“My friends tell me I have an intimacy problem,” Garry Shandling once said. “But they don’t really know me.” My own version of this joke is about sleep and anxiety. I’d have insomnia if I weren’t so anxious. When my wife and I started dating, she recoiled at my ability to fall into a deep sleep just after we’d had a fight, equating my snoring with indifference. Twelve years later, she brushes her teeth beside me and asks my reflection in the bathroom mirror if there’s any worry that might cause me to lose sleep. “Maybe if one of the kids were really sick,” I say. “I think even I couldn’t sleep through that.” I spit out my toothpaste and say, “On second thought, I’d be so scared I’d probably have to sleep.” Like a child, I deal with my anxieties by hiding under the covers, head on a pillow, sheltered by the escape of sleep.
I sleep well most nights because I’m worried most nights. Sometimes I worry about my marriage, sometimes I worry about my sickest patients, and sometimes I worry about the admittedly nebulous concept of “life.” My kids, though, are my most frequent source of concern. Before they were born, I slept away a fear that my wife and I would never have children and then, during their infancies, I slept off new fears that something horrible would happen to them. Now that their health and physical safety is mostly secure, sleep helps me escape my worries about how I’m raising them. Are they happy? I think so. Are they eating healthy? Not really, but there should be time to change that. Will there ever be a day when one of them is not trying to hurt the other? Probably. Right next to me in bed, I should stress, is an equally worried partner whose fear response, insomnia, is the polar opposite of mine (which may be why we’re a good match).
A sense of dread runs through Amelia Martens’s new collection of prose poems, The Spoons in the Grass Are There to Dig a Moat. This anxiety emerges in the series of poems about an everyman Jesus who toils away at depressing jobs (e.g. working for the TSA) as a way of either confronting or hiding from (or, perhaps, trying to do both) the impending disasters of our contemporary world. School shootings and multi-drug resistant bacteria and unwinnable wars populate these poems, written as short paragraphs and served up as little blows to our collective composure. Yet, at least for me, the scariest poems in the collection are those that feature the character of “our daughter.” In real life, Martens (according to her official author bio) has “two smart/beautiful/brave daughters,” who ostensibly have combined, Voltron-style, into the singular child of these poems, a child onto whom the poet and her readers can project their darkest fears. Not surprisingly, the poems that feature “our daughter” typically occur as day morphs into night, at the precipice of sleep.
“We Will Be Long Gone” is a series of answers to a child who is trying to avoid bedtime by torturing her parents with questions that defy a common sense answer.
By the time Earth is pulled into the sun. No, this won’t happen while you are asleep. Not tonight. Those are crickets. Yes, they have wings. The sound comes from their legs, like violins. Not violence. Close your eyes please. The sun is on the other side of the world because other people need day. Because we need night. Because that is how your body is made. Yes, your body is magic.
Fear, of course, thrives on the illogical. The scariest part of parenting can be the lack of a roadmap. Even scarier is when such roadmaps seem to exist in the forms of parenting books that have no application to the children that surround us. In “We Ask For Five Minutes,” a title that could serve as the slogan for parents everywhere but would never grace the cover of a parenting book, the narrator addresses her husband: “The only t-shirt you wear has a hole in the back. Our daughter wonders who stabbed you. Who rolled us through fields of plastic cutlery and sippy cups?”
I try to read one book per week, and usually my decision on what to read next comes down to something as trivial as which book weighs less (if my backpack is particularly heavy that week) or something as practical as which book won’t the library renew. By which I mean: it was purely coincidental that I read So Sad Today, the collection of personal essays from poet Melissa Broder, just before jumping into Martens’s book. I can’t ignore the contrast. Broder, who rose to fame via her @sosadtoday Twitter account, describes her social media forays as a modern version of confession:
As I mined my feelings for the account, which grew bigger and bigger, I felt like the opposite of a loser. I felt popular. I felt popular based on my truth. I began to celebrate this sensitive part of me – the things that I thought were most despicable: my need for constant validation, disappointment, feeling gross and fat and ugly. Also more essential things like, Why are we here? And what’s the point? The more real I was, the more people could relate. It seemed like there were a shitload of people who were scared of life and death, also people who were disappointed when they tried to partake in activities to cover over these fears and the activities didn’t work out, and they were forced once again to return to their primal sadness.
Broder channels her fears into 140-character aphorisms and, eventually, into a book of essays that detail her battles with bulimia and anorexia, panic attacks and mood disorders, and adventures with polyamory.
Martens, on the other hands, starts from a similar launching point – Why are we here? And what’s the point? – but doesn’t feel obliged to give concrete answers, because such answers don’t exist for her. She addresses her readers with the same level of honesty and respect with which her speaker addresses the daughter in “The Secret Lives of Cows”:
They do not type letters to Farmer Brown. They do not jump over the moon. They are not sold to buy magic beans. They do not kick lanterns and ignite Chicago. All night long they breathe cold air, their nostrils damp thimbles. They tamp earth down to the dust it has been for millennia. All night long they nurse an ache, a tender machine in the underbelly, which never goes dormant.
Let’s explore our fears, she seems to be saying in this and other poems. Let’s admit how scary our world is instead of hiding under the covers. Let’s open our eyes. “I can’t tell our daughters everything will be all right,” she writes in “They Shoot People, Don’t They?”, and here the use of the plural (daughters, not daughter) may indicate that she’s referencing not just her children but our collective children, my own included. “They are less afraid of the dark than of the light,” she continues, and here she is talking about me as well.
In March, after Garry Shandling died unexpectedly from a heart attack, Marc Maron replayed his 2011 WTF interview with Shandling. Early in the interview, Shandling realizes what every WTF listener realizes, namely that the podcast is more about Maron than his guests. “It just struck me deeply that you’re in pain,” he says to Maron. After a beat of silence, Shandling adds, “And that should go on a t-shirt.” The comedians try to control their anxiety with laughter: Shandling emits a half chuckle, half snort after the t-shirt line, while Maron falls into a guffaw that betrays years of smoking and remorse. And then Maron keeps talking, about his career and about that thing I mentioned earlier, that nebulous thing we call “life.” Is this a healthy way to deal with fear? Maron’s and Broder’s self-obsession, I’d argue, is their way of being blind to the dangers outside of their selves. I’m no better; I just sleep.
Martens, on the other hand, actually seems responsible, mature, like an “adult” (or a “parent,” or my wife) because her poems consistently and openly acknowledge these anxieties. So many lines from The Spoons in the Grass Are There to Dig a Moat could go on a t-shirt (I’d like to sell shirts with “In the courtyard, doctors wave prescription pads like white flags as patients build resistance like nobody’s business,” from “In The First World,” as a fundraiser for my clinic), but perhaps it’s better to think of her lines printed on pillowcases, reminders to those of us about to fall into the safety of sleep that such safety doesn’t exist. “The sun that went into your eyes, into your skin, into the ground today, will come up tomorrow,” a pillow atop a child’s bed might quote. That child’s parents, though, should rest their heads on these words: “You think we are coming around. You think we are blessed. Homeward bound.”
Andrew Bomback is a physician and writer in New York.