Are any of us sleeping much lately? With such grief in the world right now, I suspect anxiety keeps a lot of us awake nights. What a rosary of sound and image Lisa Russ Spaar gives us to work through with this poem, beginning in the early evening of a sleepless night and ending with dawn. Ampersands replace conjunctions and each couplet spills into the next, giving us a spatial reflection of insomnia’s claustrophobia. And within the narrow confines of the form, the speaker’s mind moves swiftly from beloved to beloved: an unspecified and absent “you,” and her three grown children whom “the halfway house of night// holds elsewhere.” References to birds, wings, and cages appear in each movement, hinting at a sense of feeling trapped when denied the escape of restful sleep—and yet the final line subtly and beautifully turns that frustration back on itself.
“The Anxiety Offices,” by Lisa Russ Spaar
I wake from my insomnia
into this vanishing, gaze & its lust,
the world blue too.
I do not grieve, but am infected
by your absence, amber canto
corseted by black ash.
When I remember to pray,
it is an old conversation:
by these closing silks, starlings
with their roosting sutras,
& eyelet memory that holds
the disappearing self in place—
What the bedroom triptych mirror,
which is to say, what I
once held—three children’s bodies
in quilted sanctuary
of felted animals, bolsters,
dolls staring, origami birds dropped
on invisible threads
from what might as well be heaven,
toward which, charmed,
flew their rote chimings,
if I should die—
now the halfway house of night
holds elsewhere: cars, lovers’ arms,
the exquisite anarchy of sky
crazed by arterial stars
in open field or private dreaming.
As must be. This too:
the snow-pale negligee
of privet hedge and street lamp
pressed to the wall,
& a single window, inked & deep,
that many light-blink thoughts
of what still holds me here
will touch and pass before I sleep—
3. Matins: Three Vigils
False alarm, the dormer blanched
with muslin wash of lone, twin headlamps.
Mute pane transparent, dream obdurate
& already as lost to me as any road.
Shadow on shadow: my body disappears.
What of the soul?
The old dog cries arthritically in sleep,
her secrets never more near.
When I lie with my love, we leave time.
Later, the shivering keel of his tongue
makes of our mouths a winged lung,
returning us to this very hour—
Uncompassed first light, tremolo,
& on the screened porch a trapped wren
chirrs & starts, swooping, pelting in wild
borderline vision my subterfuge heart,
her tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle scalings
fluently reassembling me.
Salvific, the muddy hem
of my obscure guilt.
And though hindered sorely
by proud, myopic travail
I am none the less
boundless this morning,
trawling, under your sway,
winter’s counterfeit cages
wracked & rife & caroled
by the catalogue of all
I do and must learn to love
beyond my power to stay.
Lisa Russ Spaar’s books include Monticello in Mind: 50 Contemporary Poems on Jefferson (Virginia) and Orexia (Persea), her fifth poetry collection. Her honors include a Rona Jaffe Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her poems have appeared in the Pushcart Anthology, Best American Poetry, Poetry, and elsewhere. She is a professor at the University of Virginia.