I should like
to sleep the sleep
of the English poet’s wife.
I wrote this some time in the early 1980s after I’d gone to a poetry reading at NYU with a friend. I recall being taken more with the elderly poet’s wife than the poet. This line has rattled about in my brain, a fragment of a poem that I’ve been trying to complete ever since.
Not long ago, I found the following undated attempt to complete the poem. It was on yellowed correction typing paper, a clue that it was written prior to the existence of computers. The paper makes a delightful crinkling sound in the hand that reminds me of typewriters.
I should like to sleep the sleep
of the English poet’s wife
nodding off in the front row
as he reads
at the lectern.
His voice smoothes her dress,
clasps her folded hands,
she’s done her job;
he’s propped on stage—
books & notes.
Her face glows with ruddy warmth;
the rise and fall of her double chin
accompanies the words she knows
so well and she sleeps,
not from boredom, but with
accomplishment and peace.
Some time later, I attempted to write a Pantoum, my first excursion into poetic form. I began with the same piece of poem. I left the numbers, like training wheels, on each line here because the poem is still a work in progress, unfinished.
1. I should like to sleep the sleep of the English poet’s wife
2. nodding off contentedly beside the lectern as he reads
3. at the lectern where he’s spent his life
4. His voice (smoothes her dress) like a butter knife
5. he stirs as he reads in leathers and tweeds
6. I should like to sleep the sleep of the English poet’s wife
7. The clasped hands of his lover and housewife
8. who, behind the scenes, cares for his wants and needs
9. in the amber realm of muse and scheduler-wife.
10. She’s gotten him to the stage, sans strife
11. drifting off, recalling evenings of proofreads
12. I should like to sleep the sleep of the English poet’s wife
13. She awakens to applause, cheese and wine, —nightlife,
14. autographs, handshakes, young poets guaranteed
15. for the poet’s wisdom and polished shoes are larger than life
16. I watch as her ruddy double chin jackknifes
17. into the heart of the dreams upon which they’ve agreed
18. I should like to sleep the sleep of the English poet’s wife
19. as she touches her pearls and greets this city’s cultured wildlife.
I think the pantoum’s rhythm, a lulling monotony, works well with my line about sleep. I hoped it would afford me a means by which to complete the poem once and for all. But, no; I’m still not satisfied, though I did appreciate the experience, and the fragment stands on its own again.
Recently, while considering the fragment—a prelude to my own sleep—I realized I no longer recalled the poet of my poem. The twelve words had become abstracted from the poetry reading event that launched them. Was the poet an English surrealist? I took a book on Surrealism and Britain down from my bedroom shelf, and scanned the index. I realized that the poet was David Gascoyne, who’d written A Short Study of Surrealism in 1935. When I saw him read he seemed years away from anything edgy or avant-garde; he seemed stodgy and academic even. The fragment of poem was all that remained from the reading; I read nothing else by Gascoyne afterwards.
The next day, I googled “David Gascoyne” and found these delicious bits and pieces about him:
- He was friends with Paul Eluard and Alan Ginsberg, a bridge between literary ages.
- We share the same birthday—October 10!
- Gascoyne became addicted to amphetamines, and had a severe stomach ulcer. After three nervous breakdowns and several stays in mental institutions over three decades, during which he’d often given up writing entirely, in the 1960s Gascoyne went to live on the Isle of Wight to be with his parents. There, his life changed because of chance and love.
- In 1975, Judy Lewis came to read poetry to the patients in the hospital there. She read a favorite poem, “September Sun.” Afterwards, a gentleman came up to her and said, “I wrote that.” She replied, “Of course you did, dear.” Not too long after, she found out that the patient had indeed written the poem. They fell in love. Her husband, long unfaithful to her, asked for a divorce and she was free to begin life with David. He reconnected with friends, won awards and was acknowledged as a writer, began to write again. He traveled throughout Europe to give readings, and I suppose came to the U.S., and that’s when I happened to see him, though no account I’ve read mentions his traveling to New York.
- Judy Gascoyne proves to be a remarkable woman. She was the housekeeper for Bob Dylan at Forelands Farm in 1969; George Harrison spent some time visiting Dylan there. Judy describes the times and the two families in her care with real humility and joy. The more I learn of her, the more pleased I am that she is the focus of my poetry fragment.
David’s poem, “Seaside Souvenir,” is about memory. Here’s an excerpt that’s relevant here:
The pattern of jellyfish left behind,
A pocketful of sand,
A dead, pressed leaf,
The woven rhythms of three days
These are the traces, faded, indistinct…
I plan on reading more of his poems now. David died a few years ago, but Judy keeps his flame alive. The fragment I originally wrote remains a fragment, but is less of a fragment than it once was.