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The Sleep of Four Cities

by Jen Currin

The Sleep of Four Cities is the first poetry collection from Jen Currin, an expat American and now Vancouver resident. The poems show the signs of much hard work. They are full of startling images, and Currin’s free verse line is highly musical and rarely slack.

Unfortunately, this book is proof that craft, while a necessary precondition for the creation of poetry, does not a good poem make. Despite their individual felicities, none of the poems really coheres into a persuasive formal arrangement. Currin’s style is surrealistic, and the random combinations and juxtapositions she employs make the parts of one poem easily interchangeable with those of another. I often found myself reaching the end of a page thinking a poem was over, only to discover that it continued overleaf.

Currin writes a lot about sleep and dreams, and the logic of her poems is distinctly oneiric. But the poems have the vague haziness of a dream imperfectly recalled, not the vivid immediacy of the events of REM sleep. The appearance and reappearance of such tropes as “the night,” ghosts, moon, and water imbue the book with a quasi-Gothic gloom, and Currin’s penchant for abstractions such as memory and “the past” contribute to the book’s lack of overall friction and imaginative purchase. As with a dream, these poems slip from memory shortly after they’re read.

Reading this book, I get the sense of a poet trying hard not to be normal. She succeeds, but the value of such a success is negated by her failure to be more positively substantial. In “Usages,” a poem which Currin describes in a publicity interview as an ars poetica, she writes that “You can dance to words or eat them” and that “One thing stands for any other thing.”

The critic challenging the validity of such dubious claims risks being a ruler that “break[s] after repeatedly slapping rebellious hands,” in the words of one poem. But nonetheless, this sort of rebellion against sense and order is ill-conceived, synthetic, and ultimately sleep-inducing if left untrammelled by “rhyme or reason.”