The Last Poem I Loved: “Insomnia” by Elizabeth Bishop

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It is near the time of my college graduation. I’m graduating early, barely 20 years old. Among my friends, the stuff of my romantic self-sabotage is legendary.

I am thinking of none of these things when I get on the bus to go to campus. The bus driver, an impossibly attractive twenty-something, seems overly enthusiastic to see me, and then I realize I am the only one on the bus. No wonder he’s glad for the company.

I take a seat a couple rows behind him and we chat. At some point, he refers to the downtown bar scene as a “meat market,” and I know then that I am falling in love, at least at a little bit. I don’t remember how we meander from meat markets to Sylvia Plath.

“My backpack is right behind my seat, and I have her collected journals there if you want to take a look,” the bus driver says.

I smile. “I’ve read them,” I said. “There’s that scene where she’s making a cake while working as an au pair, and the cake doesn’t turn out right, so she hides it in the cabinet.”

He laughs along with me. We are in agreement: Sylvia Plath hiding a botched cake was funny.

The conversation keeps unwinding. He says he is a big fan of Elizabeth Bishop. I know her basics, “One Art” and all of that. “My favorite poem of hers is called ‘Insomnia,’” he says. He doesn’t tell me anything more about the poem.

I get off the bus at my stop. Despite finding a handsome man who loved poetry as much as I did, I can’t bring myself to even give him my name.

*

Naturally, the first time I was in a library after that, I looked for Elizabeth Bishop’s collected poems. I scrolled down the list of titles. My heart leapt when I saw the title. I held the book gingerly, not wanting to ruin the surprise of the poem. Finally, when I could stand it no longer, I opened the book to the page.

The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
and perhaps with pride at herself,
though she never, ever smiles…

But I smiled. It was a poem about the moon! I thought about the bus driver. Did he love the moon as much as I did?

Far and away beyond sleep
Or perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper
By the universe deserted,
she’d tell it to go to hell.

She’d find a body of water
or a mirror in which to dwell.

I decided to memorize the poem in case I was ever without it. I pored over it there in the library until it was a second tongue. I recited it over and over in my head, then went to the coffee shop and wrote it down in my journal in silvery ink.

I have always relied on memory.

When driving late at night, there’s nothing better to keep oneself awake than reciting poetry from years past, seeing what you can recall and what has fallen by the wayside.

“Insomnia” has never, ever, gone away.

On long drives when the moon is big, I roll down my window and speak the poem to the moon.

So wrap up care in a cobweb
where left is really right
where the shadows are the body
where we stay awake all night
where the heavens are shallow
as the sea is now deep
and you love me.


Erin Lyndal Martin is the assistant music editor for The Rumpus. She is also an associate interviews editor for PopMatters, and she runs the music journalism site Euterpe's Notebook in addition to also contributing to The Quietus. Her poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and critical prose have also appeared widely. She can be followed on Twitter at @erinlyndal. More from this author →