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Midmoon

July 13, 2012

by Peter Wortsman

The early hours belong neither to yesterday nor to tomorrow. As there is midday and midnight, so should there also be a stretch of time—call it midmoon—between the indigo breakdown and the powdery blue busyness of dawn, the timeless refuge of insomniacs.

***

My neck is creaking. The nail on my right thumb, the one holding down the pen, has split open, staining the pen shaft red.

***

Oh, sleep, what have I ever done to displease you? True, I stole a couple of dreams and pawned them off as poems, but where’s the harm in that? I just wanted to broadcast your brilliance, to needle the night. Forgive me, sleep, my precious!

***

I flee the living room and seek refuge in the kitchen. Why are kitchen tabletops always sticky? Ledgers of domesticity, they reveal more about the viscous love of family than all the fabricated grins in photo albums. The tick of the kitchen clock drives me mad. It’s time getting to me, that fiction I always denied, that wilting thing that bleaches hair and illusions. Time is a tyrant. Time is a trap. If only it flew, as the saying goes. But it strangles. As if each little parcel of our passing were really equal in duration and intensity. As if eternity were divisible and we could measure its shrinking in dead seconds frozen in flight. Why does the refrigerator sing at night?

***

In a sleepless state not far removed from madness all is metaphor, like the loose screws on the frame of my glasses and the cracks in the ceiling. The unidentified street sounds strike like auditory shrapnel hurled by a roving militia. The boxed destinies of cars and trucks deliver somebody else’s tomorrow.

***

No choice in the eternal tick-tock that stretches, sleepless, till dawn, no choice, after the rage of helplessness breaks, but to sit back and watch, like on a long train ride, when life is a landscape rushing by, a succession of trees, homes, shrubs, depots, ducks and cows—and people scattered about, mostly in clusters, but sometimes solitary. No choice but to watch and love it for what it is, the ringside seat at a non-stop hundred-ring circus, the wildest beast being me in the cage of my skull put through the motions by the great lion tamer. Nothing to do but admire it all, the décor framed by the window, the concert of waking birds, the percussion of the trucks—an endless opera.

***

The first yawn breaks like an avalanche. It clouds your glasses, drawing tears, as if the eyes were sponges that drain when they’ve seen too much.

***

In the symphony of the waking family, the toilets play percussion, the radio alarm hits a high note, stomachs grumble arpeggios to the piccolo of hungry sparrows. I am the reluctant conductor by default, because I don’t play an instrument. The creaking floorboards and opened doors applaud.


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Peter Wortsman (PEN member profile) is the author of work in multiple modes, including a book of short fiction, A Modern Way to Die; two plays, The Tattooed Man Tells All and Burning Words; prose poetry in an artists’ book, it-t=i, produced in collaboration with his brother, artist Harold Wortsman; and the travelogue/memoir Ghost Dance in Berlin, a rhapsody in gray, forthcoming in 2013 from Travelers’ Tales. His prose poetry has appeared in several anthologies, and he’s the translator of numerous books from the German, including, most recently, an anthology, Tales of the German Imagination, from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, forthcoming in 2013 from Penguin Classics. He’s a recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award, as well as Fulbright and Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowships, and he was the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010.

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  1. Michael
    July 14, 2012 at 7:23 am

    Just beautiful Peter.

  2. pamela rikkers
    July 14, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    What a wonderful evocation of terrible insomnia. The episodic nature of the sections work delicately with the fragments of thought and observation and sensation. The train ride in particular struck me – the endless opera of life – we are a part of it yet outside it, living it, giving it up at the same time. The sticky kitchen tabletop as evidence of familial connection and love, more than grinning photos, is grand. Sorry you cannot sleep, happy it gave birth to this.

  3. cigalealex
    July 15, 2012 at 1:07 am

    Wonderful, Peter. What a pleasure to read your work here once again. So lovely and lyrical….

  4. Alan Ziegler
    July 20, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Terrific writing and terrific reading!

  5. Barbara LaMorticella
    December 29, 2012 at 5:17 am

    Oh my, what a tour de force! A sheer delight from the very opening word– “Midmoon”–

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