Don’t let them tell you irony’s dead. Here I am putting an audience to sleep reading a poem about insomnia.
On the Sunday night before the Monday morning of my return, given that I had missed seven consecutive days of school, I could have predicted that when I lay me down to sleep in my half-empty bed, I would suffer a potent spell of insomnia.
My wife and I had been on a medical junket to Houston, Texas, where she received a PET scan, an MRI, an extra-scheduled brain MRI, and subsequent “lumbar puncture” (née spinal tap). Add to that existential dread the students’ missed work, the now screwed-up syllabi, my dislike of grog-producing sleep aids, and insomnia was, as Richard Nixon once said, a foregone conclusion.
When that switch goes off in my head and those darkened corridors become suddenly illuminated and I’m instantaneously wide, wide awake, I don my imaginary Sigmund Freud mask with its glasses, white beard, and cigar. A re-visitation and evaluation of recent dreams is in order.
Dream 1: During my absence the government has constructed a road that runs through the marsh and river that are in essence my back yard. So long serenity; hail ceaseless traffic. [Interpretation: cancer invasion].
Dream 2: I’m at a family reunion where my mother and father are among the quick, and some female baby relative cousin is screaming her head off — no one can quiet her — so I pick her up to see what I can do and discover that feces is flowing lava-like from her dripping diaper onto a Persian rug, so I hand her off to my mother and grab rags and paper towels and try to sop up the diarrheic outpouring. [Interpretation: cancer has shitted on our lives].
Dream 3: I’m in some exotic location in the South Seas where a swimming pool overlooks the most pacific of Pacific seascapes. I’m having a conversation with two of my former students, Allen and Willy Hutcheson, and Allen is telling me about his life when I detect some commotion in the pool. I look down and see a dead Macaw lying at the bottom, which I know will upset Willy because he is an ornithologist, but then there’s this terrible thrashing, and low and behold, an exotically neon-hued very alive crocodile has replaced the dead parrot. [Interpretation: sigh].
Okay, perhaps a different mental activity might be in order.
This is probably stupid, but when I have these spates of insomnia, I create overly metric nonsense verse, stupid adult versions of nursery rhymes, and the following is what I came up with last night, and I share it, not because it is any good at all, or even particularly clever, but because of where it leads us next.
Dr. John and I
shared a piece of apple pie
baked by that angel grandma
Chloe of Senegal
who is as scrawny
as the doctor is brawny,
though if I weren’t
bound by rhyme
I might opine
that big-bellied would be better
to describe a waistline so unfettered.
This exercise leads me to think about English, that hybrid language with its blunt Anglo-Saxon roots, supple Norse syntax, and treasure trove of French words. We’re talking here the assimilation, not of immigrants, but of invaders, yet Anglo-Saxon girls married Vikings, their offspring married Normans, who ate poultry instead of chicken, the combination of the three languages creating such a wealth of ways to express ourselves.
Scrawny, brawny – a potent spell of insomnia . . .
[scrawny – probably from Old Norse skrælna to shrival]
[brawny – from Old French braon fleshy or muscular part, buttock]
[potent – from Latin potentem powerful]
[spell – from Old English gespelia – a substitute, shift work, continuous stretch]
[spell – from Proto German spellam “report, tale, fable. ” From c. 1200 as “an utterance, something said, a statement, remark”; meaning “set of words with supposed magical or occult powers, incantation, charm, first recorded 1570s; hence any means or cause of enchantment.” (Oxford Dictionary of Folklore via Online Etymology Dictionary)
I think of the ad in Back of the Boy’s Life magazines I read when I was a Cub Scout, the ad with the 98 pound weakling sharing a beach blanket his a buxom companion, their outing spoiled by having sand kicked in their faces.
“Hey, you pathetic emaciated excuse for a hominid,” ejaculates the muscular ruffian.
“Hey, you scrawny bitch,” spews the rock-hard bully.
And these thoughts of assimilation lead me to think of how many Muslims I saw in Houston, all the women in hijabs, both at the Galleria Mall and at MD Anderson, one woman sitting in the hospital in a black niqab but also wearing a mask beneath the veil to ward off infection, and then there was the Iraqi veteran who had worked as a translator for the US Army and who was now working as a concierge at the Wyndam Suites, and also we met with a former student and his Pakistani wife, their marriage being the first non-arranged union in the history of her family, and she told Judy and me that even as a coed at the University of Georgia her curfew at her home in the summertime was seven p.m. and, oh boy, a yawn, a good sign, my body hinting to just breathe, and maybe the mind will empty if I pay attention to inhalation and exhalation, if I just let go and allow the swirls of grey behind my eyelids to take whatever shape whatever.
Another ditty courtesy of my major muse, Insomnia, who brings us those dark hours when ghosts— in this case Lonnie Smith of the 1991 Atlanta Braves — crawl out of their shallow graves to grieve us.
A coon must be prowling round the water garden,
rattling gravel, or else frogs would be drowning out
the barking of that distant dog.
Sometimes with the windows open
I can hear the ocean, but not tonight —
just the whisper of insistent desperate yipping.
Here come the croaks — that’s better,
the hoarse sturm und drang of their desires
seem to trivialize mine.
When’s the last time I let out
a primal scream? Was it in the ’91 Series when
Lonnie Smith failed to round third and score?
Too bad I can’t slam shut my mind
like the lid of a laptop. Too bad Lonnie got deked.
Too bad that was then and now is now.
In 1985, I lost the knack of sleeping, and I blame it on Porter-Gaud School. Even the year before I started teaching there, I slept, if not like a baby, like a serene thirty-something who enjoyed the more than occasional malted beverage and could count on eight interrupted hours.
However, in August of 1985, the night before my very first day of teaching high school, my eyes popped open at 3 am like two too tightly wound window shades springing to the top of the sill.
Suddenly, I’m awake and awake and awake. That inaugural night, I kept repeating in my head, “I got to get asleep, I got to get asleep, I got to get asleep,” huffing along like “The Little Train That Couldn’t,” but I didn’t drift off until a scant forty minutes or so before the alarm was set to blast me awake.
So, of course, I shuffled muck-headed through that first day like an extra from Dead Men Walking, making, as zombies tend to do, a bad impression.
However, I swear on my freshly deceased mother’s grave, I’ve never suffered insomnia quite as bad as last night/this morning, so to try to block out those para-paranoid thoughts that swarm like bats at 3am on weeknights, I composed an Italian sonnet in imitation to Sir Philip Sidney’s famous Sonnet 39, “To Sleep.” It’s an intricate form, with iambic pentameter as its meter and an abbaabbacdecde rhyme scheme that severely limits vocabulary. I thought that the exercise would wear me out as I lay there Homer-like in the dark without pen or paper, but alas, it did not.
So here it is, and I dedicate it to my fellow insomniacs.
To Sleep 2.0.1
“Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care” – Macbeth
Yo, Morpheus, you sadistic bastard,
Where the fuck are you? Snorting crystal meth
with the Sand Man? Can’t you see I’m a wreck,
tossing and turning like mad — backwards,
sideways? Even bedbugs have left in distress
in search of a habitat less turbulent. Fuck,
man, I swear I’ll put a noose around my neck!
My sleeve of care has unraveled past my wrist,
all the way up to my elbow! Swerve in a sestet?
How? Why? Nothing changes hour-after-hour:
drip drop drip drop drop drop drop – disturbing
thought follows disturbing thought. My sweat-
ing self craves relief! You have the power,
sweet Morpheus, to sing me to sleep. Sing!
Poets for centuries have lauded the serenity that sleep can bring. From Rolfe Humphries’s gorgeous translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, here’s Alcyone in Book 11 addressing Morpheus, the God of Sleep:
O mildest of the gods, most gentle Sleep,
Rest of all things, the spirit’s comforter,
Router of care, O soother and restorer . . .
O, to be able to sneak off on a weeknight to Morpheus’s cave where
[ . .] No bird
With clarion cry ever calls out the morning,
Dogs never break the silence with their barking,
Geese never cackle, cattle never low,
No boughs move in the stir of air, no people
Talk in human voices. Only quiet.
From under the rock’s base a little stream,
A branch of Lethe, trickles, with a murmur
over the shiny pebbles, whispering Sleep!
Before its doors great beds of poppies bloom
And other herbs, whose juices Night distills
To sprinkle slumber over the darkened earth.
There is no door to turn upon its hinge
With jarring sound, no guardian at the gate.
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
We’re talking two the three a.m., brothers and sisters, the illuminated digits of the alarm clock silently progressing towards Morpheus-bereft morn and its traffic-choked slow progression to an awaiting electronic mailbox teeming with emails cajoling, demanding, chuckling, warning, applauding, joking, alerting, reminding.
What we need is a 3 a.m. surefire lullaby for adults that will allow “[t]he kind assassin Sleep” to “draw a bead and blow [our] brains out” (Richard Wilbur, “Walking to Sleep”).
However, brothers and sisters, this ain’t it: