‘ “His great failure—” “the tyrant’s failure—” “& yours too?’ she said,” “ ‘is to think that”
“achievement” “must be evident,” “in the light—’ ”
Alice Notley, Descent of Alette
- The fear that one will never sleep again keeps the insomniac awake. The insomniac must become a whorl, give up all names and concepts. Go right into the crack of hell and float like a leaf to the bottom. Losing fear of being fired as a result of working badly, as a result of sleeping badly, the sleeper stops using sleep to optimize and instead, sleep becomes their art. The spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of sleep find their nemesis in the work regime. Clocks are fear mongers; broken clocks are signs of good ruin allowing the sleeper inconspicuously to spiral. This turning inward, this intimate withdrawal of the consciousness into the hollow of sleep, twinning of withdrawal and presence, this “phantasm of spine and head,” is what allows one to “absorb” night: to be night.
- See a bed in your mind’s eye: is it framed? Bare, on the floor? What are the sheets, blankets, and pillows made of? Is it outside, inside, in a small room or a large room? Is there mosquito netting around it? Is it dark, perfectly dark, or are lights flickering, blaring? Are there bears around, bees, bats, a coyote? Sleeping birds, the smell of cooking onions, music, busses, shouting, barking? Who is doing what at the other end of the world?
- The hope of non-sleepers is sleep, sleep is the food of all living presence, and time is the food of sleep. Time is a physiological condition, in addition to being a pit of holes. Sleep and wake are genres. Despite all appearances to the contrary, and notwithstanding dreams, sleep is a season. If you jump ahead, skip episodes of sleep, fragment the night, you lose the poetry of daytime. Daytime becomes a plot-driven slog; all it thinks about is sleep. There can be “slapstick sleep” of course, for comedy cuts across all forms—if continuous prose sleep is to be preferred over disjunctive poem sleep, absurdity is the through-line. For the presences that permeate sleep, they will come and go. They don’t interrupt the pulsing, soothing, narrative song of sleep without a good reason. They say: it’s safe to sleep. If not, they’ll use sound, events, and translate them into a dream-image that will penetrate the cave of sleep, causing you to dart up.
- Fear prevents sleep; the reason horror movies are set at night is because insomnia is a horror. No sleep without the question, is there something to fear? Many affects sleep together, cf. Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger. At times, enemies who sleep next to each other find their differences resolved by morning. Sleep humbles egos and ameliorates the deeds of the incautious. But fear is no sleeper.
- Sleep is an element in all forms of service and work. Sleeping is primary to employment of all kinds. It has become valued as a particular kind of labor in an era when the ability to sleep (which is the ability to avoid everything that undoes sleep) has become a kind of skill. We must compare this-and-that in order to make sense of anything. If we couldn’t compare a small thing to a large thing, they might seem to be the same size. If we don’t compare sleeps, they will seem to be one sleep even though they are many, many sleeps—countless sleeps. Though sleep may be said to be “one thing,” different sensoria produce different sleeps. Juxtaposing how sleepers describe their sleep, comparing them, reveals how different sleeps are, even as sleep may be said to be “one thing.” How do the sleep-ways of those who, otherwise incommensurate, commonly sleep compare? Including mollusks, whales, coyotes, feminists, moths, bees, cats, and stars? How does a star sleep as compared with a bee? A star has only the one eye. By the time we see it, it’s gone. If sleeping is something that occurs in time, then how does time feel about sleep? Time has no fear. Time may be asleep. If time wakes up, what will happen to us all? Some practice sleeping as a form of success. For others sleep is redolent of failure. Some people make note of the material, social conditions of possibility for sleep (feminist economists posit an historical-materialism of sleep), and others are focused on their own submerged, oceanic dream of sleep (whales). Some take sleep to be a “one-two-thing” (stars), while others view sleeps as distinct from each other and offer varying ideas of how they’re related. Coyotes find sleeps unpredictable. Coyote says of sleeping that: “it generates a sensation of running in a desert but without my body...it begins with the proprioception of feet...this traveling sensation then produces a phantasm of spine and head...but I am also just wind...I give into motion, being pulled, thrown, pushed, pulled.” In their interview, the star Forsythe muses on the desire to feel “the everlasting dark radiance of sleep”: “Can I feel this energy forever?”
To be able to choose to sleep this way—to sleep not in order to wake up but to dissolve the binary between sleeping and waking as the embodiment of the “one-two thing,” a negative radiance that bears witness to the cosmos. The star flickers while simultaneously gone into the black hole of sleep, alive-dead, “free of a rushing, intrusive monad.” For the moth, to practice active sleeping is to harness one’s own capacity to act on behalf of another’s capacity to act, and to let their sleep act. The moth speaks of being suggestive, ambiguous but encouraging. The moth is a kind of chaplain of sleep. Sleeping is a skill; for the moth it also has an aesthetic element. “I believe it can be called an art,” moth said. “However, it is an art that is, by necessity, never perfected, because to practice the negative potency of sleep is to dwell always in the space of potential.” Coyote spoke of how the prefix re means “back” or “again” and in all of its usages it evokes the cyclicality of wake-running and sleep-running. “I am not waiting, in sleep, to run. I remain running even when I'm asleep, receptive to the mysterious Something that calls me, and which I answer by running towards it.” Cat speaks of sleep as a “longer than usual pause.” Cat has a philosophical, melancholic relation to the question: “When we attend to it, our lived experience of sleep oscillates between senses of stasis and senses of change, senses of absence and presence. We feel, so often, the not-yet, the edge of something, an overwhelming problem, the not yet free, not yet well, not yet loved, not yet healed, not yet cared for, not yet liberated, or the actively undone, an active unbecoming. To sleep is to be aware of and, in a sense, to heal from this—to heal from time.” Cat finds that sleep contains pauses within pauses: “I might think the sleep is over, then it shifts and the sleep becomes even more sleep.”
The star sleeps with the one eye open, speaks of a willingness to feel the instability of radiance, even its disappearance, becoming memory. For the star, it isn’t the content of memory that is arresting, but rather the memory of memory itself. “As a star, I am memory; as a star I am radiance swallowed alive.” Star describes sleeping between radiance and black hole as similar to being in a rocking chair “the moment when the chair is just getting ready to rock forward...flowing forward and back...appear...recede...radiate...absorb.” Resonantly, whale says that “To be sleeping is always to be floating on the edge of meaning...”.
Finding these oscillations of attention mysterious, asking why they extend and recede, star nonetheless works to balance and hone her awareness along these edges in space. Fire, like sleep, can be a protest that collapses inside and outside, self and other. It can abolish subtext in the name of itself, creeping, encroaching from behind and around, above and below, and finally arriving, collapsing everything, burning indiscriminately, and yet objectively. Fire, like sleep, takes and makes energy, expending and recurring, eternally. Where is fire when it is out? And what is dreamed in the sleep of fire?
- Across the board sleepers ‘scan’ during sleep; an un-nameable ‘other’ conducts this ‘scanning’ process. No matter how divergently they sleep, all who sleep are ‘scanned by the other’ in sleep, as interspecies sleep expert Circe Zeitgeber calls it. She has argued that this ‘scan’ is akin to a literature review. In sleep ‘the literature’ is integrated. Zeitgeber’s terminology has provided a stimulus for new thinking about sleep. Drawing in part from Zeitgeber’s theory, a literary coterie, a school of writing, sleepiture, has emerged, where sleep is considered a mode of authorship.
Ava Kosov, a sleeper capable of sleeping 12 hours at a go, is a foundational figure for sleepiture. The main text of interest here is called In Some Mania which is a book of Kosov’s sleep-writing. She writes about how tired parents who want nothing more than sleep are turned, by children, into “the enemies of my sleep.” Because her parents wanted so desperately for her to sleep, they become the impediment to her sleep; she felt there must be something there to avoid. She became an insomniac to spite her parents. Here is a double-edged sword: the very capacity Kosov has to catalyze sleep, to, as she puts it, make other people sleepy, is linked to early, strenuous efforts to stay awake, to thwart her parents as if that was the only way to force her parents to let her sleep, on her terms. She is driven into this by her parents’ desperate longing for sleep, which they project onto the child, who is much less tired. She is particularly marked by repeated experiences of the sudden falling off of her parent’s presence, as they tip involuntarily into sleep. In one poem she describes herself as her parent’s ‘sleeping pill’: “I’m the pill / the pillow / they are felled / by their failure / to fell me / to fall me to sleep / instead / I make them do / what they want / me to do.” Her relationship with her parents causes her to “develop a rigorous / vigilance / a refusal / of oblivion.” She becomes someone for whom it is “generally easier / to make others fall asleep / than sleep.” As an adult she becomes a sought after sleep-coach. Whether there is good sleeping or not on the part of one’s parents will be deeply formative. There is a loss not just for the child whose parents don’t sleep, but for the parent who cannot stop trying to make the child sleep – who is not capable of reflecting on the quality and effect of their own sleep or lack thereof, because the capacity to sleep is not just a gift, but contains within it the possibility of receiving unexpected gifts of sleep from the other. Sleep, that is to say, is a gift economy. Sleep is something we give. Children especially benefit from the kind of quiet accompaniment that sleeping parents offer in so many settings. A field of togetherness is fostered when children can listen to the “sound” of their parents being no one—not being parents that is. Or anything at all. The child absorbs the parents’ lack of identity, how they are there and yet inert, like an unlit candle. And they begin to practice replacing their parents right then and there, saying, I am awake, here, present, the child thinks, while they are asleep, not here; gone away. Kosov speaks of how parents project upon children their own longing for this trace-less, trackless, unflappable darkness that won’t consciously register excitement, problems, hurt, anxiety, threat, arousal, or resentment but only fragments of dreams, while children wake up excited for the big feelings of the day.
- Imaginatively and somatically locating or perhaps in some sense even disappearing into inner night allows for egoless weightlessness, a sort of flying in water. Sleep is a slowing down that impedes the compulsion to assert knowing or acting knowingly, which is anathema to the whale: “Sleeping is not knowing, that is why it is improvisatory, closely related to arts of improvisation such as jazz where to play and sing, is to attend to what is emergent, to echolocate, in contrast with the recitative, incantatory, invocative mode of playing that is entailed by reading coded music or playing an old, known tune.”
For the bee, sleep is an occasion for curiosity: “The most profound gift of sleep is the way it allows us to surprise ourselves.” This spontaneity is a product of the openness of the sleeper to unceasing emanations, undulations, and signals. For bee, “to sleep is to receive otherwise imperceptible data.” To hear speech is to sense messages. Perhaps because, as a bee, communication is her medium; the material, you might say, of her sweet social practice. It is the active, embodied quality of the bee’s openness that causes her to feel signals, physically. Here sleeping is again likened, as with moth, to an unusual kind of art, a special kind of service that is the opposite of the concept of mastery, which is associated with something completed while awake. In contrast to this type, the ‘masterpiece’, sleepiture posits the ‘servant-piece’ which is characterized by elusiveness, incompletion, inconspicuousness, vagueness, and indeterminacy. The servant-piece is yet, and not-yet, a “remainder.”
- Perhaps the sleeper can be understood, metaphorically, to be an ember, a smoldering fire, un-intrusive. To be awake, recollecting presence and ever-changing reality, is to be “re-lit.” Fire licks up the space, takes it over, bends and collapses it to its own ends. For non-fire entities such as humans, to hold space is to imaginatively bound the boundless air. It also involves a disposition to welcome and accept what is, in fact, interminable: presence; a present-time that holds pasts. Reverberations across time means places are haunted. To hold space is to be reassuring and reassured. One doesn’t even need to know who or what it is that is held. To hold space is to put space “on hold” or “in the hold” as it were, to become its channel, its resonance chamber, to host and receive; to be empty, beginning by opening to one’s own fluid emptiness, the “tunnel” of the ear, of the body, of time. There is an active emptiness—an interfering with interference, an impeding of impeding–to receive, to hear, to open channels, as it were—channels being so much of what the body is comprised of, envelopes in which what is heard and felt shade into each other. The metaphysical notion and practice of “channeling” speaks to an intuition that the body as a whole is a spirit that can take in, through hearing, guidance that emanates from beyond the self. “Poetry-by-dictation” is another “channeling” activity used to hear what otherwise is crowded out by self-interest, judgment, agendas, or preoccupations with what is to come or what has already passed. It involves “getting out of the way” by attending to the present-time action of breathing space in and out without intention for the content of the life at hand. Instead intention is directed to listening for something without knowing what it is. From one side to the other side of all seas and lands, multitudinous desires gather and disperse, at once epiphenomenal and purposeful. Desires include all past and present tenses (tensions). When it comes to universal desire, we are so many myriad babies and “aimless nobodies” who, for example, desire to counter the social, political, and economic neglect, harm, and mistreatment towards future residents of the shared universal “undiscovered country” (which the known, lived-in place is at once emblematic of, and metaphoric of, such that our whole life can begin to seem a metaphor only for what will be without us there to be it). This desire becomes a concern which does not pick and choose. Simply: it is a developing concern, a concern-in-process. In a dream a concerned person was looking out of a window of the prison where she was forced to live, a window that she realized was also a mirror. She saw her brothers approaching, but she also saw herself. She began to wave to her brothers, calling their names. Then she heard her father’s voice saying recall, recall and she understood that he was “recalling” her brothers away from the window because he didn’t want them to be, as she put it, “exposed” to her. At that her brothers floated backwards, away from her. She woke up hearing the word recall on the loudspeaker that segments time at the prison, breaking apart the day with the crackling, agitating commands that charge the molecules with social control. Cutting off past and future and being open, quietly receding into the moment in a way that allows others to come forward, to open, to be and to discover themselves, the concerned person shares their dream.