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From the Poet's Notebook

New poems by Howard Nelson


I have tried to tell myself that I am sitting at the cave mouth,

near the campfire under the stars,

as the anthropologists of sleep say people have always done.

Someone needs to stay awake, keeping an ear out

for an enemy or thief, or dangerous animal,

who might be out there, moving quietly in closer.

Sometimes I try to make it a meditation. I say,

"Peace and compassion to all sentient beings."

I can keep going with that a long time--sometimes half the night.

I chant that one sometimes during the day as well,

in the supermarket, for example, where humanity

is wandering up and down the aisles,

with its many worn faces.

Sometimes I say, "Lord Jesus Christ,

have mercy upon me, a sinner."

It was recommended to me, and when I said

that I am not exactly a Christian,

the recommender said, "That's OK.

Use it anyway. It might be right for you."

Sometimes I try to use the time for planning.

Sometimes I count my blessings.

Thanks for friends, for example, the honor

and pleasure of having such earthly company.

I could get up and read. Sometimes I do,

but mostly I stay in the bed,

because it's comfortable there, it's warm,

and there's another person there, a woman,

who it is pleasant to lie beside.

And there's always the hope that pretty soon

I'll fall asleep--the moment when someone

in the dark chemicals of my brain

decides to flip the liquid switch--

a moment I can never remember.

But usually that moment is slow in coming,

it takes an hour or two, or three,

and sometimes it does not come at all

before the light comes leaking

gradually into the darkness.

Peace and compassion to all sentient beings.

Mostly what I do is worry, my mind full of adrenaline,

I wish I could get it flowing as well during the day.

Actually, it's not adrenaline I need

so much as calm and clarity.

I lie awake worrying about the melting ice caps,

the diminishing glaciers, the tar-sands of Canada,

the fracking fields of Ohio and Pennsylvania,

North Dakota's ruined prairie, the dams of China,

India's intention to go full speed ahead with coal,

gouge it from the earth for its billion people to burn

just as Europeans and Americans burned it before them.

People I know are very concerned

about climate change, they rail against it,

and the next thing you know, they're getting on an airplane

to fly across a continent or an ocean for a vacation!

They come back and say what a great trip it was!

Unbelievable. I guess they have an exemption.

I've done it a few times myself.

I worry about people I love.

I worry about people unhappy in their marriages.

I worry about responsibilities

I have undertaken that I do not think

I will be able to fulfill.

I worry about my friend who is mentally ill.

And further down the list, the worry

about the judgment of God.

It doesn't really make sense to me that God, if God

is anything like what those who seem to know claim,

would punish God's poor imperfect struggling creatures

beyond the suffering and confusion of this world--

yet both Jesus and the Quran, our mainlines to divinity,

seem to take the idea quite seriously, for all their talk of mercy.

I wouldn't call myself an atheist, but sometimes

when someone acknowledges being one, I feel a sensation

as if someone had made a simple honest statement

in a conversation where no one else quite is.

It could be we're on our own, and God,

whatever else God may be,

is as unconcerned about us as the stars.

It could be. There are the stars again.

Peace and compassion to all sentient beings.

So, maybe I should just accept the hours of lying awake--

but what good does my vigil do? As far as I know,

I have not yet chased off a single wolf this way.

Far down the list is the thought,

What if there's insomnia in the afterlife?

Insomnia in eternity, which of course

could easily turn into an eternity of insomnia.

I was hoping for a good night's sleep.