If I were to sleep, it would be on an iron bed,
bolted to the floor in a bomb-proof concrete room
with twelve locks on the door.
I wouldn’t ask for a mattress
or decorate. I wouldn’t ask for beautiful.
I’d let the philosophers in,
but not into my bed.
They’d arrive cradling their brass instruments.
I might let them play
but only very softly and only if
they didn’t fight or sing.
If I were to sleep, there wouldn’t be any windows.
There would be a skylight,
but in the middle of the floor.
I’d press my face against the glass
and stare down at other floors upon floors upon floors…
I’d do a sleep dance right on top of the skylight.
It would be a new game.
It would involve amazing feats of sleep contortion.
It would involve letters.
If I were to sleep, I would be spread-eagled across the bed,
and even with the iron struts and screws cutting into my back,
I would protect the metal frame.
I would protect the springs.
- Have you ever had trouble sleeping? What sensations or feelings come to mind when thinking about that experience? Probably none of those sensations are in this poem. What’s in there instead? What tone or mood does the poem evoke in your mind? Can you connect that feeling to insomnia?
- Each stanza begins with the refrain “If I could sleep…” What effect does the repetition have on the way you experience the poem? From the title, we know that there’s an implied “but I can’t sleep” that follows. What sort of details might emerge in a poem that begins, “If I could stay awake…”?
- The speaker’s willingness to trade her physical comfort for a good sleep is illogical. Would you sleep on an iron bed without a mattress? Why do you think the speaker might be willing to do such a thing? What does it tell you about how she is feeling?
- For a poem about discomfort, this has a lot of fun in it: brass-playing philosophers, a game of sleep dancing, a skylight on the floor. Try reciting the poem as if it’s a hilarious joke you’re telling a friend. Now try reciting it as if you are half-asleep yourself, so that these strange events are almost a part of a dream. What images or lines come forward when you read the poem in these two radically different ways?
- Think of some sort of physical discomfort that you have experienced: the itch of a mosquito bite, perhaps, or a muscle cramp in your toe. Now think of a different physical discomfort that you would gladly trade for the first one. Try to make a trade that’s counter-intuitive, one that most people wouldn’t make.
- A very informative article about insomnia: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/content/what-causes-insomnia
- Insomnia seems to be a common problem for poets. Here are a few other poems on the subject:
- By Dante Rosetti: https://poetryinvoice.ca/read/insomnia
- By Fran Lock: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/118578/on-insomnia
- By Alicia Ostriker: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/insomnia
Kate Hall, “Insomnia” from The Certainty Dream. Copyright © 2009 by Kate Hall. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Source: The Certainty Dream (Coach House Books, 2009).