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DARKNESS, AND WITHIN THE DARKNESS, a stillness of light. To enter that stillness, I have to crouch, pull in my shoulders. If I breathe out, I will be returned to the larger darkness. Over and over, I try to hold my breath, and fail. And then, on the back wall of the darkness, something: inchoate, blurry--and shaky, like a hand-held video image. I reach for my glasses, and wake up.

I like my studio poorly lit. On the desk, a hurricane lamp shivers out a little light, and it must have a loose connection because the bulb blinks and stammers capriciously. Sometimes after going to sleep, I am awakened in the dead of night by that light all at once on and perversely brilliant, which gives me the odd feeling that some ghostly presence of myself continues to write even when I am asleep. A couple of months ago, awakened by enormous light coming from the studio, I urged myself out of bed only to discover its source could not be turned off. The moon was setting in the western sky, and word processor, desk, sleigh bed against the far wall, a table stacked with books, they were all white as bone and gleaming. Even some papers blown to the floor--but when I knelt to pick them up, I kept pulling at carpet.

The French have an expression, entre chien et loup. To be between dog and wolf is to be between human and animal, domesticated and wild, light and shadow: what Ovid calls the borderlands of night, yet with a gleam in the sky. In the Metamorphoses this is an hour especially favorable to transformations. This is when, in my studio, a table stacked with books seems suddenly human and the darkness under the bed appears to move. This is my favorite time to write, when the outlines of things are smudged and smoky.

It has happened to me twice: a voice dictating long and very involved sentences with many clauses and qualifications. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the voice was chanting, but when I awakened and tried to write down what I had heard, the sentences collapsed into hissing effervescence and a rush of bubbly foam; followed by that shush when a wave quiets, a long pause before another, just like it, pushes up far from shore. If I pursued it, would I be getting farther and farther from myself? Or closer? I was adrift in a continuousness which was also adrift, a perpetual motion where I rushed to the surface only to sink back under like a diver submerging.

On one occasion, I was walking through a house, long uninhabited, and just when I thought I had walked through every shadowy space, I discovered rooms I did not know were there. Sometimes in this recurring dream I sense the rooms are near--I can even picture them--but they remain hidden, elusive; other times, I find my way to them easily. In the last of the secret rooms is a desk, very old, made of dark wood. Here I can work, I say aloud, filled with more than joy, with bliss. Then I wake up.

I do not believe that one does not dream during bouts of insomnia. When I cannot sleep, my dreams are brilliantly illuminated, as if too many flash bulbs were going off at once. In these dreams, there are no shadows, only glare and thirst. I am convinced too that insomnia is a form of sleep that lacks thickness and density: it is transparent, offering choices that are painfully visible. When I write during periods of insomnia, there are passages burned away by too much looking, or overexposed, an effect that photographers call halation. I worry that whatever emotion is keeping me awake, grief or rage or fear, will burn everything up; the poet's eye transformed into the overheated lens of a microscope, gobbling up the invisible, bits of world filled with shining or pale blue twinklings, rare squiggles and streaks of living matter--like these two lips rapidly opening and closing: a kiss just before it burns up. Or have I witnessed some death spasm, some quiver of pain I confused with pleasure? Even a small piece of the world blown into the eye can hurt.


As for my desk, I cannot remember a time when it was not mine. Portugese. Baroque. As a child, I loved to wax and polish its twisted columns; rub the gilt partially worn from its ornate twirls and undulations. Behind the drawers, I felt out secret compartments. What was precious to me I hid there, then forgot in cubbyholes, niches, miniature carrels. In the space between the pedestals, where I now stretch out my legs, I crouched in darkness. Scraps of adult talk would come down to me through brass keyholes and mahogany ... run over by a bus ... the driver weeping ... the white sheet they put ... soaking up her ... But the word blood is only a replica, a reminder--gold leaf and rust, canary and iodine. Her blood was not a color, it was a voice that kept asking for a body to fill it, to give up its innocence for it. How not to hurt this blood, how not to wound it further as, overexcited, raw, it goes on eating up every crease and fold of the sheet, goes on making its exodus into the gutter, down the sewer. In the dark the sheet flaps for a long time as I waited for the gurglings, for the roots that lived under the pavement, the strongest, the most savage of them, to drink her up. Was that when I learned that the ear is a root, made to do what it must?

All things resist being written down, Kafka wrote in his diary. As I thought about that this evening, I was playing with a marble cylinder that ordinarily keeps papers from flying off my desk. Rough at either end, its shaft is smooth and cold. Because it has not been polished, its patterns are incipient, like the underside of a rug or like a scroll yet to be unwound. Perhaps things resist because they cannot be separated from their concealment, their hiddenness, and remain what they are. I love the cylinder's heft. It might make a good scepter, or an even better rolling pin. In its lugubrious greens and ghostly whites, slowness is preserved. Byde a stounde, wait a while, was Chaucer's advice to the poet. The pressures of millenniums bearing down on silt, loess, leaves, sediments and settlings, mollusca and curd, chiton and crinoid. To hold it is to grasp what William James called the total push and pressure of the cosmos.

My studio opens onto a garden and breathes in leaves and pollen and an occasional bird that has no notion of inside and outside. Now above the garden it is twilight, residues of a storm are still tearing apart, exposing streaming auras and also a pink overpass where traffic has slowed and long lanes of lights just come on. From here the cages for animals are clearly visible along with the Flavian amphitheater. Piers of tufa and travertine. There must have been sand to catch and hold the blood, and underground passageways along which the lions and tigers sauntered beside their shadows. That is where the children come surging back to me. They like the burned and twisted, the rough clinker brick and reusable shadows. Where the children are it is always murky. With that rough feel of oyster shells and reinforced concrete, a density of things not clear. So it is hard to see them break up on the slide. In all that commotion, where is the one dreaming an architecture of heaven, its lamps and candles lit with incense--there by those two slabs of rock with darkness vibrating between their jaws? Before I vanish, one last look around the garden, its enormous tree shadow trembling on the grass where three ibis are settling into the phantom branches. How effortlessly they roost in illusion.

SUSAN MITCHELL is the author of three books of poems, most recently Erotikon (HarperCollins, 2000). Her previous collection, Rapture, won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and was a National Book Award Finalist. Mitchell holds the Mary Blossom Lee Endowed Chair at Florida Atlantic University, where she teaches in the MFA Writing Program.
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Title Annotation:In the Studio
Author:Mitchell, Susan
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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