Everything Awake

by Sasha Steensen

reviewed by Nadia Colburn

Poetry can help us pay attention, and Sasha Steensen’s fierce and luminous book Everything Awake does just that. The first poem I read from it certainly caught my attention.

I’ve never before bought a book after reading only one poem, let alone on social media. But when I read one of Steensen’s poems on a friend’s Facebook feed, it had an energy, an intensity, and a tenderness that I wanted more of. Everything Awake pulses with life. As the title suggests, the poems are awake to the intensity of being a living body on Earth, surrounded both by love and danger, full of vulnerability and a strong yearning for growth. The opening poem, “Hende,” speaks for day and night, for that liminal space of the imagination “between dawn and dreams.” In this space, in which sleep will not hold the speaker, the poems become her container.

The opposite of wakefulness is not sleep.
Neither the day nor the night can be said to speak
without me. I open my mouth and out shines
the horizon. It hums no matter the time.
It forms the seam between dawn and dreams.
the lilies or the nightshade. All we say to sleep—
please, allusive friend, freeze. All our offerings—
the sawed log, the leaping fence, the sheep. None of it matters.
Like Telemachos wrapped in fleece, sweet sleep doesn’t
hold me. Obedient, I wait for radiant dawn.
I hold myself still. I lay myself down.

The title, “Hende,” comes from Catullus’s hendecasyllabic, an eleven-syllable line. As Steensen writes in a note: “Everything Awake was written during a dreamy, disorienting period of insomnia. In the middle of the night, I began studying Catullus, imagining that his hendecasyllabic rhythms might shush me to sleep. Instead they prompted a series of eleven-line poems with eleven syllables per line. I was drawn to the number, via Catullus, because it felt both excessive and insufficient, just like the space of an insomniac’s day.”

Throughout the book, there is both too much and not enough. How to fall asleep when sleep is, as Steensen puts it, “death’s doorknob, locked / from the inside out”? How to come to rest in this world so full of meaning? 

A daughter, who is allergic to walnuts and who has trouble breathing, keeps the speaker most awake. If she watches over the daughter, perhaps nothing will go wrong, perhaps she will have some control. The hens to care for, the laundry to do, the lice to pick out of the children’s hair—all the beautiful, richly described everydayness of the poems is at once overmuch and insufficient distraction for the worries of mortality underneath. In the face of this potential and omnipresent loss, everything shines more brightly. 

As the book progresses, though the speaker is still not sleeping, she comes more and more into her aliveness, her desire, her fecundity. Catullus wrote: “Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then a thousand more.” Steensen echoes this, writing to her husband: “Indeed the hairs on your head are all counted, / and multiplied. That’s the number of times / That’s what would satisfy your mad wife.” Her poems for her husband and her appreciation of sex are delightful.

In the author’s note, Steensen writes, “My hope is that these poems might offer one humble account of care in our deeply damaged world.” These are poems of ferocious care, poems of the assertion of life’s primal force, of the animal power that is in each of us to stay alive, to keep our children alive, to live fully while we are here. Steensen’s are some of the most moving poems of motherhood and marriage I’ve read.

Everything Awake is an antidote to a period of apathy, irony, bitterness, and despair. There is pain in this book but also, everywhere, meaning and affirmation. 

Published on January 21, 2022