– Carmen Giménez Smith –
Night creeps over me with its prim darkness, meteorological and metaphorical. When night arrives I cede to it and lay my tools at its feet. Night asks little of me in its humble approach, so I capitulate when I can. Even in a city, the cars and the trucks and the people walking at night became a quiet silenced by the blank of evening. Dusk sounds like a quiet boat engine. A car alarm or a gunshot is alarming but mostly hollow.
The sounds in the Southwestern desert where I live now are nothing minus nothing. The sky is excessive, brimming with stars and bluster. As soon as night falls here, my children are less incandescent. Every object in our house hangs tenuously to the light that tells us it exists. We spark lights in each room for a few hours of illumination before sleep.
My house is asleep. I put the machines to work when: the washer, the laptop, the printer, the dryer. I move from room to room of my house to check on my brood, their slender bodies spread across the bed. They are precariously close to the edges, but don’t fall as if, even in sleep, they’re guarded. I move them to the center of the beds anyway. Very occasionally they fall out of their dreams and off their beds and the thud is a blow to my gut. It disturbs the fragile balance that night offers.
At night, I resurrect Woolf’s murdered angel because she clears the kitchen of its clutter, which has become psychic in my universe, and then I can do my own work. She picks up the errant shoes and tidies them in a row next to the backpack and the coat, and I am free to write the next poem or essay. She tidies the stacks of books, so I can finally finish the last few pages of the novel I’ve set aside because of life, which for most is daytime.
Yet I know making night my home is a true subversion. My body tells me so. Even those who work at night, their bodies stubbornly set to a clock that yearns for sleep in darkness, live the life of Persephone— one part darkness and the other, the ordinary day. Night workers die younger because their hearts are changed by this timetable, but millions do it for as many reasons—even when the most of a community is asleep, the world still goes on.
They work in the making of our world as we sleep like the elves in fairy tales. My cousin’s husband Gabriel, who works the night shift as a correctional officer in a prison, tells me this about night, “Do you ever watch those post-apocalyptic movies where there is only a pocketful of survivors? It’s like that. There's nobody outside, nobody coming or going to work, nobody except the few other "survivors" and you’re just watching...waiting for something to happen that never does. It feels like an exclusive club, lonely but exciting at the same time as I continue to wait for that something to happen.”
He comes home to sleep at 7 AM, his house turned upside down by his sleep. Their days begin at 2 PM when he awakens from his sleep. The whole family holds vigil to his brutal nightlife, his children quieted and his wife padding quietly through their room. Night does not need darkness as evidenced by summer and the tips of the Earth. But sleep is darkness, light or not. Night is absence, not of light, but of a vitality that lives in the air like the tremor of a cymbal.
Night is my second home. It is my beach house and the tide is high enough to wash over and remake the day.
One form of torture is depriving prisoners of sleep, yet what quality of knowledge comes from this deprivation? The tortured are deprived of passing time’s reward, the end of their nights. Excessive lack of sleep leads to a drop in body temperature, a slight suppression of the immune system. It leads to delusions like waking nightmares. The Romans called it “tormentum vigilae,” as if the torment of sleeplessness itself holds vigil over the prisoner.
Sleeplessness becomes it’s own cell, a prison within a prison. The waking dream of the psychotic is Kafkaesque, conspiracies and sinister figures hovering over one’s tenuous grasp on true wakefulness.
Prisoners tortured this way are kept awake with relentless questioning, shifts of interrogators clocking in to harangue. They are kept awake with blaring rock music and by being shuttled about from cell to cell, interrupting their incipient sleep.
Their psychotic waking dreams become interlocutors between the sleep-deprived prisoner and his keepers. We become complicit because the notion of sleep deprivation seems mild in comparison with waterboarding or electrocution. We become complicit because of our own sleeplessness and its seeming banality. I stay up because I can. I would get so much done if I didn’t sleep.
Gabriel tells me that the prison inmates “stay up at night when the rest of the population is asleep because they want to avoid interaction with the prison gangs and gladiator politics. They get to read and write in peace without all the chaos that daylight brings.” They are not at a place they’d call home, but they live there. Swiss philosopher, Henri-Frédéric Amiel said, “Dreams are excursions into the limbo of things, a semi-deliverance from the human prison.” They dream away two layers of prison.
Gabe makes a home of his own workspace in order to assuage the brutality of his job, of the conditions of his work. He and his colleagues cook for one another, or they bring in the rich stews their wives cook from them. They play video games and gossip in an attempt to soften the cavernous and glaring lights of the space they live 12 hours at a time. Sometimes I see Gabe in his own house, and he is uneasy. My cousin has made a warm and soft space for their family, and he cannot find a place to settle after his hours at the prison. He retreats to the cavern of his room. I would like to see what his world is like, to see how in spite of the place, he is able to make home because sometimes I think that’s what I’m missing in my sleep hygiene, a sense of home in the most jangly of minds.
My family moved a great deal when I was young, so there isn’t one space in which I can house all my past, all my memories. I live with my husband and our children in his childhood home, so it’s filled with those ghosts, which I see as being benign and even perhaps saintly. To feel at home, to feel in one’s skin, to feel grounded, to feel as if I could kick back, put up my feet.
For weeks at a time, I live at night. Different circumstances drive me this life: anxiety, the desire for quiet, my day work spilling into my nightlife. In college, I lived in a house where my bedroom was on the bottom floor. All of my family would sleep downstairs while I made the downstairs my kingdom. I wrote poems those nights, relieved of the quiet and of the absence of my family’s critical eye. Sometimes I would stand in the yard to take in the sky but also the quality of night, its presence as profound as the ocean’s.
Van Gogh’s “Starry Nights” features tarted-up stars, bigger than the moon or the tables in the café. They are slattern, those stars. His is a mocking and transcendent night. Of night he said, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” An untreated insomniac, this vibrancy emerged from his transient sleep. This is the art of night. Some of us are awakened by night’s solicitude, suspicious of night’s congeniality. We are forced awake by hunger or anxiety or rage or spiritual despair and then left sleepless. We perseverate or invent. Part blindness, part lunacy, the moon’s seducing and globular perfection casts an almost perfect docility for almost everyone at night except the sleepless. If night is not potion, than what is?
Night makes me cynical in my cold regard over day and its effortless illumination, the proper productivity. It isn’t that I’m not a morning person. I just wasn’t designed to make fantastic use of the day. I’m a dawdler, easily distracted, and isn’t the day filled with distractions, hundreds of desires and impulses pulling me here and there? I wake up at seven every morning except when my children wake me earlier, and I relent to the day. I play along. But I live the most at night because I am most alone. The day disappoints me with its rattling, vivid insistence. In night’s quiet, I dream the dream of all my childhood: that I could arrest the world, every moment of movement, and walk around the world to see the world as image and not as unrelenting narrative. People would be frozen around me, so I could see inside of their lives. I wasn’t dreaming of magic. I was dreaming of not having a bedtime.
Night is a condition and insomnia is an embrace around that condition. My sleeplessness is unmanaged and unpaid labor. I have no job description, so I make what I can of it. The insomniac has two options: to resist or to relent. I relent because resistance is unrealistic. There is no vaccine except perhaps an apartment in Kubla Khan. Yet even then, I might worry about the marble getting scuffed. Worry is the worm in the rose of my sleep. One uncompleted task or recollected slight, and I’ve fallen into a vortex of pure probing language. The conditional verb is the primary parlance. I should have, I could have. A student in my class finds in his old notes the notion that we all have a super-version of ourselves and we get depressed when we don’t live up to that person. The not-sosuper person in me has a late night show like a televangelist who both heals hepatitis and castigates sodomites. This show is a reel of my missteps, in slo-mo, with analysis and the booming voice of my personal Simon Cowell, that evangelist. With senses that miss nothing, and in the blank slate of night, I get a biting analysis of every note I hit wrong.
And on occasional nights I sleep like I’ve been cursed with sleep, like the patient etherized on the table. I close my eyes, my children as tired as I am sleep too, and I wake to newness like I’ve been given a new body.
Night is dry even when it rains. Sometimes I fantasize that I could leave the house for a walk at night once the house is quiet, once everyone was asleep, but then I’m reminded of the women who leave their house and are never found, the ones that would never leave without their purse, their phone, who would never leave their kids behind, so I stay inside the house and look out at the masculine night, wolf-time. “For the night shows stars and women in a better light,” that wolf, Lord Byron writes in “Don Juan.” Night’s dryness comes out of that cool cruelty.
I once lived in San Francisco, and I lived as if I was playing chicken with night. I would leave a friend’s house at three in the morning and walk through the Mission District to get to mine. My key entering the door was victory. Night in a city is of different matter, of course. A city comes alive at night, and despite having its own native dangers, its inhabitants eat dinner when most would be sleeping, stand at their hot dog stands to wait for the last customer.
But here, night is forbidding. My house is surrounded by desert, and the crime shows I’ve watched remind me that the desert is accommodating to disappearance. But why do I disparage night, my solitary companion?
At night Gabe exercises and talks about his family with his colleagues as they wait for trouble in the cells. They overlook the vast expanse of the sleeping and the awake in their own vigilance. Sometimes in my own sleeplessness, I think of him as solitary with his body as I am. I think of the multitude of people awake at night. In the last moments of James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy stands at his window in his own sleeplessness and observes the snow “general all over Ireland… falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. I summon that moment in my own sleeplessness, the snow a metaphor for the living death of sleep and us: both Gabriel’s and myself, the silent witnesses of its ubiquity, its dominion.