I’m up because I can’t stay down. I could blame the aspen raking a branch across the window. Or a wounded toy in the next room sending off a distress call of three long beeps. Or my wife, Jacqui, dreaming again of babies swimming inside her like tadpoles—maybe she turned over too many times. In short I can point to immediate cause but not any underlying raison d’etre. This much I know: I carry my insomnia as a kind of burden, if not an actual curse. David Benioff sums up the feeling about as well as anyone: “I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.”

 

*

 

It wasn’t always so. As a teen, whenever my head hit the pillow I was out like Sleeping Beauty, like Rip Van Winkle, like the handsomest drowned man in the world (minus the handsome) who washes up in Garcia Marquez’s famous story. Ditto my twenties. I could sleep through storms and small earthquakes, the jibber-jabber of late-night TV, parties involving complex wrestling moves in the apartment above. But in my early thirties I turned susceptible to every fly buzz and mouse scamper, every looming deadline or stab of inadequacy, every weird dream about growing leaves from my wrists. These days I feel myself metaphysically maladjusted and my insomnia proves it. If only I were like my son, easy in his bones, who sleeps like a glistening pond in moonlight. If only I were more confident and reliable, more organically whole, more believing, more patriotic, more something, I would sleep a standard eight hours and wake ready to push back frontiers. The bewitching hours, I call these episodes, and the next day I suffer a sort of morning after, as if I had done something shameful, like sell off a trove of family pictures, or burn down the neighbor’s gazebo to warm my hands by the flames.

 

*

 

Of course, even as I envy the well-adjusted ones who sleep straight through, I also pity and disparage them. My insomnia proves my seriousness as an artist, proves some darker, more freighted purpose. To eavesdrop on my Doppelgänger. To break bread with my daemonion over a vintage bottle of soothsayer burgundy. To sit down in a shabby all-night diner with others of my ilk, like Franz Kafka or Edvard Munch. I preen myself just a little: not just anyone can be invited to that midnight party. So how do I spend these sacrosanct hours? By letting language wash through me. My own words, as in this essay—a practice that feels like both penance and blessing. But also opening myself to other people’s words, especially lines from poems, which enter like arrows. Cesar Vallejo for instance: “I’ll die in Paris in a shower of rain, / On a day I already remember.” Or Charles Wright: “Already one day has detached itself from all the rest up ahead. / It has my photograph in its soft pocket. / It wants to carry my breath into the past in its bag of wind.” By day, these poems are skillful stanzas that can be explained by context and history; by night, hand-addressed invitations.

 

*

It took but a week and a half after moving into this house for my insomnia to find my new address. I went downstairs to the study and flipped on the light. This was before we had curtains, before we even had sheets up. So I was careful—careful not to sprawl or scratch myself indiscreetly, careful to wear pajamas. Or call them what they are: faded surgeon blues with a little grease mark on the left cuff. I took these precautions, in case someone happened to be watching. As it turned out, someone was—my affable, across-the-street neighbor, propagator of conspiracy theories that end with the IRS hiring hit men to take out tax evaders or California sinking into the Pacific. At certain hours we all believe everything, myself included. The next afternoon, after turning off his lawnmower and walking across the street, he asked, “Well Professor, do you always get your best ideas in the middle of the night? I see you were up in the wee hours.” My best ideas? I wasn’t in the mood to explain nuances, wasn’t in the mood to say, Ideas? I’m lucky to get them at all, and it’s worse at night. I’m one of those sorry scribblers who sweats ten words, then crosses nine out; who tinkers with broken-backed sentences as if they were ships inside a bottle; who lays a dead cat beside a smiling hopscotch figure just to see what it does to the cloud formation overhead. I didn’t say any of that, of course. Instead I mumbled something about being behind on my Muse’s monthly installment, and now she was taking revenge.

 

*

 

Of course my objections to my neighbor’s notion of how ideas arrive are mostly semantic. Of course I associate writing with insomnia. Of course I find purpose in being randomly wakened. When I read James Joyce’s “The Dead,” it isn’t Gabriel Conroy I identify with, or Michael Furey, not even Gretta or pesky Miss Ivors, but the monks of Mount Melleray mentioned during the dinner. No, I’m not as devoted as these blessed Irish holy men, who sleep in their coffins and wake each morning at 2:00 a.m. to remind themselves of their end. But my insomnia, ridiculously, feels equally consecrated. When summoned, I deliver my body to my writing chair and hope my spirit will follow. At these moments purpose manifests itself as mystery. Something wants to have its way with me. It’s as if a small, mostly benign octopus located behind my sternum wakes, swells to the size of a bloated poltergeist, and unrolls its hungry tentacles. The tentacles double as antennae. It’s my job to let the octopus eavesdrop for the next three hours. Some will say that I should write longhand in pen. But there’s plenty of visceral life with a keyboard, all ten fingers taking part in the midnight maneuvers. If you were to peek in my window, I’d look like an amiable man playing a sonata. Add audio, and the typing sounds like muffled gunfire.

 

*

 

I’ve tried doing other things at night, practical tasks that would free me up during the day—balance the checkbook, clean out the refrigerator, read student papers. But all of these seem an irresponsible way to spend my sleeplessness. I used to watch television. After midnight, B grade movies take on a teleological logic as they do at no other time. Even the most banal advertising seems to channel darkly relevant idioms. Yes, indenturing myself to three months of truck driving school will bring illumination. Yes, attorneys who want me to sue the pants off my brother-in-law are goodwill ambassadors. Even the alluring spiels accompanying 1-900 numbers dovetail nicely with the scraps of Blake floating through my head: “Call now. He who desires but acts not—your phone mate is waiting—breeds pestilence.” “The road of excess, she knows how to keep your secret, leads to the palace of wisdom.” At night I am vulnerable. But at the same time removed. I watch myself watching myself.

 

*

 

I used to walk at night, which was better. Sometimes around the house, flipping lights on and off, touching tables, or checking the kids, the two boys making a teepee of slow breathing. But usually outside, where the octopus has a chance to take in larger rhythms. In fact, in my first poetry collection, I have three poems about walking at night. In one, I stand outside my own window, a vagrant imagining the life within. In another I wander past a swimming pool, wanting to freeze particulars, wanting to freeze “the wonder of a moon looking only like a moon, of things unfolding slowly and meaning nothing.” In the third, I follow a distant Rachmaninoff melody down a street to an open window where a girl, her sister watching, leans into her labor at the piano, in what might pass as play. Sometimes it’s too cold to walk, sometimes too dark. No, the truth is my present neighborhood is boring, largely treeless, and I hate trying to whip myself into literal wanderlust.

 

*

 

So mostly I write. That is, I sit down to do my wandering. I’ve learned not to trust poems that come to me whole cloth, at night. The vulnerability I have to bad advertising also opens me up to imposter Muses. I’m better off revising. Or jotting down journal entries. Almost anything, as long as it is rooted in the moment itself. Which is why I’m writing this essay about insomnia now, in present tense, rather than tomorrow morning in past. I like the essay because it lets me try one thing, then another, like a truck backing up in a narrow alley: you make a little progress, bump into a garbage can, then move forward, turn the wheel, and try again. What I’m trying to avoid above all else: the impression that I somehow know where I’m going from page one.

 

*

 

In journal writing when I reach a lull, I mention weather. So here’s weather: a little crisp tonight, at least for August, but perfectly windless. After weather, description. I’ll start with this fifties oak desk and a pair of chairs, one of which I’m sitting in—all of which I bought at a surplus sale. A file cabinet. A library table heavy with books. Description of the right sort is a launch pad that marries writer and reader. What is it Pound says, that the natural object is always the adequate symbol? These furniture castoffs share the room with a blue balloon from the dentist—“Keep Brushing.” Mostly deflated, it lies here on the floor like an alien’s head. I think of popping it and tossing it away. But I like the room better this way, unbalanced by blue.

 

*

 

At night, under an insomniac moon, I crave imbalance. Joyce Carol Oates’s advice about novel writing makes more sense than ever. At some point, she recommends, you have to sleep with the writing. Not taking the pages to bed with you, but sleeping where the pages sleep—in the room where they were created. Returning to the scene of the crime, we might say, to devote not just waking but sleeping energy to the endeavor. If what wants to be written invites you to lay yourself down where you don’t belong, can’t it also raise you up when you should be asleep? At this hour, I believe in many things: myth, phrenology, superstition, that the stars control our actions. What I push away in the rash brightness of midday, I welcome at the bewitching hour.

 

*

 

Like this story, the story of Pass-out Annie, which my brother told me. He and his paramedic friends in Seattle gave her the name after her third emergency call in four weeks. She’d dial 911, complain about feeling faint, give her address, then the line would go dead. The EMTs (once it was my brother) would hurry over, hammer on the door, and when no one answered, let themselves in, the door always conveniently unlocked. They’d find her collapsed, in bath or kitchen, sweats or party dress, the sprawl of her body anticipating some future demise. They spoke to her, tried to jostle her awake, finally gave her the hand test, which consists of lifting the hand directly above the face and letting it drop. What should the hand of someone unconscious do? Fall of course, wrist saying yes to gravity, the face suspecting nothing, the hand gently hitting, then bouncing off the cheek. She failed the test every time, her arm never limp enough, her hand swerving away from her face. She was not unconscious, my brother said, just pretending to be. Yet, they could never get her to admit the ruse. Just as they were readying her for the stretcher, she’d suddenly wake up, feigning disorientation. Five minutes later she’d be fully recovered, and they’d be on the road. I’m convinced there’s a connection between this story and insomnia, if I just puzzle it out. Maybe they’re complete opposites—and therefore occupy the same psychic space. Her desire: to be asleep while awake. My burden: to be awake when I should be asleep. In any case, my son and I have turned her fakery into a game. Pass out Annie, we call it. Just before bed he begs me to play it, his goal to teach his waking self to mimic his sleeping self, as if by cheating his reflexes he could lift himself out of time and skin.

 

*

 

Before I go further there’s another story I picked up last week. It concerns a man on a business trip who goes into a bar and accepts a drink from a woman he’s never met. One minute he’s drinking a whiskey and tonic, the next he finds himself waking naked in a hotel bathtub filled with cold water and ice, with a blinding pain in his lower back. Quite a bender, it would seem. He leans forward just enough to read a message written in lipstick on the mirror. “Call 911. Your right kidney has been harvested. You have less than two hours before it will be too late.” I heard the above account from a reasonable and intelligent man, who believed it, who wanted me to believe it. Though I don’t trust its veracity for a minute—just another example of urban folklore making the rounds, a cautionary tale about not trusting strangers—something about it rings true tonally. I immediately identify with the victim. Imagine for a moment how it would feel to reach your hand slowly back, a cynic, then touch sloppy fishing line sutures and instantly become a believer? Part of me wants it to be true. I alone have been chosen to interpret the subterranean message, to convey the throbbing of the room, the whole world cold where it touches me, a searing heat within. I alone have been chosen to get the words down and save the hapless traveler from those who would filch what he carries inside.

 

*

 

I failed to finish my earlier description of this room. Under the library table, in the corner, sits a garage-sale terrarium, and hiding just now, a tarantula—my son’s. Friends gave it to him last October, which means he’s kept it alive for ten months, no small accomplishment. I can’t see it from here, but I can feel it. Feel it curled inside the left palm of my worn-out leather glove with the unstitched thumb. And there are crickets, two or three, though none are chirping. Sometimes crickets and tarantula will co-exist for days. Everything depends on hunger. I’ve written a poem about letting the tarantula walk up my arm. In the middle there’s a line that goes like this: “If God is watching this closet drama unfold, 2:07 a.m., three days before winter solstice, he has sent only the usual signs—mute darkness italicized by this house settling deeper into its footnotes.”

 

*

 

I do not keep a log of my insomnia, but the idea intrigues me. If I did, I’d keep it in a floppy, checkbook-sized journal, with a red cover, not unlike the jump book that parachutists use to track their forays through air. We rented a room to such a parachutist when I was in grade school, Dave Kelley, who did a remarkable job of impersonating a college student during the week so he could jump on weekends. Like him, I would record date and time, wind velocity, and a few comments. Today might read “August 5. Howling wind. An exhilarating night of sleeplessness. Insomnia opened her arms to me, so I returned the favor and wrote her into my life.” And two weeks from now maybe I will wake up with the kind of ideas Mr. Conspiracy favors: “August 13. A slight breeze. A dog howling, one street over another insomniac’s light is on. We are thinking each other’s thoughts. Between these windows one could draw an invisible line. From this line hangs a novel, hangs the world, but what is the plot? How my eyes burn.” But that novel isn’t tonight. Tonight is the old regular feeling: something I don’t understand wanting to have its way with me. So I bang the keyboard and listen. Listen and bang.

 

*

 

“Mute darkness italicized by this house settling deeper into its footnotes.” Maybe my earlier lines sum up my insomnia, only it is me sinking deeper into the footnotes. Let me try to articulate the contradictions. At night, the powers that be are both closer and further away. I’m empty but more alive. I have everything to say but only words to say it. I feel alone but accompanied—if only by a tarantula, or a cricket, or my neighbor. Or the deer that drift down from the foothills in winter and eat my Euonymus bushes to the ground and leave their pellets, a kind of calling card, under my window. Or my son upstairs who sleeps so soundly I can almost never rouse him. I know he’s asleep because I’ve tested him. One night, before putting myself down for the second time I sneaked into his room, rolled him from his side to his back, and lifted his hand above his head. “Pass-out Annie,” I said very softly, signaling the beginning of the game. When he’s awake, his hand is a lobster claw that falls slowly, as if through cold molasses. When he’s asleep, as he was that night, the hand falls heavily, naturally, glances off his face, and he rolls away. It comes as a comfort: I’m stuck here, but someone I love is safely somewhere else.

 

Lance Larsen

Lance Larsen, poet laureate of Utah, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Genius Loci. His poems and prose appear widely. He has received a number of awards, including a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his essays have five times made the Notables list in Best American Essays. A professor at BYU, he will direct a theater study abroad program in London in the spring.

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