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Jon Pineda's Sleep in Me

I saw Jon Pineda's memoir Sleep in Me (University of Nebraska Press, 2010) prominently displayed at the front of the Barnes & Noble in the Mall of America last week. The cover image is quite compelling, and I ended up picking up the book the next day at a local book store.



I haven't read Pineda's collections of poetry yet, but I love his language and am looking forward to picking them up. The memoir is about Pineda's childhood, especially as it changed irrevocably after his older sister's tragic, disabling car accident. The memoir consists of a number of very short chapters--mostly two or three pages in length--that trace very concrete and poetic images or ideas in his childhood. At large, the memoir is about the development of masculinity for this mestizo Filipino (his father is a Filipino man in the US Navy and his mother is a white woman from North Carolina).

The title of the memoir comes from Rainer Maria Rilke's "The Sonnets to Orpheus," and the phrase suggests a muse-like inspiration. Pineda quotes Rilke in the book's epigraph: "And yet barely a girl, and leaping / out of this happy harmony of song and lyre, / and shining clearly through her veils of Spring, / and made herself a bed inside my ear. / / And slept in me. And her sleep was all." The act of sleeping becomes a metaphor in the memoir for the transformation Pineda's sister Rica undergoes as a result of the accident. Once a cheerleader in high school, post-accident Rica is confined to a wheelchair with injuries all over her body. She is unable to speak except in breathy, one-syllable whispers and tortuously hand-signed letters.

The titles of each chapter are words or phrases lifted from the passages that follow. This kind of echo takes on a ghostly quality in the text, as you begin to look for the moment when the title surfaces again in the text. The chapters themselves are like prose poems, highly dense in figurative language and with recurring tropes that help to interweave the chapters as a whole.

Many of the memories recounted by Pineda center on his interactions with other boys in his pre-pubescent years verging on adolescence, and these interactions help to shape his conceptions of appropriate masculinity (even as his adult self recognizes the absurdity or problematic nature of some of those conceptions). The opening chapter, "Learning the Language," starts off with sexually-laden cussing, detours to the boys' obsessions with pornographic images of women in magazines, and ends with taunts between the boys about sex with sisters and mothers. One paragraph in particular sketches out a disturbing, degrading image of a woman that surfaces again and again later in the memoir in other moments when the young Jon grapples with sexuality and his understanding of women's bodies (for example, in contrast to his sister's deformed body after the accident):
I remember in one there was a woman whose body had been decorated to resemble a landscape. Tiny orange diamond-shaped construction signs balanced on her nipples while Matchbox cars of all sizes lined up in a traffic jam between her breasts. Other cars heading south on the makeshift road of her belly actually disappeared inside her.
Of course, the image resonates as well with the tragic scene of Rica's accident, the ideas of cars and roads inextricably bound up with the impossibility of Rica's womanly body.

Literature really is most powerful for me when it grapples with loss and grief. I know many people have a difficult time reading sad writing, but for what it's worth, Pineda's memoir is very emotionally powerful in exploring how Rica's accident changed his boyhood and his family.
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