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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Doyle’

summer sunset view porch

“Lately I’ve been waking up at 3 a.m.,” a friend admitted in a group email last month.

It was only a passing comment; we were talking about when we find time to read, and she confessed to snatching an hour here and there during her nocturnal wakings. But the 3 a.m. comment caused a quiet thump of recognition, because for months, I have been waking in the night, too. A flurry of responses from the group confirmed it: we’re not the only ones.

I think it started for me last summer, as I switched jobs, moved to a new apartment and grieved over several national tragedies. It has continued, off and on, through the fall and winter: the election and its fallout, significant stress at work, many other challenges in my life and the lives of people I love.

Late at night, I often find myself in bed with my journal and a pen in hand, pushing my glasses up on my nose. I keep the lamp on after my husband rolls over and closes his eyes, trying to write my way toward a peaceful place, taking deep breaths so I can turn out the light and head for sleep.

Some nights I can dive into a book, lose myself in a good story or some luminous poetry. Other nights, I need to trace the swirling thoughts, get them out of my brain and onto the page. Then I can try to sleep. But I often – though not always – end up wide awake, at some ungodly single-digit hour of the night.

My friend lives six time zones away, and our fellow nighttime wakers are scattered across the country, but it still comforted me, somehow, to know I wasn’t alone in this. The next few times I woke up in the middle of the night, I lay listening to the whir of traffic outside, thinking of my friends, wakeful in their houses, in Illinois or North Carolina or Maine. It made me feel better to picture their faces, even though I knew the fact of our communal waking wouldn’t solve anything for any of us.

Madeleine L’Engle, one of my patron saints, begins her memoir The Irrational Season with a similar image: the silhouette of Madeleine herself, standing at the window of her apartment on the Upper West Side, holding a mug of hot bouillon on a dark morning in early winter. She peers out the blinds to the street that is never quite silent, the building across the way whose lights never all go out at once. She sips her bouillon, savoring her small rebellion against the tyranny of the clock. “I enjoy these occasional spells of nocturnal wakefulness,” she says. “And I am never awake alone.”

I’m not always so sanguine about my own nocturnal waking, though sometimes I can turn over and fall back asleep, or think about something comforting (including my friends, awake in their own houses). Sometimes I get up for a drink of water, walking around the wicker chest at the end of our bed, down the darkened hallway and glancing out the bathroom window, at the streetlights one block over, or a winking star. (After eight months in this apartment, I can finally walk through it in the dead of night without crashing into anything.)

“I do not think we talk enough about how every one of us / Has shuffled around the house in the middle of the night / Worried,” Brian Doyle says, in a poem aptly titled “Three in the Morning.” A few lines later, he adds wryly, “Sometimes there is zero / To be done except shuffle around wearily.”

Sometimes, I might add, there’s not much to be done except lie there a while, taking deep breaths or running the lines of an old hymn through my head. The anxiety doesn’t always dissipate, though sometimes it quiets to a background hum. But it does help, usually, to think of my friends, or of Madeleine at the window with her mug of bouillon, watching the slow nighttime life of her neighborhood. If I am awake, and especially if I’m worried, it helps to know I’m not alone.

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bargain poetry bookbook nyc

What Do Poems Do?

I was, no kidding, a visiting writer in a kindergarten recently,
And the children asked me many wry and hilarious questions,
Among them is that your real nose? and can you write a book
About a ruffed grouse, please? But the one that pops back into
My mind this morning was what do poems do? Answers: swirl
Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind. Open
Recalcitrant jars of honey. Be huckleberries in earliest January,
When berries are only a shivering idea on a bush. Be your dad
For a moment again, tall and amused and smelling like Sunday.
Be the awful wheeze of a kid with the flu. Remind you of what
You didn’t ever forget but only mislaid or misfiled. Be badgers,
Meteor showers, falcons, prayers, sneers, mayors, confessionals.
They are built to slide into you sideways. You have poetry slots
Where your gills used to be, when you lived inside your mother.
If you hold a poem right you can go back there. Find the handle.
Take a skitter of words and speak gently to them, and you’ll see.

I picked up How the Light Gets In, a slim collection of Doyle’s rambling, luminous “proems,” at the Strand in February (though I snapped the photo above at bookbook). They are full of vivid images, wry humor, startling moments of joy.

This one – plus “The Under of Things,” and “Wrenness,” and “Poem for a New Baby Girl,” and “Silentium,” and half a dozen others – stopped me in my tracks. They did what the best poems do, which is make me pay attention. If you enjoyed this one, I’d recommend the whole collection.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am (per tradition) sharing poetry on Fridays here this month.

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