At 4AM in Mississippi, I woke from a disturbing dream. An old man, whose wife had died years before, had never stopped grieving for her. A group of us young people came to drop off some items that he was going to give to a charity, and when we went up to his apartment, we were met with a shrine to his late wife. Photos of her littered countertops, the coffee table, the walls. I knew that he would feel utterly depressed and empty until the day he died. The dream left me feeling deeply sad and anxious, and I decided to get out of bed, even though it was early.
I’ve never been a great sleeper. My partner kids that the buzz from a mosquito could wake me, and actually, it’s true. I once woke up when a mosquito flew past my head! I suffered many nightmares, when I was in my twenties, but this dream really shook me. It was summer, and even at such an early hour, it was already muggy and warm in Mississippi, where I was in graduate school at the time. I got out of bed, wrote this poem, and waited for my neighbors to wake up.
In the first stanza of “Earth,” the speaker establishes an unsettling situation: No one is perfectly good or perfectly bad, and this scenario has somehow been agreed upon. There is a lack of an authority figure, and the waters are muddy: “There’s no one in Heaven / who’s that bad. / There’s no one in Hell / who’s that good. / That’s the deal.”
In the second stanza, the speaker describes human lives as needing enthusiasm or to “rally.” The speaker claims that humanity is small and insignificant, like microbes that fit in a petri dish: “Here on Earth, / we rally. / It’s a petri dish.” Further, the humans have desires that can either be light (optimistic, healthy) or dark (destructive). The speaker describes humans as “microbes / bumping and worming” who want “dark or light, / depending.” The last word in this stanza, “depending,” points to their actions as a compass to either the light or to the dark. However, because “bumping and worming” also sounds rather haphazard, and because humans are described as somewhat of a science project, their desires could depend on something that is outside of themselves and out of their control.
The last stanza is inspired by my nightmare but is not a retelling of it. I wanted to continue with the narrative of life on Earth. In this stanza, the speaker describes humans, when they are old. The old humans suffer from the past. They wake from bad dreams before dawn. In the line, “We think that we forgot / to kill our tormentor, / but we didn’t,” the speaker describes the haziness we’ve all experienced when we wake from a dream but are unsure which part of our memory is reality. Even though, when the old wake and realize that their tormentor is long gone, they also remember that their family is gone. There is a sense of loneliness and uncertainty. The family is waiting on the other side but possibly in darkness. The last word “depending” lets the reader decide on what the location of the family depends. Did their actions lead them to light or to dark? Do they have volition? Or is it a decision made by forces unknown?
First published in Imitation Fruit, Issue 5, November 2009
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