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Archive Click here to see other poems we've featured in the past.

The Little Sleep

I didn't learn about the unconscious
from pompous bearded professors with couches
who'd never been there themselves.
I learned from tough whiskery guys
who told me all about it on the radio
every Sunday afternoon and most evenings.

There was Martin Kane, Private Eye
(brought to me by Fatima, who wasn't Mohammed's
daughter, but a cigarette, but there was no
Ayatollah to put the death sentence on the makers
of Fatima), who every week would, at some point
in the show, walk into a dark room, switch on
the light ("click"), then: CONK! and "Ooghnng...",
after which Martin Kane himself would tell me
all about the unconscious. As would Nick
Carter, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Steve Wilson,
Johnny Dollar and any of the dozens of
first-person-to-the-brink-of-the-grave tough guys
who went beyond the stars and tweeting birds
(which Freud has never adequately explained)
into pure hard-boiled poetry of going out
like a light and oozing into awareness again.

It was different every time, a riot of similes,
as if getting coshed released all their
suppressed-in-tough-guy-silence poetry.
"The room began to flicker like a light bulb
on the fritz", "And the next thing I knew..."
Things went black or bright colors spiraled
down a distant drain, voices grew dim, objects
seemed to explode, the floor jumped up at them,
the room turned upside down, her eyes grew large
and swallowed him (she'd slipped him a mickey —
he drowns in silvery laughter), heads swelled up
like balloons and sailed among pink puffy clouds,
"I fell slowly — for ages — down a long deep hole
toward a spinning disk, a record playing
Is he...Is he...." One came to with "...a tongue
as thick..." (as a sausage or Mrs. McGillicuddy's
brogue), "a head throbbing like...", "a head as
big as...", in rooms where one has to hold
one wall still at a time until the white pulsating
blur moves nearer and says "You must feel awful".
They always woke up and solved the case, sounding
no worse for wear, world-weary, a little sad,
but no more so than before the last CONK.
When all went blank, they never walked toward
the white light, though sometimes when they woke
to find an "angel" or a slimy "devil" fretting or
sneering over them, they'd wonder dizzily if
they'd died and gone to heaven or hell.

Those strong stoic tongue-in-battered-cheek voices
could march through death and come back with a
wisecrack. Sometimes they even moved right out of
dire stories into commercials and back again.
Every week Sam Spade said "Goodnight, Shweetheart"
and faded to the strains of "Get Wildroot Cream Oil,
Chaaaarly...", but his voice returned a week later.
Mere blackout can't stop that tough voice that can't
recall who it is, what it's there for, why it should
care, but knows that it is someone and should be
caring about something — a voice as unstoppable
as thought, or what's a simile for?

Where's the Ph.D. thesis to explain the stars, the
birds, the sky turning red, then black, the too-
large head, all the forms of pain denied? Explain
the slowly developing inkling upon coming out of
the tunnel or meat-grinder, the knowing one knows
something, but not knowing what, as if their brief
excursions into pain and unconsciousness have
unriddled the slashed, choked and plugged corpses
that litter their lives — if only they could free
this new knowing from the cloud of unconsciousness.

A detective is supposed to find things out.
Someone who doesn't want something known
tries to imprison the shamus in his cracked
skull with the knowledge either trapped inside
or outside and out of reach. A detective has a head
that disagrees with blackjacks, gun barrels,
brass knuckles and baseball bats. And the detective
disagrees with his disagreeable head, night after
night — as if squabbling with an old cantankerous
spouse — comes to terms with it, learns over and
over to live quietly in or near that scarred,
stuck-out noggin. Sometimes the detective slips away
into a vast calm place, and it's hard to want
to come back. "Some idiot wouldn't stop moaning —
it was me." "Leave me alone...OOOH! Easy on the
bumps, will ya!" groans the detective, waking up,
not wanting to, but a job's a job. That first step
was a lulu says the tough detective. As good as
can be expected for a guy who just had a hot date
with a cement truck, says the tough detective.
I'll be OK, just give me a minute — planet earth,
right? says the tough wise-guy detective. It's just
another hangover for the tough detective, just one
more bloodshot fungus-tongued morning waking up
in the same shabby room, but worse because there's
two of everything, a tight-rope walk between bad
dreams and the realization of bad dreams, room awash
with light that hurts but must be confronted.

The tough dick is acquainted with the neon night,
too clear-headed, even unconscious, for symbols
more subtle than a dental drill. This is what the
shamus knows that the shrink has forgotten:
The unconscious is no treasure trove of discovery.
It is where a ceaseless voice hovers over watery
chaos, like Noah's dove, seeking a place to alight.
The point of the unconscious is to wake up,
take back shreds of waking torn from us by pain,
blundering dazed bits of waking that make us
imagine the unconscious has something to say to us.

"And then I knew." "Then it came to me."
"Suddenly there was only one way to figure it."
"Wait! That's it!" "You've got to rest..." —
"No time now, babe — I'll explain later."
"It hit me like a...", "It made no sense...but then
I saw something like a pattern and suddenly
it was as clear as...", "Then I realized what had
been nagging at the back of my..." — always that
sudden impact, whether of unconsciousness or
(slapping hand to forehead) consciousness, because
that's what's real to tough guys: Impact.
Certainty and stupidity: Two WHAMs! Struck by
an idea, the private eye realizes he's been
seeing things all wrong, wakes up as from a dream —
and that's hard too, but a job's a job. "I'll have
that drink now." "Make it a double". A little
consciousness goes a long way for a private eye.

Copyright c. 2005 by Dean Blehert. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED   
last updated: September 24, 2005