Unmade bed with shaded window.

But my words become stained with your love. —Pablo Neruda

My lover asks for a bedtime poem, and, as with anything she requests when we’re in bed, I’m more than willing to comply. This irregular ritual of ours offers an excuse for me to share beloved poems and discover new ones, with little need for lengthy textual analysis. After a day of pushing around my own words, happily, aimlessly, to no real end, what a joy and a release to read the words of another, for another—and not just any other. I’ll need a poem to prepare her for sleep, to set off on an odyssey where after hours or a day together we must travel separately and singly through the waters of memory and forgetfulness. I’ll pull a slim volume from one of the nightstands, where leaning towers of high-piled books marking our adventures in reading inch ever higher above the bed, our raft. "Read me some Keats," she asked just the other night, a rare request, while I happened to be in the middle of “Sleep and Poetry”—

The visions all are fled—the car is fled
Into the light of heaven, and in their stead
A sense of real things comes doubly strong,
And, like a muddy stream, would bear along,
My soul to nothingness: but I will strive
Against all doubtings, and will will keep alive
The thought of that same chariot, and the strange
Journey it went.

—which was perfectly fine, not only because it helped satisfy one of my 2018 resolutions (“Less Wordsworth, More Keats”: interpret as you like). So I thumbed through her copy, recalling the day she bought the book from one of our favorite bookshops, now sadly closed, and started off slowly with the melancholic sonnet, “When I have Fears That I May Cease To Be,” its echo chamber of interlocking rhymes swerving into those insistent couplets, then galloped us through the still enchanting ballad of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” before ending with one I had not known before, the bewitchingly earthly “Meg Merrilies”—ardent nightingale, Keats works like a charm!

This bedroom activity still feels quite novel to me. It might come as a surprise from someone who loves reading poetry as much as I do, but I never used to read poems aloud—not in the bookstore aisle, not on a bench in the park, not in bed before sleep—it would have felt like fulfilling some cliché. As a child, bedtime reading was something I saw on television, not something that happened at home. Vietnamese refugees resettled in small town Wisconsin in the 1980’s, my parents had ambitious plans for us, and mostly these involved us assimilating. My parents might not have read aloud to my sister and me, might not have told us many stories or even talked a whole lot, but they were always taking us to the Public Library, dropping us off at the homes of a rotating cast of babysitters—it was Gloria, Erlene, and Nancy who read children’s books to us—while they took ESL class or went to work, gifting us books for Christmas, signing us up for soccer on Saturdays, making us go to Sunday School, encouraging us to join the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, even letting us watch a lot of television; in short, they put us in the way of English as it existed in other people’s mouths—that is, those of “Americans,” as they said, meaning white people—and it was from there I would take words and make them mine. Having parents speak another language makes you aware of language in ways that can be odd, painful, and pleasurable. I think this early awareness of language, of always being in one language and/or the other—English, Vietnamese—prepared me to receive the gift of poetry. Reading and writing poetry for me was born out of an existential need to listen and to respond, to speak and be heard.

“Above everything else, poetry is words, and that words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds,” Wallace Stevens writes. The first poem to teach me this lesson was e.e. cummings’s poem [“anyone lived in a pretty how town”], which was assigned in one of my “Language Arts” classes in middle school. I read it in bed once to my lover, if only to prove I could recite by memory something longer than the two lines of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” Well, I was only able to remember the opening stanzas by heart::

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

Reading it again, I remembered my younger self being delighted and puzzled by how the poem made its errors artful. I liked how the poem invited, from the very first word, anyone into this pretty how town, which suddenly seemed not unlike the town in which I lived. The poem represented for me an early encounter with language that was far from instrumental, in which I heard English do something deliberately strange and playful, its errors somehow free from the kind of embarrassment and self-consciousness I too often felt upon hearing my parents speak “bad English.” The e. e. cummings period, thankfully, was short-lived, and was just an entry point to other sonic enchantments. Soon after, it was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that really did me in, got me walking around school in a trance, just like the women in the poem who “come and go speaking of Michelangelo.” The poem was a siren song sung to me from the far shore of elsewhere, an invitation and a provocation to poetry—“Let us go then, you and I.”

Give me a poem now to read, and I’ll perform an acoustic ballet. In actual life, however, vocal grace and dexterity often eludes me, and I rarely feel in much command of my own voice. I shy away from it, from speaking and hearing it, as much as possible. I do not come from a family of talkers. Voicemail scares me. I’ve been called Mr. Mumbles by the woman on the other end of the phone taking my pizza delivery order. Maybe it’s a residue of immigrant shame, I don’t know, or maybe my aloofness is just a personal failure or coping mechanism. My poems, ever longer, discursive, and narrative, feel increasingly compensatory, as if I’m taking revenge on my reticence and shyness, leaving behind a rambling voicemail for the future (sorry I missed your call…). I think reading poetry all these years—voraciously and silently, sounding it out in the depths of my solitude—became a vital way to rehearse a voice, train it, open it up, to practice a possible poet. As Charles Olson writes, “verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressure of his breath.” Deeply reading is a way to graft voices onto you own, to respond to their call. I think of George Oppen’s rewriting of the last lines of “Prufrock”:

lights have entered
us it is a music more powerful
than music
till other voices wake
us or we drown

We speak through others, and others speak through us. There is no unified voice, only the illusion of one. This voice I want to call mine does not entirely belong to me; it has been composed of other voices, past and present. Just as my love speaks in many voices, many tones, with infinite variety, and all of them her or hers.

“Oh, I love that. Let me see!” she says after I read something that pricks her ears, that quickens, makes her lift her head off the pillow or my chest. I’m learning to discern what she merely likes from what she genuinely loves. Once, she wanted me to reread David Ferry’s “Garden Dog,” which she loved, partly because she can’t resist dogs, but also to better take in the poem’s creaturely last lines: “the brilliant monster is wandering, / smelling the winter air [...] Sniffing the sticks and stones, // sniffing the dirt and dormant / unflourishing grass in the garden, // out in the winter light.” Each time this happens it’s as if we’re providing evidence in support of Eliot’s claim that “[g]enuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Another time she wants to hear the last few couplets of Jo Shapcott’s “Superman Sounds Depressed” again. So I’ll reread the lines and this time, instead of just listening with her ears, she’ll follow along with her eyes, the better to understand what gave her pleasure—

                                                             I want
that woman and enough passion to blast away
any hope of understanding what’s happening
to me. And I want us to eat scallops,
and I want to lick the juice from her chin
as though I could save the world that way,
and I won’t even ask what passion is for.

We’ve zipped into the voice of a sad lusty Superman—or is it Shapcott—flying around with our extraordinary bodies and its ordinary desires. My love then read the lines aloud again, to herself and to me, as if taking into her own body, deeper, the sound of the words. This is the part I like best, to hear her voice, grainy, already filling with sleep.

Gratitude comes easier in bed. There are so many ways to encounter and share poetry today, thanks to the internet and social media, but when I’m online my brain is so filled with noise it’s become harder to listen and pay attention to anything more demanding than a few tweetable lines of poetry. Retreating to the bedroom with another thin volume, I’m back in my body again, and reading returns me to my senses. Reading poems aloud brings poetry to life as spoken language, reactivating its essential pleasures, the physicality of sounds, their movement and their music as they travel from mouth to ear. What gives you pleasure? That could be the organizing principle and selection criteria for my imaginary anthology of poems, Sleeping with Poetry. I want poems that also pass the Pound test of “logopoeia,” that use words for more than just their direct meaning, activating instead “the dance of the intellect among words.”

I could always read Bishop again. I hadn’t thought about it before reading her poems aloud—“The Moose,” “The Sandpiper,” and “The Shampoo”—but they sound like someone speaking directly to you in bed, or on the couch, telling you what happened, until the telling becomes the happening, and listening to you as you want and need to be heard. Even though I understand this is a part of the poet’s own phantasmagoria, I recognize that companionable and communicative quality as something I value in the poets, my poets, whose books I keep close at hand always. I want poems to sound like human voices, engaging, thoughtful, and erotic. Maybe I’ll read something short and sweet for a change, like this six-liner by Yeats

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

The poet “makes us listen to words,” as Stevens writes in The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words, “loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound of them for a finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration…” The poet’s imagination has the power to “help people to live their lives” by giving us words—the very sound of words—as a counterforce to the onslaught of reality.

It’s worth recalling that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen begins and ends in the bedroom, opening with a palpable exhaustion and sliding into a disquieting reverie:

When you are alone and too tired to turn on any of your devices you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor.

The safety and comfort found in the privacy of one’s room becomes quickly subjected to the disturbances in the public life of the poem’s composite “you.” Between the opening and ending is the long day’s journey into the nightmare realities of racism in the U.S. On the concluding pages of Citizen, we are back in the protective and intimate space of the bedroom with the poet and her companion:   

I can hear the even breathing that creates passages to dreams. And yes, I want to interrupt to tell him her us you me I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.  
Tell me a story, he says, wrapping his arms around me.

The story she tells him is a version of the story of race and unpoliced imaginations we have been hearing throughout the book, the story without end. “Did you win?” he asks. “It wasn’t a march,” she replies, “It was a lesson.” I’m struck by the quietness of the closing scene, taking leave of this couple as they prepare for sleep, the one trying to give an account, a description, of what happened, the other listening. A couple talking in bed, emblems of love and communication, presence and proof of the poem’s lyric vision of freedom, safety, of living otherwise.

Poor ear, how open and how naked, how vulnerable to the assault of hurtful and violent language, to noise and cacophony, to whatever it might hear or overhear, the shouting terrible voices outside the window, the late night sirens of alarm, but also the noon bell, birdsong, wind through trees, snowfall, the sea sound of traffic, the din of the day starting its commerce, the stirrings and murmurings of your lover, rocked by the waters of waking life.

Read me a bedtime poem, she says, wrapping her arms around me. She will, I hope, want to go on listening to me, tomorrow and tomorrow. And when we wake we will ask what the other dreamed.


Originally Published: April 16th, 2018

Hai-Dang Phan was born in Vietnam and grew up in Wisconsin. He is an assistant professor of English at Grinnell College.