Review by Joy Gaines Friedler
The other day I saw an infant t-shirt for sale that read “I come without instructions.” It made me think even more deeply about Linda Sienkiewicz and her extraordinary book of poetry, Sleepwalker. Having a child is the most life-altering event in our lives that comes without instruction. “Our eldest child is missing from the picture/he will always be missing,” Sienkiewicz writes of her son in “From Our House To Your House.” Derek took his own life in 2011. And later, she addresses Derek directly in “Little Cuts”: “Maybe what I thought/ was sacrifice/ you considered a given.//And what/ you considered sacrifice/ I couldn’t give.”
In nineteen poems, we get a novel where the two most distinct characters, the lost son and the grief-torn mother, live braided before and after the tragedy. Braided as only a mother and child can be. We follow along with this mother, who knows the internal truth of her son, and of herself, more than the outside world possibly can. From “The Second Worst Thing”: “on the day/ we found you/ the police made us leave// your apartment/ Crime scene, they said// though it wasn’t.”
It wasn’t. Nineteen poems and we see the child Derek “hiding behind a box of Cheerios,/hiding behind a birthday card.” Even trying to tear himself from the family albums. As well, we see the poet he became, the war veteran; we see him playing with his toddler niece, and tossing all his belongings out of his car. There are no instructions.
There is an under-weaving thread of, not exactly guilt, but rather a keen sense of knowing based on heredity in this poetry novella. Whether genetic or not, we take on the calm and anxieties, the kindnesses and fears of our parents. This is why, in part, the pain of losing a child to suicide is unbearable.
In one poem we see little Derek looking for gold chains to dress up like Mr. T. And in another we see the mother in her dream, desperate to save her son. To change the ending. And like the surreal imagery of the book’s cover art, created by Linda herself, we are left floating, deconstructed, and knowing.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz has a poetry chapbook award from Heartlands and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She has four other poetry chapbooks, a novel, and a children’s book, which she wrote and illustrated. She holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine.
Sleepwalker by Linda K. Sienkiewicz
Finishing Line Press, 2023, $15.99 paper
Joy Gaines-Friedler is the author of five collections of poetry, including Capture Theory, a Forward Review Book of the Year Finalist, and Stone on Your Stone, co-winner of the 2021 Celery City Chapbook Prize. Joy teaches Memoir & Poetry for non-profits, including Freedom House Detroit.