Sandra Huber - What happens when the line of an EEG recording of brain waves in sleep turns into a line of poetry, an act of focused consciousness? Since words are essentially awake, sleep awakens beneath them. At the same time, poetry itself is forced to change, written not by the principles of ink or lead but electroencephalography

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Sandra Huber, Assembling the Morrow: A Poetics of Sleep,  Talonbooks, 2015.                

Even though we spend a third of our lives asleep, the behaviour remains largely a mystery. Sandra Huber’s first book, Assembling the Morrow: A Poetics of Sleep, assumes that any attempt to solve this mystery requires new modes of experimentation. What happens when the line of a Berger’s wave (an electroencephalography recording of brainwaves in sleep) turns into a line of poetry, an act of focused consciousness?
The earliest readings of the sleeping brain, captured by EEGs in the 1930s, revealed that sleep is as active and lively as its daytime counterpart, not simply a passive state that naturally ensues when wakefulness ceases. Sleep not only assimilates the day that’s passed, but also looks forward, assembling what’s to come. To engage this concept, Huber sculpts a long poem onto the neural oscillations of sleep, in order to explore what is beneath them both: the conscious organism, the writer, and the written. In the field of the poem, where sleep is traditionally a metaphor for death, the idea that to be awake is to be alive is put to the test in a new kind of writing that invites a new kind of being.
Prefaced by a discussion on poetry, the science of sleep, and those who have sought a language of consciousness – from Hans Berger to Gertrude Stein – Assembling the Morrow proposes that entering the mystery of sleep requires a radical reframing of our biases on what it means to be conscious.

Sandra Huber was able to deepen her previous literary investigation on sleep at the Center for Integrative Genomics (CIG) and at the sleep lab at CHUV, University of Lausanne. The findings of scientific sleep research, in particular the fact that sleep is a very active state, has been a reflection of many poet's longstanding interpretation of sleep as a death-like condition. She made herself available as a subject in the sleep laboratory, where the electrical activity of her brain during sleep was measured with electroencephalogram (EEG). The artist overwrote the recorded data, which is presented in the form of waves, with her own poetry. "Assembling the Morrow" is a long poem written directly on Sandra Huber's brainwaves. The recorded waves can scarcely comprehend the abundance of language - like the language can not grasp images from dreams. Through her work the artist interpreted the state of sleep, which until then had been understood as passive, as very active and allowed a poetic access to scientific data.

This is what we know
Sleep can be transferred from one animal to another. Sleep can be transferred to a dish, where neurons warp from excitatory to inhibitory. Sleep in the last sentences and century has become an object of science. Sleep has for long been a subject of poetry.
Habits of sleep vary between cultures—waking-oriented societies of artificial light, they generally sleep in chunks; fire-lit cultures, generally they don’t.
Sleep is forwards not backwards facing. It doesn’t seek to assimilate the day behind in the service of the past, but reaches beyond, to create tomorrow. Sleep is its own present, where a third of our lives is lived. It is not a given that we sleep because we wake; for all we know, we may have to wake because we sleep.
In their 2009 review of sleep function Anne Vassali and Derk-Jan Dijk go so far as to ask, “Can we define a sleep unit, a minimal entity that would recapitulate the essence of sleep?” It’s so brazen it demands a search. What would the essence of sleep look like? Where would it be?
When we go, we find, sleep is located in the smallest of biophysical spaces, the synapse, where spurious memories are deleted to retrace those meant to be kept; the token, we are lightning storms pitched in layers of dermis. Sleep is located in the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, where inhibitory neurotransmitters fire to switch off the arousal system. Sleep is in homeostasis, where it is said to pay off the “debt” accrued by too much waking. Sleep is in the neurotransmitter orexin, which, when removed in mice, will cause the animals to fall involuntarily into REM; narcolepsy; that direct and broken gateway between waking and dreaming consciousness.
Epicurus wrote extensively on sleep, this is lost. There are places where graphs of synaptic plasticity look like dripping icicles.
Sleep is in the flutter of eyelids. Is on the entire surface of the skin, which grows warmer as the core of the body cools down in slow-wave oscillations.
Sleep is both without and within: the circadian rhythm of light and dark surrounding; the clock of nerve cells inside, backed into a bundle in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus: time’s locket. Though a dangerous act, sleep is the ultimate in seduction. Not one of us can say no, neither animals, fungi, specific bacteria, plants, all bound to their own rhythms, beat by beat a bird will always / sleep with one eye / open.
To the waking searcher, sleep is both everywhere and nowhere in particular. This is what we don’t know: why we do it, what it’s for, what even it is.
This is what we don’t know: that sleep and waking can be separated at all. “[S]leep and wakefulness,” write Lino Nobili et al. in a 2012 paper, “might be simultaneously present in different cerebral regions indicating that the boundaries between these different behavioral states are not strictly defined”; in other words, “sleep and wakefulness may not be temporally discrete behavioral states.” Sleepwalking opens this very question. Taking place during deep, non-REM sleep, the EEG of a somnnambulist will nonetheless show markers of waking, not to mention the actual movements of the sleeper’s body.
Similarly unusual findings were reported a year earlier in a paper by Vladyslav V. Vyazovskiy et al. on sleep-deprived rats. The animals, kept awake past the time when they’d normally be sleeping, began to show “local” downstates, that is, small populations of neurons would go into non-REM sleep while the rats were still awake. This is not to be confused with micro-sleep, where you nod off and quickly come to; the animals were in every way alert and mobile, only parts of their brain were shown to go into sleep mode. “Thus,” write Vyazovskiy et al., “at the level of neuronal firing, wakefulness under high sleep pressure occasionally resembles late NREM sleep, whereas low-pressure sleep may occasionally resemble wakefulness.” Moreover, ‘down’ states were not only seen in different areas of the cortex as ‘up’ states were, but both behaviours were observed to coexist in different neuronal groups of the same regions. These “local ‘islands of sleep’” during wakefulness, as Nobili et al. put it, and islands of wakefulness during sleep suggest nothing less than a complete re-evaluation of what it means to be engaged in either.
Not only a consilience between science and art, as Lovelace foresaw, but a consilience between our very states of being. This is to say nothing of that other sleep state: the one that in poetry at least is plenty famous, the one most commonly associated with dreaming—can it too be seen to blend into the waking? The answer is perhaps such a resounding yes that researcher Michel Jouvet, in the 1960s, went so far as to term REM “paradoxical sleep,” in part for how closely it resembles the waking state.
Specifically, according to an anecdote by researcher Peretz Lavie, the reading state. “After a few nights,” writes Lavie in The Enchanted World of Sleep, “once we had succeeded in obtaining some clear sleep recordings . . . we decided to invite the head of the Department of Psychology, Prof. Ron Shoval, to take a look at our impressive achievements.” Lavie goes on to remember that when he arrived late, everyone else was already there examining the patient’s data. To make up for his tardiness, Lavie quickly exclaimed that what they were looking at was a clear example of REM sleep. Only after he heard the snickering of his colleagues did he look to the actual patient, who was not sleeping but “completely engrossed in the book he was reading. . . . I can only say in my own defense,” Lavie concludes, “that there is an almost total similarity between the eye movements of a person who is awake and those of REM sleep, and it is very easy to confuse the two.”
Waking and sleeping are close. Reading and sleeping specifically, closer still. Then why when we read sleep in turn does it only move farther away.
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.
A long, long sleep, a famous sleep
That makes no show for dawn
O souls, in life and in death,
make, even as you sleep, even in sleep
know what wind
even under the crankcase of the ugly automobile
lifts it away, clears the sodden weights of goods
You’ll die, Novalis says, you’ll die
following endless rows
of sheep into your
even breath.
In a rich, heavy soil, infested with snails,
I wish to dig my own grave, wide and deep,
Where I can at leisure stretch out my old bones
And sleep in oblivion like a shark in the wave.
He must wake up. He must expose and strip
successive layers to find his soul again.
Where had the rubble come from? He was like
a junkyard—cluttered, filled with scrap iron, tin.
As dead as any metal not in use.
Sleep the brother of Death, even evil Night, wrapped
in a vaporous cloud
From Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Emily Dickinson’s “A Long, Long Sleep, a Famous Sleep,” Charles Olson’s “As the Dead Prey Upon Us,” Rosemarie Waldrop’s “The Ambition of Ghosts. I. Remembering Sleep,” Charles Baudelaire’s “The Joyful Corpse,” P. K. Page’s “Cullen in the Afterlife” and Hesiod’s Theogony, poetry of the Western tradition, and in the best of hands, has had a monotonous relationship with sleep. Even Russian poet Gennady Aygi, who, in “Poetry-and-Sleep,” writes that “sleep, which is often, with ‘poetic imprecision,’ compared to death” seems to include this only as a footnote to his poetic imprecision a few sections up: “It is as if we were ‘playing at death’ with it,” he writes (where “it” = sleep), “without knowing the essential thing about death.” Since Greek mythology, Hypnos has been paired with its twin Thanatos, sleep with death: it is as if we’ve been playing at metaphor with it, without knowing the essential thing—that while the writing of sleep has stood still, the behaviour has changed.
According to Kenton Kroker in The Sleep of Others, “To this point [the 1940s], the origins of knowledge about sleep came from personal experience. . . . The practices and technologies that came to constitute the sleep laboratory changed all this.” He continues, “Whether or not the personal experience of sleep was transformed in the process is an empirical question that is just beginning to be answered . . .” This is to say, that language and consciousness are so entangled that when it comes to a language of consciousness new leaps beg new lines. As the world of the sleeper has changed, so has sleep itself; as the world of the poet changes, so does the poem. “I believe that poetry must think of itself as a kind of R & D,” says Christian Bök in an interview for Wave Composition, “setting out to foment new discoveries or create new inventions . . . I’ve often joked that poetry no longer speaks adequately to the cultural condition of the 21st Century, in part because poetry doesn’t recognize the impact of important disciplines outside its own domain of expertise . . . I always ask my students, for example, to name their favorite, canonical work of poetry about the moon landing—and of course, they can’t, because it hasn’t yet been written; but, if the ancient Greeks had built a trireme and rowed it to the moon, you can bet that there would’ve been a 12-volume epic about such a grandiose adventure.”
It was when the electricity of sleep was traced when it became clear—sleep, in a manner of speaking, is very much awake: assemblies of neurons firing in a visible choir. Dichotomies between states could speak out, opening questions as to the divvying up of vigilances and the lines bounding them. Building blocks of matter, its own cosmology. We don’t need no trireme.
This is an elegaia of the electric.
The buzzing of the world, its gadgets, the fluorescence of the tapped energy of the 20th. Founds of conversations and conversions: ripples, spectrometers, radar, the inside-out of a Faraday cage. As Lovelace conceptualized the future of the machine, Hertz, Faraday, Maxwell, et al., were unraveling a future set up by Volta, Galvani: the nature of the electric crossing into the magnetic: light, radio waves, ions, “Pray find out all you can for me [that’s Lovelace] about everything curious, mysterious, marvelous, electrical & c, & c.” The fever for exploration was high in the 19th and, going into the 20th, the mysteries were angling their marvels. At his Tuxedo Park laboratory in 1930s New York, Alfred Lee Loomis, millionaire financier with a thing for the instruments of timekeeping, recorded whole nights of sleepers’ data on a giant kymographic drum capable of producing readouts on a massive swathe of paper. A single night of inked-up waves was enough to demonstrate that sleep was not a monotone, but an interplay of rhythms, which Loomis sketchily numbered from I to VI. It was the first jump: sleep had shown its selves, costumed in microvolts, hertz. “Some apply them selves to electricity,” writes Caroline Bergvall. “Somthing did finally burst. Much points to where she left off, motion shadow, the ripple in the air that follows a jump, dive in the mid of the wired air, wake up mid-stream, wake up streaming, inside the skin, under the skin of my time—” But it was not until mid-century that Eugene Aeserinsky noticed the eyes of sleeping children.
Somthing did finally burst. Mark W. Mahowald and Carlos H. Schenck som it up in their 1991 paper “Status Dissociatus” when they write, “with the discovery of REM sleep in 1953, it became apparent that sleep is not a unitary phenomenon, but rather consists of completely different states, and each state is an active, rather than quiescent, process.” Aserinsky, a grad student, put it together: that apparent bursts of movement on children’s eyelids accompanied by lack of movement in their bodies could signal that one thing few scientists were daring to broach. This was at the University of Chicago where Aserinsky’s supervisor was none less than Nathaniel Kleitman, “the first scientist,” as Lavie puts it, “to become enchanted by sleep.” These two. They began studying adults, who clearly could not sleep in daylight; to still be able to ‘observe’ their eyelids at night, the scientists affixed electrodes to their subjects and themselves saw. There were the rapid eye movements accompanied by muscle atonia accompanied by busy breathing accompanied by low voltage high frequency brainwaves. As if the sleeper were in a state of panic or desire or quick movement, and yet, all the while, supine still. REM, though not the only stage of sleep where mentation occurs, nonetheless opened the floor, rolled out the carpet, and made it impossible not to discuss: dreams. Forever the part of sleep that kept sleep at arm’s length from objective inquiry was now electrochemical, a code that could be broken into; it was material and it could be traced; this was sleep and sleep was sentient. It was William Dement who would take it that last push and bring sleep from research niche to full-on medical concern, starting with REM and branching out into diagnoses of narcolepsy, insomnia, apnea; sleep had not only its practitioners but its mispractitioners; this was the 1960s and the privacy of our nightly void was giving way to a public theatre of data. As if to prove it, Allan Rechtschaffen and Anthony Kales put out a manual of sleep scoring in 1968 called for by the newly established room of the sleep laboratory. Sleep, today, is not only recognized by one face, not only by two, but at least five: non-REM stages 1, 2, 3, 4 and REM.
Touch the walls. Feel how sleep now has material, outline, gypsum and light. Perhaps there is some brief nostalgia in what was lost. And yet, what gain. For even as sleep became more tightly regulated by the purse-string normalcy of the medical market, in the realm of research its boundaries can only, by practice, grow. Sleep can be as active as the spike of a K-complex rising up from a sea of theta, as differentiated as the chatter of somniloquy; waking, as quiescent as a cup of tea perched beside a blowing curtain, as uniform as reaction, the to and fro of architecture. Gertrude Stein famously gave us the trick, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” to which she appended, “I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.” Sleep is sleep is sleep is sleep. When we say it like that, sleep is allowed to differentiate from stilltide, leap into movement. Then, the first thing a poetics can leave behind in movement is the metaphor, linking sleep and death. The second thing it can leave behind in movement is metaphor, altogether.
What is left in the space it leaves. When symmetry breaks, patterns emerge. Refraction, reflection, recursion, insistence. Assembling crossgrid to crochet, piecemeal by particle, in vivo, computo, bios, your closed eyes, we wake up streaming.
Spectral analysis is the turning of one system into another.
To read the electric, voltage amplitudes are converted to frequencies. The frequencies of sleep: predominantly theta, delta. I’s turned off.
Spectral analysis is where blocks of periodicity trump raw illegible data. Because there needs to be a sorting, a setup, not a crunch of organic letters but letters a-lining to words between spaces, in time.
“What is known is that EEG is a chaotic signal,” writes David A. Kaiser in his paper “Basic Principles of Quantitative EEG.” Spectral analysis swoops in upon the chaos, this chemical choir of nearly a billion cortical neurons cumulating on the other end of electric bursts, and sorts them into “elementary shapes or frequencies (waveforms) which are added together like weights on a scale until their total matches the pattern under [investigation].” A theta wave equals 4–7 hertz, a delta wave
Close your eyes and take a look. Watch as your breath evens out in metronome to your muscles loosing. Through another lens are sparks, windmills, millions of pulses of light, conveying its messages, conveying the fact that the messages are conveyed. Through another lens not ours. Sleep, a behaviour, is invisible.
Metaphor, a device, is a good candidate to make the invisible cutaneous, bring it into light (in a New York Times infosketch on the Higgs Boson, Nigel Holmes writes, “If it’s difficult to visualize, so many people resort to metaphor”). Spectral analysis, however, stands in the way of metaphor if we’re patient enough to learn its zigs, zags, there is all we need here of outlines; it cuts the electric a figure, but what kind. In a rare poetic lean, Hans Berger in his 3rd report of “On the Electroencephalogram of Man” writes, “Bioelectric phenomena are inevitable concomitant phenomena of vital processes and thus also of the processes of life in the human cerebrum. As Pflüger says very aptly, all cells in the living organism are continuously on fire, even though we do not see the glow with our bodily eyes. He also compares the life processes with a singing flame . . . In the E.E.G. we now indeed, also with our ‘bodily eye,’ see before us those vibrations in the form of electrical oscillations.”
Brainwaves, electrical oscillations, whathaveyou, are a tricky species of the visible. They appear in waves, but their central action takes place in points, pulses of ons and offs. They appear to be moving, but it’s imprecise to describe them so. Where Stein believed there to be no repetition, only insistence, brainwaves believe there to be no movement, only propagation.

If one is searching for solace from the exigencies of sleep—or at least a way to reveal the connection between our resting and our artistic lives—one should approach Sandra Huber’s Assembling the Morrow: A Poetics of Sleep with a certain amount of caution. Parodying a sleeping mind through experimental writing found its zenith in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a tome that exposes the heightened ironies and bountiful syntax of the unconscious brain. Huber’s book, like Joyce’s before it, claims that the very nature of shut-eye is so complex, so mysterious, that it requires a level of experimental writing to even begin to unlock its secrets. Yet, after reading this 135-page hybrid of academic text and avant-garde poetry, what do we learn about sleep? What aspects of its landscape are elucidated by Huber’s experiment?
It’s a tricky needle to thread, as it soon becomes apparent that Huber is less interested in illumination and more interested in writing a dense, convoluted, exclusionary, pseudo-scientific treatise. It is often difficult, or impossible, to glean what she is driving at, or what her desired effects are, with the words she has placed on the page. One theory that, thankfully, does stand out is this notion of “islands of sleep”—that is, that a night’s rest is not typically one continuous plane of experience but rather broken up into a kind of ragged archipelago of sleep. I could identify with this argument; in fact, my sleep last night resembled almost exactly what she describes. What’s more, Huber mimics this notion of “islands of sleep” in the way her paragraphs are structured: they often break off (or trail off) before the next paragraph begins in mid-sentence. This helps to lend her writing a dream-like quality.
Unfortunately, this occurrence is not enough to nourish us. Much of the book’s lengthy introductory essay (67 tightly packed pages, including a six-page bibliography she has pretentiously labeled “Choir”) is written in a kind of grad-school pidgin designed to obscure rather than enlighten. Huber makes a number of curious decisions around punctuation, perhaps intending to show how “creative” she is but instead giving her prose a hurried, slapped-off feel. Mostly, though, it is the dense, inscrutable structures of her arguments that can often leave us feeling alienated. Here’s an example, picked almost at random:
The yin and yang between sleeping and waking is the further problem of SHY—the experiments put forth by the Italy-based research team headlined by Lino Nobili and that of Vladyslav V. Vyazovskiy, which names Cirelli and Tononi among its collaborators—suggesting the ever-present island of sleep in the wake and wake in the sleep. To come at it another way, the somnambulist is the problem in the SHY theory. The somnambulist that is the body both inside and outside of waking and sleeping, this body that is ever disruptive, especially to ontologies (sic) predicated on dualities.
One could be up all night attempting to parse what, if anything, that passage means.
Assembling the Morrow also comes with fold-out of some of (presumably) Huber’s poetry rendered into an actual sleep graph. This approach may have seemed original in concept but it reveals the—and please forgive the pun—overtired influences of Christian Bök upon execution. Huber’s work then ends with a section of some more “traditional” experimental poetry (if such a thing exists) broken up into subsections of REM sleep, Non-REM sleep, etc. These fragmented lines do possess a kind of quirky splendour: they read almost like an incantation, a ceremonial chant from the depths of unconsciousness:
she has things
i have t
I h
i have time
I h
i have time to wond
she has thing
i have time to
she has th
Again, the temptation to search here for “meaning” may leave a reader with an acute sense of alienation. It would be better to read this long poem—and indeed the entirety of Assembling the Morrow—as sheer sound, random and mindless, haunting and decidedly off-kilter in nearly every line. Only posterity will tell whether this book will one day awaken into something more. - Mark Sampson

Sandra Huber is a Swiss-Canadian writer of poetry and fiction. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto, and has published in the Milieu Anthology of Canadian Women Writers, Danforth Review, Ditch, Alice Blue Review, E-Ratio, and Dusie, among others. She received a Best of the Web award from Dzanc Books and a CIG award from Artists-in-Labs, where she was placed for nine months in the Tafti / Franken sleep laboratories at the Centre for Integrative Genomics in Lausanne. Sandra is founder of the online literary journal Dear Sir, and edits at Hatje Cantz Verlag in Berlin.