Poem Without Sleep
All the things that could happen
to the baby came to me last night
as I was falling asleep. Children
of mine, they climbed into bed, sweaty
and whimpering in colorful pajamas,
with their stories, which were sad,
and their fears, which were crystalline.
Each time another arrived
I’d think OK, that’s got to be it.
But then another would push through
with her forehead or elbow, her
hot breath saying Mama, saying
Mama please. Soon there were so many
I couldn’t see any one of them,
I couldn’t hear their distinct voices,
and they jumped on the bed,
on my chest, on my face, until it was
all black with a white flash
and a thick, electric ringing in the ears.
And now, here’s the morning.
Here’s the tree flickering
behind the shade, dumb tree
with its one arm raised to the sky.
Here’s the silent tipping into another day.
And now, finally, finally, the baby, blowing
her famous raspberries down the dark
static hallway of the baby monitor. And now
she begins to whimper. And now she cries out.
And here I go to her, thank God.
Here I go to help her little life.
Carrie Fountain, from Instant Winner (Penguin, 2014)
I wasn’t in a particularly good place when I first found this poem a couple of years ago. In myself and in relation to poetry, and the world. I had had enough of everything, not least my own capacity to spiral crazy conversations that only I could hear, out of nowhere, based on the merest look, or even imaginary look, that someone, often someone I didn’t even know, had given me. Or, worse, on the comment I had heard someone make at a party 23 years ago, or that I had made to them, when drunk, about how they looked, or their aftershave, or something equally meaningless. Then a very patient person explained to me over many weeks that I did not have to listen to those thoughts, and that my thoughts were not even valuable in themselves: they were there, like trains passing through the platform of my mind, but I did not need to get board every single one of them and begin ordering curry from the dining car, and while I was at it, free drinks for all of my fellow passengers, who were now backing away from me looking distinctly worried.
If you have not been in that place then I am truly happy for you and I salute you. Long may it continue. The spiralling as I learned to call it can still happen to me, hopefully less regularly than it did then, but I still wake up each morning on guard because I know it is not over in my life. It is not a hopeless situation. Because of that patient person I now have some tools to deal with it. (Where am ? I am in my kitchen. Who am I? I am Anthony. When is it? It is now. Name one thing you can hear: the blackbird beyond the back door. One thing you can see: my fountain pen. One thing you can taste: the coffee in my mouth.) At pretty much the lowest moment of these repeated, sometimes-for-days-on-end spirals, the US poet Carrie Fountain came into my life and reminded me that it was going to be OK. I have no memory of finding her, only that I did, on a website, by following my nose online one afternoon when things were especially bleak and unpromising. (If you are the person who recommended her to me, please write in and say so and I will send you a book to say thank you.)
First off, I recognised her territory immediately. I have been there. I have been there. For better or worse, I have even written poems about it. As I read Carrie’s poem I had the weird and not unpleasurable sensation of being able to look back on a period in my life when, as I have said elsewhere, poems were as essential to me as looking after my children or breathing. I was not in that place now, and my children were flown, but suddenly, thanks to this fluid and dreamlike poem, I was back there, thinking ‘OK, that’s got to be it’, though I knew it wasn’t. I am really in debt to this poem for the way it brought me back to the facts of the matter. It reminded (and reminds) me again why I called this series ‘Lifesaving’. It is that important. As the late Raymond Carver used to say: ‘writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing- a sunset or an old shoe- in absolute and simple amazement’. Or in my case, just now, gratitude.