Waking Up In Terror (After Vern Rutsala)

Was I shot this time or carried up
In a tornado and tossed along like
A bale of hay, or was I shot to death
By some horrible gang.  I can’t
Remember, I think to myself as
I find the answer to my question
Just beyond the grasp of my foggy
Brain to recollect it.  By this time
I realize that I cannot move, that
The horror of my nightmare has
Frozen my muscles, that I am
Paralyzed like that rapper who
Falsely thinks that he has lucid
Dreams when everyone, including
Himself at this point knows that
He has sleep paralysis.

And how long does it take to
Calm down the rush of panic that
One feels when one wakes up in
Terror?  A few minutes are not
Sufficient to calm down the muscles
That cannot move but are being
Pumped full of chemicals that
Say fight or flight when they have
Clearly decided to freeze.  Perhaps
I will do some breath exercises and
Slowly get my pulse rate down to
Something less alarming.  And then
I will ponder why it is that these
Nightmares did not cease when I
Was no longer a little child and
Helpless against the wickedness of
The world around me.

No, I am a man, I muse to myself
As I feel myself starting to calm and
Know that I will have a day of
Drudgery tomorrow as I complete
My work.  Yet when I sleep, my
Mind forgets that I am a man and
In my head I am a child again, a
Reality that no one wants, no one
Who thinks seriously about it,
Especially not someone like myself
For whom life has often been a
Waking nightmare, or a sleeping


Not too long ago I found a couple of books by the poet Vern Rutsala at my library, and always in the mood to read some poetry I picked them up and added them to my ridiculously large haul of books from the library.  I often read books on a whim and an impulse, and when one is reading a short book of poetry it is not required that a book be gripping or amazing if one knows it will take but a few minutes to tear through it like one tears through a lamb shank at dinner.  And my reading was more rewarded than it sometimes is under such circumstances, as I found that the poet was likely a protege of William Stafford, who happens to be one of my all-time favorite poets.  One could see that he had the same interest in conversational poems that strove to be thought-provoking, and a certain strident political stance I happen not to agree with–in one of his poems he averred that someone would have to be paid to vote Republican, when one could not pay me enough to vote Democratic.  Does he not know that it is bad taste to project the political sins of one’s own side to others, when everyone knows that Democrats engage in voter fraud, especially of buying the votes of the poor, far more than their rivals do?

Be that as it may, the book of poetry focused on situations that were generally unpleasant, and the titles of the poems were humble gerunds, and so I thought it would be worthwhile to write a poem after his own type, which is something I do from time to time when I feel inspired to do so.  Since struggling with problems in sleep is something that happens more often than I would wish, I suppose it is not a surprise that I would write about nightmares, and trying to deal with them, as the subject of such a poem of ordinary ways that a life can be spent that are less than particularly enjoyable.  One spends roughly a quarter to a third of one’s life sleeping, even if one is a generally insomniatic soul like myself, and what better way to pass the time memorably than to sleep in such a way that one is likely to have a nightmare from time to time.  Thankfully I do not have nightmares nearly as often as I have in the past, but one never knows when the stresses of life will overwhelm my capacity to dream pleasant or at least mundane things.

As much as I hate nightmares, though, and the fact that they have come so readily at certain parts of life, the suffering that they bring has had at least a few benefits.  For one, knowing nightmares as well as I do, I have never sought to fill someone else’s life with them.  One of the blessings of suffering, one that we are perhaps too busy unhappy that we are suffering to notice, is that it gives us a firm desire not to inflict upon others the suffering that we feel.  Those who are bent on evil often do not suffer at all.  Even if they are the most cursed souls alive, they can sleep the sleep of the blessed because they never feel anything for the pain that they inflict on others.  If we are empathetic souls, we cannot help but think about how what we do will bear on others.  We will worry that we have upset or angered or disappointed others, and stay awake for hours worried that we have said something wrong at some kind of dinner party or dance, unable to calm down enough to sleep.  But if we are truly self-centered and lack empathy at all, we will not give a second thought to the concern that we might have been a bit rude to someone or may have said or done something amiss.  And if we are sensitive enough souls to feel our torments in our sleep, we will be very disinclined to torment others in like fashion, because we know how it feels like to have the peace of sleep turn into a horror that we cannot escape.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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