It’s not really novel to claim that Robert Frost wrote one of the very first poems that captured my imagination. “The Road Not Taken” might be the most frequently taught poem in the United States, and certainly the notions of chance and fate, the idea of life being a series of well-trodden or relatively unexplored possibilities appealed to my lonely, hormonally-inflected eighth grade mind. However the Frost poem that resonated with me most was one we didn’t cover in class; it was a poem that seemed to speak to me in a way that felt fundamentally true and yet also mysterious, like the first time I heard music coming from the car radio. The poem was “Acquainted with the Night.”
Many of my friends, out of necessity, are daytime people. They wake up to shards of sunlight stabbing through the window blinds, complain (mostly light-heartedly) about working nine-to-five jobs that keep them away from their writing, and go to bed when the clock still reads P.M. In contrast to their example, I feel like a rare breed: a poet who does almost all of his writing after midnight. This is the privilege of being a graduate student, of having an irregular schedule that only requires me to teach two classes twice a week, both in the afternoon.
There are definite drawbacks to this kind of lifestyle—money being one of them—and though there’s a very high likelihood I’ll soon be abandoning my current doctoral studies for regular employment, I am grateful to have this time, this night time, to work. Ironically, poetry isn’t the reason I stay up late—it simply evolved to be the reason. Before I found the words to write, acquainting myself with the night allowed me to be much more than a poet: a thinking person.
My mother remembers me being a garrulous boy or at least articulate enough to earn the title “Little Professor” from her and her friends. I see my childhood differently; I remember being very introverted. The loud chatter of my elementary school classmates, the hollow whistle of the desert winds, the occasional shatter of dishes that accompanied my parents’ many fights—all the anxiety caused by these daily occurrences vanished into the dark. Every voice, including my own.
Though acquainting myself with the night, with silence, with letting my mind wander gave me comfort, sleep caused me tremendous anxiety. I was afraid to let my consciousness slip away, especially after my kitten, Blue, died one night while we sat on the floor, watching TV. I thought that he was sleeping until my mother found us in the morning, and set me straight. I was afraid that if I closed my eyes too long, that I would die too. Even though night released me from the outside world, my mind hardly ever stopped buzzing with worries until those worries finally melted away into crickets and coyote howls.
There was something pleasurable about the night, how its privacies filled my restive body during sleepovers. I loved sleepovers because they made sleep less mysterious, less scary, because I got to observe how it affected other people. Fingers and toes twitched, small mouths let out little snores, audible whispers, bodies suddenly jolted up only to crumple back down into unconsciousness. Watching my friends while they were sleeping pushed me out of my body, gave me a sense that I could have whatever kind of relationship I wanted with them. I could project whatever narrative I wanted.
Of course, now I recognize this behavior—which saw me test the depths of my friends’ sleep by tugging at their limbs to see if they’d wake—as dysfunctional, a byproduct of prepubescent desire to possess, and be possessed by, their bodies. It wasn’t just me, though; it became a game some of us played together that started off innocently until we would fake sleeping. Our little smirks, our inability to keep our eyes closed the whole time, gave us away. The game we played wasn’t sexual—it couldn’t be, not yet. It was a game of performance and discovering, of acquainting ourselves with each other’s bodies.
Being acquainted with the night doesn’t mean I know the night at all. I might think I know it, but really, I’m only aware that it inhabits the world around me when I prefer to be awake. In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m only ever acquainted with people, with places, and with poetry. I have trouble being intimate with people on any level. Sometimes I still have trouble sleeping.
I think reading and writing helps me balance the distance and proximity I share with other people, with the world. Between the oblique and the uncomfortably personal. Reading and writing serve the same function. It helps to test my own twitching limbs, to see if I’m still sleeping or just pretending not to be awake.
Tory Adkisson grew up between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Linebreak, Colorado Review, Best New Poets 2012, Mid-American Review, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University and is in the process of sending out his first full-length manuscript.
Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at firstname.lastname@example.org.