Words, waiting to be said, but never really crossing that confident chasm from thought to expression is what Sleepwalker essentially gravitates towards. Kami Westhoff’s debut collection is pregnant with the horror that contributes to the growth of something bestial, without it actually exploding all over the page. Which is not to say that it is hiding from reality – far from it, in fact. Akin to a page-turner, there is constant curiosity that accompanies the reader – what happens next and why –, rather than a comfortable settling in and tucking into the book.
From the very first poem, “Early Warning,” there is a foreboding of the darkness that is to follow. The poet does not hesitate in introductions: everyone is already there, present in their involvement, without any major flourish announcing their arrivals – they are who they are, simple and twisted, their innate character on display right on the first page itself. We expect that the woman, the primary character, through whom we read these poems, slowly discovers what lies behind the screens, but we are mistaken. There is no façade, it is what it is, and very sudden, even if most of the poems are written from the third person with limited perspective. The atmosphere is ripe with family secrets, and the poet very effectively navigates uncomfortable scenes and guides the reader to the darkest parts of the story, which are pedophilia and incest. The person she is seeing “exposes a nub where his pointer finger once was” (9), while brushing it away as “Hazards of country life.” She sees nothing extraordinary, and neither do we, and so she “feels its abbreviation against her line of fate” (9). We, as readers, file away these little details, not knowing whether they are of any significance, but perfectly expecting them to be. His mother greets her with her eyes and smile described as “discordant hemispheres.” His sister comes, “each step as cautious as a cow.” And his father will “sink the knife into the meat” and compliment his wife. The rural set up is established from the get-go, as the woman has “seen him before, hovered under the lifted hood of a broke down, and in the hayfields, back arced, shoulders winged by the buck of a hay bale.”
Unfolding the poems with finesse, Westhoff’s narrative style employs a matter-of-fact storytelling punctuated by dramatic metaphors, but nothing to make the reader gasp in horror. It is a very gently-flowing narrative, taking the reader by the hand through the events, but very cleverly concealing the venom beneath. And this is the central technique that the poet uses adroitly. Like the seeding of an idea, it is a gradual process of show-not-tell that we have to focus on, noting certain details in the story with increasing discomfort, leading us to investigate further the cause of this disturbance. Reasons become evident, in “Offerings,” as the woman notices his younger sister “sits like a plant between her mother and brother…” and “speaks in single syllables when spoken to” (10). These have the immediate effect of raising our antennae to what could be the problem. In “Unspeakable,” the woman comes head-to-head with his hidden past when he says, “Think of it as a game. Which one would you choose?” as they look upon children figure-skating on the icy pond (11). When one girl loses her balance, the man’s split-second reaction as he appears beside her in a flash, leaves the reader puzzled, but not for long. When the girls skate off, “he looks to his wife, his expression bitter as bile on her tongue, and says, That one, that one, that one” (12). And now she knows, as does the reader, that she is face-to-face with a pedophile. When she becomes pregnant, his sister says, “You better pray for a boy” (13).
The main character then delivers a baby girl, and the mother’s skin is now “a map of crimson” for which her husband buys lotion and “leaves the room when she lifts her shirt” (15). Plenty of proofs follow. When the baby doesn’t breastfeed, he “heats formula, suggests she leave the room while he eases open the baby’s lips” (16). The arc of the story changes and becomes very real, without any trace of doubt, when he is arrested by the police – “hands are cuffed, palms cupped as if waiting for water” (17). She then recalls the delivery nurses at the hospital saying, “You’re so lucky, he really has a way with children” (17). In “Rumination,” she prepares to visit her husband in the morning and remembers the officer’s words saying, “Don’t bring the baby” (19). In one continuous section, Westhoff then skillfully takes the reader through the past: in “The Before” another girl’s father tucks his child into bed saying “He will never hurt you again” and in “Fester,” where the husband, as a child, is wildly ecstatic when his baby sister comes home. The poet wants us to realize that while some amount of excitement is natural, the boy’s is more than that; it is a fascination, which the father recognizes: “He looks at his son like he knows now what he will become” (24). Too late though. Even after the boy leaves the room, “he inhales, tastes her on his tongue for the rest of the day” (25).
The poems then return to the present, where the woman, strong in acceptance of what her life is, is a picture of calm on the outside, and anything but calm on the inside. She goes to see him again, and again in “Conjugal”–“Her steps are quiet as a glacier on the Berber carpet,” even though her mother has said, “You don’t have to go. You owe him nothing” (31). While other men later offer details on their wives’ visits, “he drinks black coffee, willing the bitter to cancel the scent of his wife that coats his throat,” anything that reminds him of the baby. But there is no sense of regret or compunction at his thoughts or actions – there is no denial of who he is and no promises to change. She knows that “he will keep his promise, to never let her go” because of his obsession with their daughter. And so, she “sinks into fantasies” of people bringing her casseroles and setting her up “with good men – their brothers or cousins, who don’t mind a wife with scars or screws” (35). There is nothing left in her except an urgent need to survive and a complete distaste for her husband, whose letters she receives every week, and she then “swallows his words that trash her system like a pesticide” (38).
These poems are intended, not merely to showcase the naturally ill-fated progression of the aggressor-victim relationship, they also touch upon those complicit in the crime, such as his mother, who “failed to protect one child from another child” (39). Upon which comes the revelation, “If his father had known, he would’ve killed our son. I had to think of my family” (39). There is no happy ending here, but the family secret is now in the open. He “explained how easy it had been to get away with” (42). There is some trace of disbelief in the protagonist when she thinks “he was kidding, a joke as ridiculous as the accusations of little girls, but he’d continued with the details, voice a steady engine, face blank as cement” (42). Clearly, there was no effect of being in rehab, where counselors had encouraged him to prefer “the wiry hair to smooth skin, the full swell of breast to the taut skin of chest” (33).
With such timely metaphors inserted in just the right places and with no intention of avoiding the potholes in re-telling the series of events, the poet weaves in and out of the past and present to portray a complete picture of a man, and the people whose lives he affects. Ultimately, Westhoff leaves the reader with a sense of helplessness at the lost cause of a man, and the woman who will rush towards “Dawn” to save herself and her daughter. If there is a little trickle of hope, it’s the possibility that those silenced will emerge from their stupor and tell their stories.
Anu Mahadev is left-brained engineer turned right-brained poet. Originally from India, she is now based in New Jersey with her husband and son. She is a 2016 MFA graduate of Drew University and a prolific writer. Her work has found a home in several journals and a few anthologies in the U.S. She is currently the co-editor of QuillsEdge Press, Editor-in-Chief of Jaggery Lit, and an editor for The Woman Inc.