The Bugs

These he knew were minor presences, riffraff of consciousness.

— Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat

When I can’t fall asleep at night
I picture clouds as black as ink,
One on my left, one on my right,
And try of both at once to think.
When thus directed, right and left,
Attention can be drawn apart
Like cotton wool, and through the cleft
Black sleep seep down into my heart
Till waking sinks beneath its spell.
That’s how it works when all goes well.
But sometimes all does not go right.
Tonight, I fear, is such a night.

The bugs! Into my room they file.
They’ve been attracted by the cloud.
On each bug-face, a stupid smile;
From each bug-throat, a thrumming loud.
They stand and smile and hum and drone,
All lined up straight before my bed,
And seem to sing for me alone,
To pound their song into my head.
And if you saw me as I lay
And listened to that awful song,
All motionless, you’d surely say
I was asleep — but you’d be wrong.

I seem to sleep as deep as death,
Then up I start and gasp for breath,
Eyes bugged, and say, What’s wrong with me?
I feel like I’ve been undersea!
Much longer, and I would have drowned

And in my head, that thrumming sound.
It echoes still, the bugs’ fell song,
And should it settle in my brain,
That brekekex-ing loud and long,
I know I’d never sleep again.
But in the end it fades away,
That brekekex-ing loud and fell,
Beneath the blows of light of day,
Till silence falls and all is well.

If ever there should come a time
I write my life in epic rhyme,
I know exactly how to start.
The first two lines I know by heart:
Sing, Muse, the tale of one who dared
To brave the bugs and how he fared!

(As for the rest — well, time will tell.
At least I’ll know it started well.)
In saner moods, though, I forswear
such epic fluff and say this prayer:
Protect me, Lord, when I arise.
Keep thou my feet from every sin.
Protect me when I close my eyes.
Don’t let the bugs come filing in.


Filed under Poetry

4 responses to “The Bugs

  1. Good stuff.

    CS Lewis was prone to nightmares –

    and of course used dream pictures as a basis for his stories (e.g the faun and lamp post, and the lion in Narnia, the floating islands in Perelandra) – inventing stuff to link between the pictures.

  2. This was inspired in part by “nightmares” in the original sense of that term — not mere bad dreams, but episodes of what today is called “sleep paralysis” (or what the Chinese, in terminology truer to the subjective experience, call 鬼壓身 — “being pressed down by ghosts”).

  3. By the way, I hope some readers will pick up on the source of the “brekekex” sound. This spot-on onomatopoeia, which many people find so strange, leads me to wonder if perhaps Aristophanes might have been acquainted with this same riffraff, whom he dubbed “frogs” for those same ‘orrible starin’ eyes which led me to call them “bugs.”

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