angela rawlings’ fantasy of language, butterflies and slumber
by Derek Beaulieu
angela rawlings’ first book, Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists (Coach House Books, 2006), is a sensual magic-realist book of poetry that aligns the human sleep cycle with the life cycle of butterflies and moths.
rawlings has spent the last several years working with a multitude of literary organizations, including The Mercury Press, The Scream Literary Festival and the Lexiconjury Reading Series, and in 2005 she was the host of the television documentary series Heart of a Poet, but during all this she has been developing her own poetry.
While Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is her first book, it has been an ongoing project over several years, and grew out of concerns which have been with her for quite a while. In fact, she was procrastinating on an academic paper, while flipping through the dictionary when she was taken by the “mellifluous words that begged to be spoken aloud.” rawlings was introduced to the vocabulary-pupae of what become her long-term poetic project after transcribing “lepidopterist,” “littoral,” “macrocarpa,” “maquette,” “marram” and “parasomnia” into her journal.
As rawlings explains, “parasomnia” quickly linked the project with some other poetic concerns: “What happens when a person obsessed with a subject dreams at night; does the subject matter affect how she thinks, how she dreams, how her body processes information? I’d been toying with this question for awhile, in terms of my own tendency to write poems while dreaming.”
Much of Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists developed out of rawlings’ willingness to ask questions that combine genres and interests. “If a poet writes poems during sleep, how might a lepidopterist work while she sleeps? What effect does intimate examination of insects have on long-term information processing and subconscious behaviour? What happens when you breed the vocabularies and ideas of two disparate subjects together—lepidoptery and sleep/dream studies? What does the spawn of incompatible bedfellows resemble?” From that perverse breeding, Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists was born.
Shortly after hatching the idea of Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists from that stroll through the dictionary, rawlings was in correspondence with long term collaborator Matt Ceolin, who, like rawlings, had a fascination with insects. Ceolin’s work had centered around sculptural representations of mechanical insects, and their ongoing conversations lead to Ceolin’s illustrations that punctuate Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists becoming an intricate part of the way that rawlings develops her work – adding sensual, tactile depictions of insects and insect-collecting equipment.
Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists opens with a slow building accumulation of the phrase “a hoosh a ha” like the sound of breath and a gathering of moths around a candle flame. This sensual, building crescendo of breath again has built from a series of questions that Rawlings explores:
What does our breath do when we read? Is it shallow, or slow and deep? Are we aware of how our eyes move around the page as we read, of how we play with our hair? Do we pace when we read aloud, or gesture?
Affected by her background in dance and theatre, rawlings’ text has a highly kinetic aspect, an awareness of the body and the breath which is unusual in such linguistically-innovative writing. Rawlings brings a vocabulary of dance and the body to her consideration of how to approach text as an active, moving site, asking “How can sound translate into text, text into movement, movement into text? How can a page act as a stage for words?”
With Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists it was her intention to “consider text holistically, paying attention to a text’s aural, visual, and kinetic elements by composing with the entire field of the page in mind; being aware of the structure of the poem and how the material qualities of language can enhance, can be the poem.”
This awareness of how language can work outside of its normal parameters, suggests the magic realist form – which is most typified by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ highly sensual, cyclical and extra-logical novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude.
While rawlings has little time to read because of her dedication of literary activism, when she does have the opportunity, she indulges in fantasy and magic realism. She in fact classifies her poetry has “fantasy or fantasy-horrific poetry” reveling in the “wide-eyed wonder” of language.
With Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, angela rawlings invokes that “sense of wonder at language and how language moves from and through us when I sit down to write. I'm foremost trying to BE AWARE when I write. and when I read.”