I don’t have trouble going to sleep; it’s that I don’t like what I find while I’m there.
It’s no secret my childhood was riddled with frightening characters. Not real life ones, thankfully. But the likes of Mister McGregor from Peter Rabbit and the sorcerer in Fantasia could keep me sleeping with one eye open for weeks on end when I was a child. And if I am to be honest, I’ll admit they and their more contemporary counterparts sometimes still do, even now that I’m an adult. My eye doctor will even attest to this, convinced as he is that a certain quality of my cornea is evidence that my left eye doesn’t fully close at night.
Characters like Frankenstein, on the other hand, don’t trouble me much. It’s a difference in monsters, I suppose. In an upcoming segment of Adjustments—the serial novel we’re publishing in our newsletter every week—Will Phillips theorizes to Cameron Julian, over a glass of wine in a closet, about the difference between fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen:
The Grimm boys were all about warty witches in the woods and wolves with grandmothers in their bellies. A little ham-fisted, if you ask me. But Andersen was always more cerebral. Complicated family dynamics, that sort of thing. Fewer monsters, more regular folks with monstrous hearts.
Can we please not talk about Cruella de Vil and that Maleficent person? Horrifying, truly. These are the sort of regular folks with monstrous hearts that tend to take up space in my dreams. Characters of a human sort, with a dreadfully insidious twist, and sometimes supernaturally so.
In this week’s reading from The Joy of Poetry, Megan Willome talks about her own troublesome dreams and considers how poetry might play a part in assuaging them, suggesting that Rudyard Kipling’s “Seal Lullaby” holds a possible key:
This lullaby is full of things that aren’t particularly sleep-inducing. The green water looks black in the dark. There are storms. There are even sharks. Sleep is scary for a lot of children and even, occasionally, adults. I think Kipling has written the best possible lullaby, one that acknowledges the terrors of the night.
My favorite time of the day is the twenty to thirty minutes after the alarm first wakes me, in that sleepy haze of only partial alertness where the thing of which I am most of aware is that I am not yet truly awake. It’s during this time that my mind, largely unfettered, wanders around to places curious and sometimes whimsical, though I’m just awake enough to avoid stumbling into any early-morning encounters with the likes of that wicked queen that was always talking to the mirror. A few times over the last three or four months, it’s been in these moments that a poem has taken shape, an unfinished draft among them that includes reference to worrying about the haiku under the bed.
One of those recent mornings, following a particularly dark dream, I drafted this poem in my head in the pre-waking moments while I burrowed down beneath a soft quilt pulled up to my ears against the early chill:
The nearest three-hole punch
was at my old neighbor’s,
by which I don’t mean former,
but aged, the sort who would keep
such an implement just in case
someone might need it.
And if not for the thick stack
of documents (they required
separating into two
in order to fit
under the lever to bore holes)
I wouldn’t have been running so late
and heard the announcer
through the living room window
warning “Get on the train now, ”
or “twain” as she called it
because of some sort of accent,
European I think.
It’s only now, 16 hours later,
when I remember the dream
at the end of the day (and hope
that I made the train
for wherever I was going)
that I realize my old neighbor
picked up my luggage and hooked
the handles of the brown bag
over my fingers and pushed me
out the door under all those weights
and it might be the first
time I have dreamed of me,
by which I don’t mean the former,
but extant, as one and the same.
The poem accurately recounts the nonsense, and some other not-so-nonsense of the dream, but in such a way that the scene appears more comical than its actual dark events. And while a dream like that might normally shadow me all day, this one let go its grip shortly after the poem made its way to the paper, perhaps in its own way acknowledging (and disarming) the terrors of the night.
We’re reading Megan’s The Joy of Poetry together in our book club, this week concluding our discussion with chapters 13-18. Here are some of my favorite parts:
It isn’t mine to give.
I can’t coax this bird to my hand
that knows the depth of the river
yet sings of it on land.
—from “The Dipper” by Kathleen Jamie (p. 111)
Many people never make it to a good poem like [The Dipper] because they’ve read too much of the bad stuff and stopped reading poetry altogether. (p. 112)
I leave her poem feeling intrigued, not like I’d been handed a guilt trip on a poetic platter. (p. 113)
We need what I like to call a basket, a concrete image that carries emotional weight without scaring off readers. We need not just any bird but The Dipper. Not just any flower but red poppies. (p. 114)
This is what I know to be true—I live in a body that needs sandwiches, especially during a crisis. (p. 126)
I turned those words into what’s called a “found poem, ” meaning the poet found the words lying around, minding their own business, and stole them. (p. 126)
She needs to dance. Dancing is her ship. Poetry is mine. (p. 128)
I didn’t dream berries. (p. 131)
Allusions can add another layer to a poem. Or they can feel like an unnecessary intrusion. (p. 132)
There are pills to help a person go to sleep and pills to help a person stay asleep. I have not found a pill that bestows good dreams. For that I needed Harry Potter. (p. 133)
Poetry gives you can idea of what to do, or at least the idea that something more can be done. (p. 138)
Now I no longer think about the prose of having good posture. Instead I think about lining up my balcony over my orchestra. (p. 140)
Why poetry? You might as well ask ‘why chocolate?’ (p. 140)
We don’t need poetry. Which is exactly why we need it. (p. 142)
Have you been reading with us? Perhaps in the comments you would share your thoughts from this week’s reading: tell us about a section that stood out or spoke to you, share a “favorite thing, ” or perhaps share a way poetry has served you in crisis or the “terrors of the night.”
The Joy of Poetry Reading Schedule:
We also invite you to explore the ideas in The Joy of Poetry: How to Keep, Save and Make Your Life With Poems beginning on page 148 and consider, at least for the duration of our book club, keeping a poetry journal or signing on a poetry buddy.
Photo by Hanna East, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.
Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry—part memoir, part poetry reflections, part anthology—takes readers on a journey to discovering poetry’s purpose, which is, delightfully, nothing. “Why poetry?” Willome asks. “You might as well ask, why chocolate?” Poetry reflects nothing more and nothing less than the pure joy of living, loving, and being, in all of its confusion and wonder. Willome’s book will gently guide you to read, write, and be a little more human through language’s mystery and joy.
—Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem: Based on the Billy Collins Poem “Introduction to Poetry”