Contributor’s Marginalia: Donna Lewis Cowan on “House of Sleep” by Juliana Gray

September 24, 2012

As we lie down to sleep the world turns half away
       through ninety dark degrees;
               the bureau lies on the wall
and thoughts that were recumbent in the day
               rise as the others fall,
       stand up and make a forest of thick-set trees.
–From Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sleeping Standing Up”

When I first read Juliana Gray’s “House of Sleep” in the latest issue of 32 Poems, I admired the multiple balancing acts that Gray establishes in this brief and subtle lyric poem: nature versus technology, life versus death, and desire versus keeping still. As in T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” or one of Elizabeth Bishop’s many nocturnes (“Sleeping Standing Up,” “Insomnia,” “Love Lies Sleeping”), nighttime is when ordinary objects and activities assume greater meaning, and waking to darkness has an almost surrealistic quality. These night songs capture us at our most primal moments, when we are freed from the world’s eyes, expectations, and trappings.

Gray’s first stanza balances the initially static setting of her home with the intrusion of time:

The walls still hold; the hardwood floors sigh
like dreaming dogs as the night air cools,
but hold their places firm.

By suggesting that “The walls still hold,” Gray creates tension, prompting us to question what force is battering them. Her image of the floors as “dreaming dogs” transports us to our own safe places, and evokes the sounds and feelings of home. The wooden floors – in their tendency to creak, droop, yield to our weight, and bear scratches – reflect their natural origins, are nature transplanted. Like real dogs in their sleep, they are the pulse of the house, holding the other objects steady. In just three lines, Gray creates an intimate and relatable space, and reminds us of how our homes bend to our lives.

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli

In the second stanza, Gray shows us familiar household objects (remote controls, magazines, tossed shoes), “turn[ed] strange in the blue-green light/of digital clocks.” With these lines Gray suggests that technology is changing what we see, and how we interpret the world. They remind us also that clocks – which for so many years required manual winding, and clicked tick-tocks that mirrored our own heartbeats – are now most often replaced by electronic models that cannot give us that aural reminder of time passing, and require no human intervention to operate.

The third and fourth stanzas spell out the conflict hinted at earlier in the poem, as the speaker awakens to the sensation that time has left her behind:

shouldn’t it have collapsed
without you? Isn’t this betrayal, the world
simply carrying on so easily?

These lines reflect the human fear of not mattering in the larger scheme of things: the disappointment of arriving late at a party at which our absence has not been missed. In spite of all the work we do in our daily lives, our clocks, with or without us, push forward into a new day.

With the final stanza, Gray concludes the poem with a haunting shift:

Empty your bladder, return to your sheeted bier.
Live appliances hum their patient songs,
keeping the nightwatch by pale electric glow.

With their reference to a bier – which repeats the idea of death introduced in the earlier line: “a sleep/so complete it might have been your last” – these lines remind us of our human limitations: in short, the songs that will continue on without our voices. The human elements in the stanza, of visiting the bathroom and returning to bed late at night, are superseded by the hum and glow of electronics. From Bishop’s wind-up clock to the “pale electric glow” of Gray’s counterpart, time and change are the inevitable constants.

Donna Lewis Cowan

Donna Lewis Cowan’s first book of poems, Between Gods, was published in March 2012.  Her work appears in Crab Orchard Review, DMQ Review, Notre Dame Review, and Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry, among other publications.  She attended the MFA program in Creative Writing at George Mason University, and lives in the Washington, D.C. area.  She blogs about finding poetry in the everyday at betweengods.com. Her poem, “Paris to Rome,” appears with Juliana Gray’s “House of Sleep” in 32 Poems 10.1.

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