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 1987
This one is a bit of a ramble, but that's how it fell out tonight.
The last line of this poem seems a little incongruous to me; while the rest of the poem is an elaboration on tenderness and togetherness, the last line implies some kind of dependence. It privileges the sleeper. Other than that, though, I find this poem beautiful. Atwood plays with rythmic cycles and abstract imagery in portraying intimacy. Oh, it sounds so dry to say it that way. Let me instead point out the gorgeous eroticism. The speaker opens innocently enough, for "sleeping" implies inactivity. However, when she says, "I would like to sleep with you," suddenly we are aware that one of the variations on the word sleep is sexual. The narrator says that she wants, "to enter your sleep as its smooth dark wave slides over my head," evoking images of sheets moving, perhaps, or bodies. Even the sound of the phrase "smooth dark wave" is sultry and soft, its oooo sound cooing arousal, and the low "a" sounds singing along with the act of love.
At this point, however, the speaker pulls back, entering a weaker dream world of "a watery sun and three moons." Here she says that she wants to follow him into a cave where he must meet his deepest fear. Elaborating on this in the next stanza, she says that she would like to present him with "the silver branch, the small white flower, the single word that will protect [him]." Is this love? A vagina (a long thin branch with a small round flower)? Physical presence? A body? A mere dreamlike, mythic token of affection? Hm...
however, is this a departure from the erotic imagery? Perhaps these are merely her thoughts while lovemaking, the loving impulse. As she writes, she continues to use enjambment, which implies sexuality, stringing our energy over one line to the next, and repetition, moving the sentences one after the other like two bodies. As the third stanza moves on, the reader almost runs out of breath running from line to line, all the while accumulating the image of a flame in two cupped hands - perhaps this flame is her orgasm, perhaps just her delight?
The stanza ends with an in breath; literally, its last two words are "breathing in," and after this climax, the poem falls back into tenderness.
Perhaps we may see the entire poem as a breath, the inhale starting from a place of peace, of rest, of sleep, moving and inhaling and building to a climax, and then, finally, releasing, relaxing, breathing out.