Insomnia

I started out writing a post about a line in the Leonard Cohen song ‘Alexandra Leaving’ that always jumps out at me: ‘in full command of every plan you wrecked.’  I was going to write about my father and his failed projects, in particular the snail farm where the snails grew bigger and bigger because he couldn’t overcome his crippling shyness and bring himself to phone restaurants in order to sell them.  I was going to compare the corpulent snails to the unfinished novels, stories and articles slithering around the insides of my computer, how I keep feeding the machine with more and more words that aren’t going anywhere.

But I soon got bored of that; it was just the same old, same old.  So I distracted myself by reading the Cavafy poem Cohen based his song on.  The poem’s called ‘The God Abandons Antony’, Antony being Marcus Antonius.  In Plutarch’s version of the story, Antony hears a ghostly, musical troupe making its way through Alexandria the night he loses the city to Octavian.  The procession is the sign that Bacchus, Antony’s protector god, is deserting him.  Here it is:

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly at midnight you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now;
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly;
as one long prepared and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you;
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of the coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Don’t you just love that ghostly procession?  I did, I loved it so much I skipped off down another road.  I learned that the poem was also about Cavafy’s own desire and inability to flee Alexandria, that the city was as much a metaphor to him as the literal place he felt ensnared by, a fevered city whose madness and lassitude it was impossible to escape.  Reading about Alexandria I found myself wanting to write about the mythical drama of this cultural and mystical crossroads, home to the largest great library in the ancient world, an outpost of Greek thought at the edges of the Sahara, a complex, changing place where differing opinions were encouraged.

That night I couldn’t sleep. Who was I kidding?  Someone (Edmund Keeley) had already written a book about Cavafy’s Alexandria, a book praised by Joseph Brodsky as being ‘as marvellous a guide to the imagined Alexandria as E. M. Forster’s is to the real one’.  Yes I’d read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (over half of it anyway) but that was years ago and I don’t have the best memory in the world.  Yes, we might all have our own Alexandria but wasn’t I jumping the gun, shouldn’t I actually do more than browse a few internet sites before grabbing hold of and running with the first idea that whizzed by?

Talking of whizz.  Half finished thoughts were running so fast and furious around my brain it was like a pinball machine in there.  I should never have started a blog in the first place, it was too stressful putting stuff out there once a week.  Usually I sit here quietly writing my poems, sending off the occasional handful to a magazine until I think I’ve got a collection – some poems hang around for several years before they’re looked at by another pair of eyes.  And what’s the point of it anyway?  Does the world really need more outpourings from another angsty writer?  Aren’t I in danger of churning out another load of going nowhere words when I could be writing something proper like a novel, some short stories or a memoir?

I got up for the second time and hurled my book against the wall.  If you’ve ever suffered bouts of insomnia you’ll know this feeling – the despair and rage of the early hours, the point where you start plea-bargaining with a god you don’t believe in for a pathetic two hours sleep.

The snails slithered – or rather, speed-skated – into view.  Giving up the blog at this stage would be no different from abandoning all the novels gathering dust in my computer.  It’s all down to insecurity. If asked a question he didn’t want to answer, my father used to say ‘Don’t worry about what I’m doing, just get on with what you’re doing.’  Behind all the bluster and bravado, he worried like hell about what people thought.  Seems I am my father’s daughter, after all.

Elsewhere I’m writing about a blue door that may, or may not, be my Alexandria. Meanwhile, here’s the beautiful Leonard Cohen with his take on the poem.

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~ by Lorna Thorpe on June 28, 2011.

4 Responses to “Insomnia”

  1. I love the openness and honesty in this, Lorna. I’m so glad that you decided to share it with us. I do know this fear and I keep thinking that perhaps, when we move through that fear, that’s the moment when we truly connect?

    • that’s a good point, Sophie. Many years ago I remember trying to pinpoint what I called Factor X (long before the Simon Cowell show) in writing – it clearly wasn’t just beautiful words or sentences but the point at which a writer hits a nerve and finds the right words to express it. As I’m sure you know, Keats calls this ‘proved upon the pulse’ (ooh, feel a new blog topic coming on!).

  2. I had no idea that the song was based on a Cavafy poem, which is tremendous – thank you so much for sharing it with us. I do know how insomnia seems to parch our mental subsoil, and wilt our new seedlings – I can bearly open my eyes today after a ridiculous night waking up every half an hour, and it feels that all this week’s momentum has evaporated. I do find that drawing up a list of positive actions – to be accomplished over, say, a month – really helps. A day or night squeezed dry here or there doesn’t matter so much if overall the creativity is flowing.

    The blog is beautifully written, and the topics so far have been intriguingly varied. Maybe you don’t have to post every week, but, as you intended, use it as a place of marginalia – research, thought, questions – to feed your other writing. I’m sure other writers will understand if you’re not updating every Wednesday!

    • Thanks Naomi – for the tips about what to do during a sleepless night, and also for helping me let myself off the hook about weekly postings. I sort of knew I didn’t have any obligation but it took someone else voicing it for it to properly sink it. Odd, how the mind works. Hope you get your momentum back soon.

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