Night Suite by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

Reviewed by Richard Andersen

Originally published in The Montague Reporter.

Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno’s Night Suite contains some of the best poems he’s ever written. None of his previous collections contain such an extensive degree of contextual and aesthetic challenges, all the while focusing on a narrow subject that speaks through language to the universal human condition. He not only breaks new ground for himself, he confirms again his highly regarded place in the canon of great Modernist poets.

Night Suite is dedicated to Christopher’s late wife Patricia Pruitt. A poet of international renown, she continues to be his muse. When she died from ALS-related complications on Shakespeare’s birthday in 2018, many of her admirers interpreted the coincidence as a measurement of Patricia’s wry sense of humor.

Though he had been preparing for Patricia’s death for more than two years, the end, as so often happens, came as a shock. Christopher was devastated by the loss, and Patricia’s absence became the most powerful presence he has ever known.

In an attempt to find some kind of emotional balance between the past and the past that wasn’t past, Christopher continued his early-morning walk from his hilltop house to the river path below. Words would often flow through his brain, as would snatches of music. On his return, he would attempt to recreate the music-word atmosphere by listening to music and writing a few words.

Christopher, a musicologist with several opera libretti to his credit, turned to Handel’s Keyboard Suites, Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano  and Bach’s Cello Suites played by Casals. While uplifting in their own way, they failed to provide him with the solace he sought in that special place of the mind and heart that can approached by words but never fully appreciated by words alone.

Christopher’s “Suite Binging” pushed him in ways he does not recall to the piano where he begin to attempt to fuse the words he was writing with the music he was hearing inside him. A few notes would conjure a few lines; a few lines provoke a brief measure.

It was then that Christopher knew he had to embark on a different kind of journey. One that would take him deeper inside himself than he had ever gone. A pilgrimage to the dark, lonely, isolated core of his very existence, a place where language rarely dares to tread.

Taking notes that he will later turn into poems, Christopher “wanders along not counting footsteps/ not measuring the distance between here and there” with “no need to question/ why the river flows south and not north.”  It isn’t long before the inner life that characterizes his journey distances itself from the outside world even as it remains connected to it. “Somewhere,” Christopher discovers, “a there lurks.” That “there” is the place where art is created, and because it is art, the act of creation takes precedence over everything else.

 For Christopher, the art of creation starts with “Letting go/ and letting in/ and letting out/ and waiting for blossoms/to form on the twigs.” These metaphorical blossoms may vary from one branch to another in form, color, texture, and content, but they don’t “inveigh against” the poet’s “own private voice.” The “methodological journey” that results is no less ambitious than those of our language’s greatest voyager into the deep, dark, places of human existence: Samuel Beckett. If Becket wrote poems, he would have written a work comparable to Night Suite.

The challenge, of course, for both Beckett and Christopher is how to express what is felt when the “old reliable means of expression” are “as extinct as dodos.” New “ways/ of saying what must be said” have to be created for the new now to resist being reduced to the kinds of simple statements that that, in today’s popular culture, so often masquerade as serious critical thinking. 

Christopher found this kind of resistance through the music he listened to and created himself after Patricia’s death. While it may have failed to bring him the comfort he sought from his loss, it opened up the kinds of expression he was thinking he might find on his journey into his own interior. Hence, the title of his book.

Night Suite is divided into the various movements of a musical suite. They aren’t clearly marked as they might appear in the program notes to a concert or the pauses that exist between movements in a musical performance, but a seamless feel of them—prelude, intermezzo, gigue, etc.—become sensuously apparent as the poems unfold into an arc that runs from the beginning to the end of Christopher’s book.  

While reading the collection of ninety poems in ninety pages, I kept waiting for a certain kind of epiphany to shine its light on Christopher and, through him, to his readers. I expected to encounter something like the image expressed in the words of the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz of Shiraz: “I wish I could show when you are lonely or in darkness the astounding light of your own being.” These words are written on the vertical parts of a staircase leading toward a room in the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. Surely Christopher must have seen these words countless of times when he served as the internationally famous store’s Writer in Residence.

In the poem in which Hafiz’s words appear, the narrator is speaking to someone like Christopher, someone who is lost in the despairing darkness of her soul. I kept expecting the astounding light of Patricia’s being to show up with a similar message in Night Suite.  

But it never happened. And that, I think, is the point. The loss of someone so beloved as Patricia is inconsolable because there is no more Patricia. The darkness Christopher speaks of will never go away; it will only become increasingly darker as Patricia’s absence becomes increasingly more present. No number of the kinds of clichés so often found in popular sympathy cards, no platitudes of celebrating such a life in death, no rationalizations about keeping the dead alive by carrying their spirit within us and displaying it in our behavior, no number of words—even when put to musical sounds as Christopher does in Night Suite—can suffice.

What can? Again, we turn to Beckett, this time as he expresses his form of the darkness in Waiting for Godot. Godot, who can mean anything from God to meaning in life and fails to appear in course of the play, is never going to shine his or its light on its two main characters. For Gogo and Didi as well as for Christopher and us, the best we can do in the darkness that is life, the most positive, life-affirming action we can engage in, is acceptance. It is our fate and our gift to lose, suffer, and, for those who have the courage to experience it, accept.

Richard Andersen has written thirty books and is within sight of retiring from Springfield College in Massachusetts.

Night Suite is available from:

Cable Street Issue #2 Table of Contents