those of us outside (in what we call wakefulness). sleep has become a player in these poems, has reentered the discussion of them aslant. once already put aside. as such sleep is not apolitical. bothered by being unable to decisively wake up from politics or ideology? wait, did I dream that? this book works along that conjuring line. and the same is true when we attend to love in While Sleeping.

the dedication reads, "for Nanc". this is Nancy Dixon who has co-design credit and is mentioned in many poems. the space of sleep is theirs, shared, such that waking afraid of a sound outside, it can turn out to be "only/ nanc breathing" (262) and Bill can write "She dreams about me and wakes up mad and that is my fault."

& there are a few love poems here, such as 295;

              our mouth
to each other & the mineral
   speaking like eating
            like kissing
not blurting but
gathering in

& 331;

that envelope on the floor
     gives me an idea:
            gonna lay down in it
            and mail myself to you

& there are others in potential, hidden in the margins of these poems and which again combine occasionality & singularity even if theyre mostly hints. imputations perhaps. but when you share sleep love and space with someone daily, "speaking like eating like kissing" you also take on the language of this privileged other.

love also makes an appearance as grief. While Sleeping charts the last months of the poet's mother's life. Mildred Lavender also faces sleep, 147;

drifting off            like momma
             to drift off

she waits out her time at "Emerald City" and this Wizard of Oz name surfaces again and again. in one poem simply giving her name and address. another is part of an Emerald City brochure with bullet points to sell, or rather tell you what they offer "All the latest equipment to provide the best care for you or your loved one." but all this focus on the name obscures something else, something perhaps unsymbolizable and yet linked always to the figure of his mother, 172;

the emerald city
isn’t exactly the emerald city—
        but then what is?                 [2]

a nursing home called The Emerald City would be a joke were it not for a certain presence, "the thought of presence upon a background of disappearance" (Badiou) named Mildred Lavender. she even comments upon these poems while they are being written, as in 122;

reading these poems
    to my mother
        she sd. she closed her eyes
    & tried to die

& in 123 the poet reviews the experience and who it might have been for;

We did not meet
across a bridge of poetry still
       it made me feel I had
something to do.

an insight queasily prefigured in 73; "It's fun/ to write elegies."

and if under the sign of love we might also consider as Badiou does, desire and the psychoanalytic study thereof, what does While Sleeping offer up? our desire, following Lacan and Kojeve, is the desire of the other & at the same time (Lacan again) desire is a remainder of language, is what language cannot capture, an endless metonomy that I see figured in poem 164;

not knowing where
  the language
      leaves us
      wanting more

this poem, read differently, states another insight of psychoanalysis (with an "other" concision, uniquely, just as concise!) that language exceeds us, leaves us, wants more than we intend or more than we can own up to. thus the question, the "not knowing where." our language has clearly gotten away, fallen away from what we desire. 254;

in the middle of a drunken
argument i cdnt remember
what we were fight about—
        feel like
        shit today

but what about this desire, this excess of language that "leaves us/ wanting more" that becomes distorted as the language of demands slips further and further away from it and one can no longer remember. well, to the extent that we get it, we sense after the fact that it "was there." this getting it convinces. yet, forever, if asked to point to the desire, to the point where it is, it's just a word, or a sequence of them. what was there, felt, grasped, etc... recedes behind a haze of determinants which clouds what we partook of in the poem. but there was something there wasnt there? Lavender asks, "is it words or that I'm after" (23) this same elusive object seems to be what Badiou is after in the quote which opened this review; "the thought of presence upon a background of disappearance." is this the same that from poem 23, which in poem 15 appears as something— "(...) something/ bestowed not memory but/     residual— trace of the actual". poem 141 approaches the same mismatch between what is there and what seems to always elude the writing;

these poems
  so many ways of saying the same
what comes but doesn't
        come to mind

contrast to Badiou; "we will welcome the poem because it permits us to forgo the claim that the singularity of a thought can be replaced by the thinking of this thought." what is this distinction between the thought and the thinking of the thought? between what comes but doesn't come to mind? between the object cause of desire we think we perceive in certain works of art (the more offered by the sum of these parts that make the art) and limits of what can be actually found there, the parts, unsummed, itemized, atomized.

& what does the condition of poetry (or art) bring into the mix of While Sleeping? to begin with Lavender (un/consciously?) answers arch-conservative (and head of Bush's NEA) Dana Gioia's well known book title with poem 31;

Can poetry matter?
    though I'd prefer it didn't.

this insistence on not mattering recurs in poems 342; "or as skip sd./ 9-11 was/ first and foremost/ art" is that Skip Fox or Karlheinz "Skip" Stockhausen? either way, Bill's reply is poem 343;

maybe that's
what i mean
about not wanting
poetry to matter 

what is it to matter? if poetry can be made of terror, attacks, deaths... if these things are under the sign of art or even "mass communication"... if mattering at that level, as part of that game and for those stakes is art (or poetry) then Bill Lavender doesn't want to be involved. here we might transform the well known quote from David Antin and ventriloquizing Bill say "if terrorism is a poem, I don't want to be a poet."

but having drawn this line, and placed whatever poetry might promise for himself on this side of it, what more is there to say about poetry as a condition of this book? first of all, although Badiou admits of a condition of philosophy being called "art" it might seem a bit strange to suggest that for a book of poetry that one of its conditions is poetry. I find I am thinking of this as follows, to the extent that poetry conditions this volume it does so as poetics. you will recall that I suggested treating the book as the philosophy-of-itself. here, in a fashion somewhat overdetermined by Badiou's concerns, I would like to ask what While Sleeping might have to say about the relation of art and philosophy vis-a-vis the question of truth. consider poem 117;

               the words
haven't been themselves

we might ask if they ever are, if the "vagaries of linguistic certitude" (poem 24) can in fact ever be overcome. truth made by poetry? what curious feelings such an idea brings up. on the one hand it appeals, it holds out the sign of significance, and strikes a blow against the "common knowledge" that poetry and art is definitely powerless politically and culturally. that it is nothing but a simple plaything of tastes and market forces. on the other hand to have such cultural or political effect leads to mattering in precisely the way that Lavender rejects above. such a claim about one's art, that of truth, causes disquiet as well, because not only is the current poetic, nay— cultural scene generally hostile to claims to truth, but it is also hard to conceive of saying; "this poem is a truth." I've heard such things before, but such declarations always prefaced schmaltzy moralizing dressed up in rhyme, where the "truth" reached was one thoroughly hegemonized by hallmark cards years ago.

whatever truth that While Sleeping demonstrates, must, I think, be sought in the areas that the book claims as poetry by means of incorporation. one of the most striking aspects of the book and one which has hitherto not been touched upon here is the visual aspects. the number and variety of visual divergences from lineated poetry are far more than I can begin to discuss here, a short catalog would mention the mathematically derived notation of formula, fraction and equation, the texts on slanting or curving or crossing lines (evoking Olson or Howe but having their own impulse), the letters which are deformed, the handwritten and hand-drawn elements which can be global (comprising the whole poem) or augmenting of the typeface, the introduction non-linguistic shapes and forms to the text, texts in shapes (the loop of poem 335), texts with choices of possible substitutions available and most memorably the two rhizomatic poems 167 and 327. all of this variety so casually and artfully deployed in these works assert that the truth of poetry cannot be limited to lines of verse, and while this assertion is certainly not new in the poetry world, While Sleeping demonstrates a remarkable degree of synthesis between lined verse in typeface and all of these other approaches which is relatively rare. just as Badiou sees mathematics and the formalization that it offers as crucial for philosophy, we might see not simply language or writing but scratching and drawing, mark making of any kind as hereby declared just as central to poetry.

more importantly I think, and as a confound for poetry as Badiou is compelled to describe it in the Handbook of Inaesthetics, Lavender's book observes no boundary between dianoia and poeisis, between discursive thought which links and traverses and poetic thought which (since Plato in Badiou's telling) does not. I would like to suggest that the most memorable and interesting moments of this book are those where this distinction is made most irrelevant. consider poem 184;

Those who wd. argue for accessibility
in poetry don't realize TV
is the most esoteric of media--
who could understand it without
years of devoted study
of advertising technique,
sitcom formulae, and news codes?

or poem 82;

Thought is a
for the private rehearsal
of social activity—
like the cat running
around crazy, ending up
halfway up a tree
though nothing is after her.

what these and many of the other poems in this collection demonstrate is precisely the lack of distinction between dianoia and poeisis. many years ago now, Marcel Duchamp wanted to pursue a painting in the service of the mind, one that was not "retinal" in its effects, I have often wondered what poetry in the service of the mind might be like. it would have to maintain fidelity to poetry and be the work of a subject of poetry — beyond that I am not sure what more could be said.

in closing I would like to be clear on a couple of things, as noted early on, my use of "conditions" ala Badiou is not meant to be my own philosophical 'proclamation' that While Sleeping is the event of a truth. as much as I am fascinated with Badiou's thinking I feel the need to use it against the grain. thus I am wide open to the accusation that I am merely poaching from Badiou's preserve — indeed I am, but I hope that some of his ideas might have generated curiosity in the readers of these two reviews. likewise I have also felt the need to push at While Sleeping in the process of this review, to make it respond to imperatives not its own. that the book is able to accommodate this is a testament to its breadth and appeal.


John Lowther
Atlanta Ga


here is a passage from Freud's Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis which bears comparison to the poem quoted, in particular what Lavender assumes conscious control of in the poem is the function attributed here to the watchman;

The crudest idea of these systems is the most convenient for us—a spatial one. Let us therefore compare the system of the unconscious to a large entrance hall, in which the mental impulses jostle one another like separate individuals. Adjoining this entrance there is a second narrower room—a kind of drawing room—in which consciousness, too, resides. But on the threshold between these two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and will not admit them into the drawing room if they displease him. You will see at once that it does not make much difference if the watchman turns away a particular impulse at the threshold itself or if he pushes it back across the threshold after it has entered the drawing room. This is merely a question of the degree of watchfulness and of how early he carries out his act of recognition. If we keep to this picture we shall be able to extend our nomenclature further. The impulses in the entrance hall of the unconscious are out of sight of the conscious, which is in the other room; to begin with they must remain unconscious. If they have already pushed their way forward to the threshold and have been turned back by the watchman, then they are inadmissable to consciousness; we speak of them as repressed. But even the impulses which the watchman has allowed to cross the threshold are not on that account necessarily conscious as well; they can only become so if they succeed in catching the eye of consciousness. We are therefore justified in calling this second room the preconscious. In that case becoming conscious retains its purely descriptive sense. For any particular impulse, however, the vicissitude of repression consists in its not being allowed by the watchman to pass from the system of the unconscious into that of the preconscious. It is the same watchman whom we get to know as resistance when we try to lift the repression by means of the analytic treatment. [p.295-296] [return]

due to an author goof with the proofs of the book three poems were lost and one visual poem appears twice in While Sleeping. the three poems that were lost are the one quoted before this note, poem 172, and two others;


this number is free


How will I survive?
             In a painting?
             In a poem?
I’ll persist
in an old ceramic door knob.