Different Words for Sleep

by Michelle Gottschlich



Once, in winter, I read a sign that said

the history of the earth is long and cyclical.

But all I remember: spring, sun in the bed. 

Your eye—green and gold spun—just

opening. And the hole that appeared there

suddenly, like a den in the grass 

well-hidden. My thirtieth year arrives—



a record that keeps skipping.

Wrinkles ripple across my face

in imperfect concentric circles.

When you left, I didn’t know

what to do with my body — 

its awkward, bearable heft.

I go to bed, I go back.



I read this land was once untenable. 

Someone set upon it, drew an imaginary line

through the marshland. The king sent poor men 

to manage it, speak its new name, drain 

the bogs, and shear the forests. Then one day:

a black train chuffing. Then, overhead

a canvas biplane — a silver 747



small town could fit in. Ben—

you arrive now, having traveled a long way

through a cloud. Behind you: California.

Below you: abstracted trees, perfectly square fields.

Between the sky and landscape, stormed by clouds: 

a string of smoke. It’s true, I was the first

to set upon you. It was summer 



I took your hand, carved a line across

the bar, through bodies swaying like trees.

We were between sky and landscape, then

in bed. I pointed to my body, redrawing lines:

You can touch me here. Can I cross you there?

No one, but us. You reached under 

the hem-line — this can’t be real —



You arrive as if through a dream.

It’s morning time to me. California — 

Glassell Park — your crowded apartment 

complex. Across the street: Forest Lawn

where Walt Disney was laid to rest,

a thousand pilgrims grieving at his garden

plot. The grass, unconscionably green.



For weeks I carry you with me, 

in my phone, your name in my palm 

like an icon. You tell me about your day, 

your voice arriving through clouds 

and different words for sleep. Just ask me—

and I will give you synonyms for synonyms

until nothing means what it really means.



Can you truly love what’s not right

in front of you?  Is this love grief or

make-pretend? You left, then I left

the garden. Can I ever go back? Ben— 

There was a time when your name 

was my name, and there was no such 

silly thing as California. Between the sky



Everything changes in fixed motion. 

Just look at the season, pulled red and thin. 

Heat hiding under the tattered leaf cover. 

It was a Sunday, to me. I was staring 

at a photo you sent me: your head 

shaved down to a faint shadow. 

My eyes moved across like fingers:



over the crest above the forehead, over

the ridges fused together, frontal to parietal.

All this time, this was a part of you still

untouched by suns. Where is your hair now?

On the floor, in the wastebasket—

whole years measured in inches.

Was it me you shorn yourself from? Each hair



a different word. For love I fended off 

depression. Cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. 

For so long, I fed the fire, panicked it warm.

Now you rise like a moon above me.

Will you forget me one day? I am so—I was—

I still love to watch your face lifting

through the cloud cover. Between the sky



and landscape, smog fills the valley

like a bowl of smoke. I saw a photo: 

the sun orange as a bomb. Vague mountains.

My thirtieth year keeps skipping over 

the ridges, frontal to parietal. This land was once

a small town I could fit in, having arrived 

through imperfect concentric circles.



Between the sky and landscape:

the bed, long and abstracted. Ben we were

a dream I panicked and kept warm.

Unconscionably green. California was a line 

I all but passed through. Between the sky 

and me: your face, a pale moon. 

Your name, a string of smoke. 



This can’t be real — all this time 

we were changing in fixed motion. 

I panicked, I felt it: the fire

shaved down to a faint shadow. 

Across the street from Forest Lawn

I was a thousand pilgrims 

grieving in the grass, well-hidden.



Over the crest, above the forehead,

your voice arriving through clouds

and different words for sleep. Just ask me — 

Will you forget me one day? Ben —

It was you here in my name’s

awkward and bearable heft. 

They sent me to manage it. The sky



perfectly square, and the opening 

that appears there suddenly like a palm.

Your face, an icon. I was untenable.

Once, there was a time. An imaginary line

a black train chuffing. Tell me about your day

in bed, pointing to my body. Tell me

and I will give you synonyms for synonyms



for a den in the grass, well-hidden.

For love I fended off depression —

Just look at the season, pulled red and thin.

Once you left the garden, I came back

through an opening I kept warm. 

I am—I was—I all but passed through. 

Was it me you shorn yourself from



through a cloud, frontal to parietal. 

The history of the earth is long

but it’s still morning time to me. California—

Glassell Park—like a record that keeps.

In the bed, I fended off fixed motion. 

Tell me about your day until smog fills 

the valley, the air, the sun a bomb, a fire that



cleans and cleans and cleans.

Just look, we were shaking like trees. 

When you left — I was, I was.

When you left, I didn’t. Ben—

I didn’t know what to do. I was

a landscape stormed by clouds. I’ve been

hiding under different words for sleep.



Ben, all this time. It was—I am—

right in front of you. Your eye just opening

ripples across my face. You reach under

the cloud cover, behind the trees well-hidden. 

Love, grief, or make-pretend: my hand

redrawing lines. You can touch me here

until nothing means what it means.




back to University & College Poetry Prizes