On Monday night I stayed up until 3 a.m. waiting for a glimpse of the blood moon, a lunar eclipse where the moon shifts into earth’s shadow and flushes red with the light of the sun rising and setting in a circle all around our globe. So I’ve read. Just as the fated hour approached, a bunch of stupid clouds rolled in and I couldn’t see a thing. That’s okay. I probably would have been awake until 3 a.m., anyway.

I’ve always been a night owl. Daytime I can be lethargic. Or my body moves but my brain goes nowhere. My mental gears don’t start grinding until the light shifts, the sun retreats. I’m not an early riser, unless compelled by travel or work. When I’m forced to awake at daybreak, I can acknowledge that morning has a certain charm. The whole day ahead! The possibilities! But my favored way to meet the dawn is from the other side, just heading to bed as the city starts to stir. I’m not an insomniac: I don’t think it counts as insomnia when you stubbornly fight off sleep like a toddler until your eyes won't stay open anymore. Sleep, when I allow it, comes easily. But I push it back as far as my body and other burdens of mortal life will allow. Though I don’t always use them wisely, those wee hours are often when my best writing happens. I think of my creative mind as a nocturnal thing.

Last summer, I arrived at The MacDowell Colony for a month-long residency with my prejudices against the morning intact. I figured I’d skip breakfast, take to my studio after dinner and work through the night. But as it turns out, the woods get so dark at night, and they make so many mysterious noises. Coupling that with the discovery of the largest spider I have ever seen in my life hanging out casually in my studio on my second day in (I have a more than healthy fear of spiders and I know I know they are more scared of me blah blah shut up), I quickly concluded I would not be spending any nights there (or taking any naps, even, because spiders,1 people, spiders). Instead, I took to rising early and writing during daylight hours. A revelation! Suddenly the day was so viable! So productive! I thought, I should keep this up when I get back to New York. Carpe diem and all that!

But the moment I returned, mornings lost their shine for me. It figures. MacDowell is a magical place—different laws of physics seem to apply there. So it’s no wonder my writing habits changed.

Still, the experience made me wonder, what is it about the night that I gravitate toward? Could it be the moon? Poets, after all, do seem to hold a special place for the moon in their hearts. And their poems.

In a chapter of Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle examines the poet’s singular relationship to the moon and its light, positing that the moon likely appears more frequently than does the sun in lyric poems. Why is this? She explores many possibilities: the moon as death, as fertility, as embodiment of woman. And the idea that interests her most:

There is greater contrast between the moon and the night sky than there is between the sun and the daytime sky. And this contrast is more conducive to sorrow, which always separates or isolates itself, than it is to happiness, which always joins or blends. And to stand face-to-face with the sun is preposterous—it will blind you. Every child is taught not to stare at the sun. The sun is the source of life itself, the great creative power. One cannot confront god without instant annihilation; you can’t look directly at Medusa, but you can look at her useless reflection. The moon has no light of its own; our apprehension of it is but a reflection of the sun.

I’m intrigued by this explanation, this exploration of the different poetic functions of the sun and the moon. In my own writing, I find I’m equally as drawn to the sun as I am to the moon.2 And perhaps that’s because of its ability to annihilate. In my poetry, I do want to look directly as the sun and go blind once in a while. I want to be destroyed by that impassive ball of plasma. While I don’t think I favor the moon over the sun in my poetry, her interpretation of our collective fascination with the moon does resonate with me. There’s something so lonely about the moon, something sorrowful about its glow, its waxing and waning all by itself up there.3 And when I’m in the city, I’m especially moved by its quiet presence, floating above the skyline, reminding me that this is earth, after all, and not the center of the universe.

From my apartment windows, I can rarely spot the moon. Still, something about the night attracts me—and it’s something like Mary Ruefle says of the moon: those ungodly hours separate, they isolate. When I lived in Cambridge, I would take long walks in the middle of the night, headphones on, looking into people’s lit windows, wondering about their lives, feeling invisible, like a ghost wandering the streets. The night, like the moon, has a lonely feeling. A stillness and quiet. During daylight hours in New York, there’s always something to do, or something I should be doing. But after midnight, the city’s striving starts to slow, the traffic ebbs, the buzz and the rush relent. There’s nowhere I need to be, nothing required of me. In a place where I find myself so often jockeying for space, the middle of the night is all mine. People have shut themselves up until morning, and I can feel alone in the world. That’s a feeling that’s hard to come by in this city.

1. In the presence of egregiously large spiders, one must not let one’s guard down at any time, given the risk of said spider wandering onto one’s person.[back]

2. I once said in a poem that I was tired of the moon. But that's not true. Sometimes, in poems, I lie. I am full of hot air! Unlike the moon, which is full of cheese. Actually, I, too, am frequently full of cheese. The moon and I are so alike. We're pretty much the same celestial body orbiting the earth, controlling tides and such.[back]

3. I know the moon probably doesn’t have feelings. [back]

Originally Published: April 18th, 2014

Born in Portland, Oregon, poet Camille Rankine earned a BA at Harvard University and an MFA at Columbia University. Rankine’s nimble, urgent poems are often concerned with landscape, history, and intimacy. Slow Dance with Trip Wire (2011) was chosen by poet Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s New...