Deeper than sleep but not so deep as death
I lay there sleeping and my magic head
remembered and forgot. On first cry I
remembered and forgot and did believe.
I knew love and I knew evil:
woke to the burning song and the tree burning blind,
despair of our days and the calm milk-giver who
knows sleep, knows growth, the sex of fire and grass,
and the black snake with gold bones.
Black sleeps, gold burns; on second cry I woke
fully and gave to feed and fed on feeding.
Gold seed, green pain, my wizards in the earth
walked through the house, black in the morning dark.
Shadows grew in my veins, my bright belief,
my head of dreams deeper than night and sleep.
Voices of all black animals crying to drink, cries of all birth arise, simple as we,
found in the leaves, in clouds and dark, in dream,
deep as this hour, ready again to sleep.
Muriel Rukeyser 1951
Hello friends and family! I read this poem among the dying embers of a spectacular sunset, the latest in a series of great, sky-covering sunsets gracing Boulder's skies of late, so I simply paid attention to this poem's imagery and feel rather than its message. Otherwise, I might have chosen an easier one. Alas it will have to be incomplete. This, O best beloved, is quite a complicated poem (who caught the Rudyard Kipling nod?). I have read it at least five times and it is only now beginning to take its shape for me. As in some of the old school PotWs, I think that I am just going to point out some things I have noticed in this poem. As in James Joyce's Ulysses, the poem's tangible action is simple, even boring. A baby wakes a dreaming woman who feeds him and goes back to bed, "ready again to sleep." Rukeyser does not make things this easy for us, though. The difficult and perhaps most brilliant thing about "Night Feeding" is that it reads like a dream. The images cycle and recycle, never settling on a pattern or meaning. It is as if the broken ideas are what matters rather than the poem's universe, for the different ideas and images seem to dance around the real ones. What these real ones are, we have to imagine for ourselves. We do see that love, evil, gold, black, snake, sleep/deep, and (fantastically) dream itself shuffle about. Black sleeps, black is a snake, and animals are black within the poem. In the same way, gold burns, is bones and is a seed. Rukeyser plays with "black" and "snake" implicitly, as sleep, death and even deep often connote darkness or black. Then, too, the poem (and the speaker's consciousness) seem almost like a snake ingesting its tail. The end returns to the beginning, and we realize that the body exists as a digestion (or is it a regurgitation) of itself.
Within this jumble, though, there rests a grain or two of sense. The diction is decidedly Biblical, what with the snake, the burning tree (which, while nodding at the Old Testament burning bush, could also be a metaphor for the destruction of Eden), a woman who knows the "despair" of our days, a mother perhaps of "all birth," and the voices of all of the animals. I propose that the narrator's sleep at the beginning of the poem resembles Eve's innocence in Eden, which a child's cry begins to shatter. Eden, a dream, breaks down as one into a more frenzied and mixed up jumble of what was. The animals are despairing, the earth is despairing, and we live for our children, shown by the line "gave to feed and fed on feeding." This poem is dark and cynical, showing a version of motherhood that rerun's Eve's. This leads to deeper questions about our own originality. Are we just replaying things over and over? Milan Kundera in Immortality suggests that we do not perform gestures because no gesture is unique. With uncountable billions of human beings to have passed across the earth, nothing can be simply ours. So a gesture is more individual than an individual - they inhabit us when we perform them. So this poem asks whether we are just replaying the garden of Eden tragedy over and over. We are born into a state of innocence, it crumbles, and we eventually return to the garden/innocence/death. This is what meta-
narratives are all about anyway! Umbrella-stories attempting to explain our lives and struggles. The Bible is full of meta-narratives, beliefs aside. I could actually keep going for a long time, but I myself am tumbling into the deep of sleep, and bid you goodnight!
And to those of you to whom I owe emails, please accept my apology and my promise that they will arrive post-haste.