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Variations on the Word "Sleep" -- Margaret Atwood

(Poem #1093) Variations on the Word "Sleep"
 I would like to watch you sleeping,
 which may not happen.
 I would like to watch you,
 sleeping. I would like to sleep
 with you, to enter
 your sleep as its smooth dark wave
 slides over my head

 and walk with you through that lucent
 wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
 with its watery sun & three moons
 towards the cave where you must descend,
 towards your worst fear

 I would like to give you the silver
 branch, the small white flower, the one
 word that will protect you
 from the grief at the center
 of your dream, from the grief
 at the center. I would like to follow
 you up the long stairway
 again & become
 the boat that would row you back
 carefully, a flame
 in two cupped hands
 to where your body lies
 beside me, and you enter
 it as easily as breathing in

 I would like to be the air
 that inhabits you for a moment
 only. I would like to be that unnoticed
 & that necessary.
-- Margaret Atwood
I loved today's poem for the way it drew me in, for the almost palpable
sense that I was accompanying the narrator on her journey into the still
centre of her lover's subconscious. I was strongly reminded of Orpheus, and
his descent into hell to rescue Eurydice (very likely a deliberate
resonance, with the poem's underworld imagery of staircases and boats),
and somewhat, too, of C. L. Moore's "Jirel of Joiry" (nice '30s fantasy

As always, Atwood's imagery is vivid and immersive - astonishingly
immersive, when you consider how nondescriptive it is. The way the little
images - the wavering, lucent forest, the flame in two cupped hands, the
watery sun - weave together into a delicate, fantastic whole is nothing
short of magical.

And then, having drawn us down into the depths and back again, Atwood leaves
with the unexpected and beautiful image in the last verse. It is worth
noting how well the verse works both as a conclusion to the longer poem and
as an almost self-contained poem in its own right. Structurewise, too it
balances the first two lines, providing the 'reality' from which the poem
descends into a dreamscape, and to which it returns, enriched. Note the
change from the semidetached "I would like to watch you sleeping" to the
wholly involved "I would like to be the air that inhabits you".

On a deeper level, the poem is not so much about journey as about rhythm -
the visceral troughs and crests of breathing and sex and dreaming and sleep
cycles, the longer rhythms of relationships and life, and through it all,
the simultaneous suggestion of constancy, the calm still point through which
cycles pass, departing but always returning, unnoticed and necessary.


62 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Connie Rockman said...

I think there is another resonance in this poem. The images - the
water, the boat, the silver branch, the long stairway - also come from
the folktale of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." Do you know it? The
princesses are locked in their room every night, but in the morning
their shoes are worn out. Many men try to find out where they go, but
only when a young man has some magical help with a cloak of
invisibility, is he able to follow them down a long stairway to an
underground forest and lake, where they are rowed across to dance all
night in a castle. The young man breaks off three branches from the
enchanted forest before he follows them up the stairway to their bedroom
again. It's a wonderful metaphor for sleep and dream, filled with all
those images of folklore.

Connie Rockman

vivian eden said...

Lovely. Good to have you back.

E. Bruce Johnson said...

There is a peacefulness and serenity in this poem that pervades it throughout. All of us have been there and have experienced sleep so it is not a far leap to 'feel' this poem. It expresses well the longing to experience this serenity with a lover and travel with her to that secret and at times scary place but to do so and fear nothing because we are not alone. The metaphors are perfect. Although I'm not Atwood's number one fan, she touched me with these romantic musings.

Norman Becca said...

Variations on the Word "Sleep" -

This is an excellent poetic expression of the Hero's Journey, complete with
mythic images, and complete with the layering of the _Heroine's_ Journey.
Those interested in Atwood's expressions here should also check out her
poems in You are Happy which include ones from the viewpoint of Circe
herself, for instance.

I have long valued this poem both for its literary allusions and for its
sweetly murmuring language. My fiance and I have just selected it as our
marriage reading since it shows an awareness of trials to come and our roles
in nurturing each other through those trials, subconscious or conscious,
along with a marvelous personal involvement and depth (no pun intended) of
care not expressed in so many poems that give advice from a distance about
love and marriage.


sunsin said...

Atwood also has a long short story entitled "Isis in Darkness" that is very beautiful and somewhat reminiscent of this poem.

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