a friend in high school told me that if you go without sleep for a long time you can bring on hallucinations. We tried it once, but I fell asleep after about a day and a half of that thin, drawn-out feeling. My friend lasted two full days, and he started to see strange things: unreal moving shapes and noises becoming patterns in your head. A sentence condensed down to a single word that repeats over and over even after the sound has gone like a wave that keeps crashing.

That’s not what insomnia is. Some people believe they don’t sleep at all, but that’s not what it is either. You just never sleep enough. Your body runs you on the minimum amount of sleep required to keep you alive. Some nights there is no sleep. Other nights, you can grab maybe two, three hours. Mostly there are no dreams, so you think you haven’t slept. You roll over, and the clock is an hour closer to morning than it was before. The flicker of your eyes is slower for a moment, and that is the closest you get to real rest. Slowly the life drains out of you. The feeling of reality is gone, like you’re looking at everything through a sheet of clear perspex. Watching a movie that wraps all around you and will not let you go.

Sleep. deprivation. SD. Like Standard Deviation. The distance of data from the mean. The average person sleeps about 7 hours a night I think. We are definitely a deviation. The insomniacs. Some can’t sleep until the morning, some wake up too early. Some talk online in late night early morning hazes, wait through the sounds of waking that ripple across the country from East to West each day. I guess it’s a community, but one that none of us really want to be part of.
you can meet someone that way. There are ads on Craigslist: ‘can’t sleep – want some company’; ‘I can’t sleep. Anyone want to chat?’; ‘can’t sleep msn anyone? – w4mw – 19’. Insomniac sex is vague, impersonal, flat. That same feeling pervades all parts of the sleep-deprived life. we watch clocks. Tonight I climbed into bed at 11:17pm. It is now 1:31am. I have watched the digits flick their green bars into place so many times I have lost count, and my mind starts to wander. The green bars are imprinted on the inside of my closed eyes like a neon prison, blinking on and off but a little too fast for me to escape between the blinks. Eventually they slow to something like a heartbeat, but before I can relax too much I have a sudden panic. I sit up quickly in bed… I have left some food out on the kitchen counter. It’s been out there all day. An apple I took out of the fridge at 2am last night, but never ate. I can picture it growing wrinkled and old, attracting cockroaches and worms. Lie down. Now behind my eyes the green bars reform into a hexagonal green apple that starts to run out of the bottom of my view in a vile green mojito slush. After a few minutes of this I have to get up and find the apple. The attempt to sleep is reset as soon as I leave the bed.
there are lots of treatments. Melatonin kept me up even more, 5HTP did nothing, the list of sleeping pills is just another thing to cycle through my brain when I’m lying awake. Seroquel, temazepam, trazodone, zopiclone, remeron – put them in dosage order, alphabetical order, nausea strength order. I tried watching long slow movies like the Seventh Seal or Lawrence of Arabia; listening to slow, soothing music, wearing lavender eye masks. All just items in the cycling lists. Put them in order by director, by release date, by number of academy awards. My Doctor suggested finding the cause rather than treating the symptoms, but I think on some level I feel this torture is shaping me. I may even be encouraging it. The haggard face, the jitters, the unfocused way I watch the computer screen at work. I am letting them define me. I watch movies late at night, sleep with a clock in the room, bake cookies at 2am while listening to early Prodigy tracks. Maybe trying and failing is worse than not trying. Or maybe fixing this would leave me nothing else to blame.


Mirrors reflecting mirrors

He stares into the mirror, which is cracked underneath; marred and browning at the edges. Breathes deeply three times and looks into the wide eyes. There is some redness there, some puffiness under them. The pores on his nose seem over-large, like wide pits. Where to begin?

He begins by splashing water on his face. It takes several dips of the finger into the stream to get the temperature right. One tap turns anticlockwise, the other clockwise. He growls when, at first, the water is too hot. The tap stays running and slowly begins to fill up the clogged sink.

There is a mirror in this room too, although it is smooth, oval and new. The sink is bright turquoise, empty and shining. The eyes looking into it are redder, and tears flow steadily from them. But they seem by the contours and lines to be younger: more restful and more rested. This room looks strange. Not strange in the sense of being unusual, but unfamiliar. Completely unfamiliar. This whole house is unfamiliar. His right hand, held up, seems unfamiliar too. There is only one conclusion possible: insanity. Insanity is creeping up on him. It is this place, this room, this strangeness, this situation. Digging his nails into his palm, he wills the pain to act as a catalyst to burn this all away. ‘A platinum and rhodium catalyst may be used to facilitate the conversion of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide’ he whispers to the mirror. The words survive in condensation for a few seconds. These are words an insane person might say, he chides himself.

A voice calls from the kitchen. He breathes deeply, trying to calm himself; a kaleidoscope trying to turn back to a single cohesive shape. Fail. Fail. Fail. Looking into those red eyes again he pats them dry with two folded pieces of toilet paper. A shaking hand is raised to the level of the face. Nothing is working properly any more. He looks down at his left hand as it clinks against the porcelain. The voice calls again.

He looks up into the ugly brown mirror, willing some change to explode out of it. Nothing happens for several seconds while he holds his breath. He breathes out in a long stream that condenses around the flecks of dirt on the mirror, like electrons clouding around nuclei. His left hand clinks against the porcelain. The circle is something that can be broken, just here where the flux raises slightly from the surface. He carefully rubs his finger with the translucent yellow sliver of soap.

Median Lethal Dose


Last night I was having flashbacks again: I see the spokes on bicycle wheels being tightened, each creak of moving metal echoed by a movement in my muscles; hunching, twisting over each other. I see pictures in textbooks of strange diseases, then look in the mirror to see the same picture, my name captioned, anonymously abbreviated. All of my space compacted into the size of a fist. And colours. Green and blue lines coruscating across my eyes like melting plants, the colours running out and making abstract spiral stained glass patterns. A continuous curve traced by a point moving around a fixed point in the same plane while steadily diminishing its distance. Red yellow black white static interference patterns, stopping any other mental activity, truncating the waves. A hand that reached from that space in vision that’s a little in front of you, through my eyelids and into my head.

All this is caused by what that cute French boy in Japanese class called ‘reality overdose’. All things that happen are real, but some are more real than others, although I think he stole that from Orwell. When too many hyper-real things happen at once, reality builds up in the body like a toxin. Given enough time, latency builds up between the thought process and reality. It solidifies.

A girl on the bus asks me if I’m feeling ok. I’m not quite sure where we are, but I’m sure that my eyes are red, because I spent a while staring at them in the chrome reflective bus stop ad. I’m not quite sure where we are. I don’t know why. Reality condensing in the eyes? The input through which most sensory information is channelled, it’s only natural that the problem should start there. I can feel the redness like a slow burn. I realize that several seconds have gone by, and I haven’t answered her. Or was that another time? I have lost the opportunity to respond within a time frame that signifies a normal level of social response to stimuli. I pretend not to have heard, and she asks me again, trying to tilt her head on one side and look up into my eyes, which are focused on a stretched-out piece of gum clinging to the floor. I nod, and get off at the next stop. I remember that I haven’t eaten in four days. Or since Wednesday, whenever that was. The light-headedness makes me stumble as I get off the bus, and I almost knock over an old Asian lady carrying a bag full of empty wine bottles. It has been five days since I’ve eaten.

In pharmacology books, you’ll sometimes see a value for the ‘median lethal dose’, sometimes coded as LD50 to be less morbid. The dose of a medicine, a drug, at which 50% of test subjects will die. The numerical value of Russian Roulette for every substance. From this I learned that less than a millionth of a gram of botox can kill a person half the time, which just proves that there’s no justice in Hollywood. On the other hand, it will take about fourteen grams of caffeine to kill an average adult. That’s 250 espressos. Reality is another substance like these. Less tangible than cocaine, more tangible than feelings. The median, in fact, between emotion and chemistry.

For some, survival is a little like a gift from a former lover. Something to cling to, or discard. It is, logically speaking, a bad idea to kill yourself because of a boy. This is because you only get one go at killing yourself (if you do it properly), whereas you get many attempts to find the right boy. How can you be sure your very own boy is worthy of the ultimate commitment?

I was boiling with the strange thoughts that you get when the internal and externally loaded substances run through your body at time of emotional stress. Condensation accretion accumulation of reality inside my veins was causing toxins to rush to my brain and flick switches at random. How does the body let itself get so out of control? It seems like this particular system is malfunctioning. I see the same girl who was on the bus sitting on a patio at the side of the street. How did she do that? It can’t be the same girl. They all look the same, identical cast-off 80s dresses and slippers, ready to discard those dresses and start wearing flares, tutus, anything else as soon as the marginally more mainstream people start wearing what the hipsters have previously claimed. If you watch very closely you can see it happen.

I’m not sure if it’s easier or harder for you, up on stage. There is a feedback loop that is positive instead of negative. Something like that. For some people there is a vestige of control that allows them to get on a stage, switch something off inside the mind, and channel everything into this controlled explosion, hot line of entropy that distorts the world around it, clears a space in which they can survive. Be alone in a press of bodies like surf, like a bird above the waves. They can’t swim, and the waves want to reach up and drag them under, soak, salt and dry them. Maybe they just stand there and think about the other birds burning in hot entropy.

Editing poetry: Dead boys

This piece has vacillated between being a poem and a very short story. The only reason that I’d keep it in this form is for the repetition in the second section.  This is inspired partly by the excellent Patrick Wolf song ‘To the Lighthouse’. The lines ‘a candle with a broken wick… I have been’ come from Saul Williams’ ‘Release’.

He falls from the train
An elevator from the 28th floor
To the spikes of the railings.
The notebook swallow-dives
With him, lands.
The red
of the cover leaking into the pages,
The white
of the pages leaking out to the cover.

You are star-eyed, windows on a centrifuge,
Black sparsely flecked with life,
Your eyes in black orbits,
Skin flushed deep red and the palm
Of your hand
Red smacks down on the wooden desk

This is much better, anger for tears,
Papercuts and salt water.
You have realized
Like a dark dream unfolding
That he never gave you anything
Real enough
For them,
No locket, inscribed metal,
Acid-etched glass. Your name, his name,
A vestigial pleasure in access after the fact.
All you have is his words
A candle with a broken wick
A puddle that reflects the sun
A piece of paper with my name on it

All that I am I have been

Eventually you get a ride, red palm stinging in the back seat,
To his apartment,
All the appliances still holding their breath,
The dishes stretching and yawning in the sink
Like black cats, their fur damp,
Not quite understanding.

As you enter, the silence clutches you,
Forces all oxygen from your body
You sit heavily
The furniture should be covered
With dust,
Yellow police tape,
Not just the same like it’s still waiting.
You slowly open the bedroom door,
The present you left for him is still
Sitting on the pillow,
Neatly folded,
The floor falls away,
The black sheets curve, spiral like a galaxy,
Collapse into infinite gravity.
You are compressed into a singularity.

Months later you have taken to carving his name
Into everything,
But you don’t remember why.
At first it was just flesh,
Arms, legs, chest (while standing in front of
The mirror,
You cried for almost an hour when you realized one letter
Was backwards).
Now in the margins of books,
Scratched in wood and metal,
Idly traced in bath water.
The compact lettering is somehow

Once you had covered a
Whole journal page with his name,
And the next page
‘it’s not my fault’.
The word ‘my’ lines
Up in a sloping line across the page
Like a scar.

What I’m thinking about changing:

I would like to present this piece another way. Perhaps with the journal page as a background and the words over the top. Or maybe as a short flash fiction piece with some unusual spacing to allow that red/red/red repetition to stand out more.

via Editing poetry: Dead boys.

Editing poetry: A miniature treatise on aching

A long time ago I had a project with C to write an alphabet of treatises. I think this may be the closest that I got to completing one. I was probably reading lots of Anne Carson when I wrote this.

What can be said about aching
That has not been said? (It is a twitch that lasts all day; it leaves you poised at the beginning of a breath, at the crest of a wave.)
Aching is longing for something
That is never close enough unless it is touching you.
No. That is a fallacy.
Unless it is wrapped around you.

Aching means never sleep (eyes). Use no pins (fingers). Lie very still and stare (eyes). Be helpless. Cry. Read. Search for music under floorboards. Cease to Function. Aching is lack of function (eyes).

Aching can see.
It knows, when the achers are wrapped around (in acres of silk, lovers, archers),
That soon, inevitably, they will be unwrapped, ripped apart along the seam, and the ache will begin again.

Aching slows time (beginning to live in increments of the past).
Aching bleeds colour from the world (aching is the absence of all colour, but is not black).
Aching leaves you outside,
In winter,
With no scarf.
With liquid eyes.

via Editing poetry: A miniature treatise on aching.

Short fiction: Dust to Dust

I wrote this story, semi-based on a couple of true events, for my creative writing class. Since I did very well, I thought I’d share it with the rest of you.


Dust to dust

    She sat leaning forwards, almost perched on the front half of her seat, leaving a gap between herself and the ugly-patterned seat back. Through the gap I could see the sprawling homogeneity of the prairies speed by outside the window, the wheat blurring into a yellow pap that covered half the country. Nothing but fields and fields and fields.  
    I had been watching her since Regina, where she’d either got on the bus or moved back to the seat across from mine. As soon as the bus pulled away she’d attracted my attention. Her hair was so ginger-red it might have been dyed , but her skin was that porcelain pale white that redheaded people often have, which forces them to wear wide-brimmed hats if there is even a threat of sunshine. She was wearing a round silver watch, which she kept glancing at just as I glanced at her: sometimes a quick look, sometimes staring for a few seconds at a time. Her clothing was simple: blue jeans and a striped sweater of the one-shoulder type that girls seem to forever be hitching back up into its place, only to have it fall down again a few seconds later. She left hers unhitched.  
In fact, other than her frequent but understated movements to look at the watch, she sat perfectly still, becoming almost background to the landscape rushing past the window. Her energy was all contained, all stored. Her stillness was not the lazy stillness of some of the sweaty passengers at the back, dozing with sweaters like tiny tents over their heads to keep out the daylight. It was the stillness of potential energy, movement that was waiting.
    Since crossing the Rockies on the way out of BC, there had been little of interest passing by outside. The mountains loomed, but gave a curious vibrancy to that part of the journey. They were an ever-changing landscape, growing all the time; full of crags and precipices, nature and geography commingled, and eventually nature bowing out at the tree-line and leaving the peak standing alone. As we entered the prairies though, everything except farming appeared to give up; even the signposts were few and far between. Unlike the mountains, whose sheer size oppressed with the deafening silence of a million tons of rock, down here it was dust. Dust, yellow as corn, covered everything, silenced everything. Dust and wind, eroding life down to its component atoms. Destroying, but in a way that was flat and lifeless. Dust to dust. The dust that was the death of rocks, the death of mountains. The bus itself hurtled past too quickly to ever be worn down. But each time we stopped, it looked old and sickly, a film of dust coating the bright metal.  
I was curious about the girl, perhaps a little more because she was strikingly beautiful. It is always easy to be curious about a beautiful girl. She never looked out of the window, which was a little odd, even though there wasn’t much to see. I leaned over and asked her name. For a moment, she seemed to ignore me, then slowly turned around. She held my gaze for a moment, as if trying to ask a question with her eyes.
    ‘Claire,’ she replied. The word was crisply and perfunctorily delivered, with no hint of further information spilling over out of it . No hint of what else she might be thinking about. I wasn’t sure if she was interested in talking further, but it was a long journey and I felt prepared to risk a metaphorical slap in the face.
    ‘Where are you headed?’ I asked politely.
    ‘Ottawa… and you?’ the words seemed still to be dragged out, or coming from a long way away, but yet they had that same solidity as the mountains: once said they seemed immovable in my memory.  
    ‘I’m going to Montreal. Just for a while.’
    ‘Why Montreal?’
    I smiled and shrugged. ‘Why not? I just wanted to visit.’ She bit her lip and half-smiled. Glanced at her watch. Went back to staring ahead. There was a long pause. A wind whipped the dust into brief flapping sheets of yellow outside the window.
    ‘Why Ottawa?’ As soon as I said it, I could see her face darken. She hunched her shoulders up slightly, just for a moment pulling her body even further forwards on the seat.
    ‘To visit my dad’
    ‘That must be nice’ I said, slowing down towards the end of the sentence as I felt the precipitous edge of the mountain road looming up in conversation .
    ‘He has liver cancer.’
    ‘Oh,’ was all I could reply. I didn’t really see the point in saying I was sorry, and the pause was now too long to add it as an afterthought. What would the apology of a stranger mean? ‘I hope he gets better’ I added firmly.
    ‘I’m going to say goodbye.’ Her words were still clipped, not cold exactly but precise . Her mind seemed to be focused like a migrating bird on the destination. ‘I … might not get there in time.’ Around us, other passengers dozed in the mid-afternoon warmth, or watched the treadmill of wind-swept prairies roll by. For Claire, this was a race. It was almost as if she was conserving all her energy to will the bus along faster, leaving none to move her own body. The whine of the engine seemed suddenly to grow louder, too loud to talk at the level we’d been talking. We sat in silence for a few minutes.  
She seemed to look tired now, worn-down like the old farming equipment I could see as we passed by deserted farms. ‘We’re going to scatter his ashes from the top of a hill close to where he lived.’ She didn’t seem to notice the past tense creeping in. Perhaps she’d been preparing for this moment in her head for months, or even years.
Her phone rang. She stiffened again, and then answered it. She spoke into it very quietly for several minutes. I couldn’t hear what transpired, and I didn’t ask her. Her face was fixed, slightly stiff but unreadable. After the call was over, she went back to sitting perched on her seat, and didn’t say anything to me. Later in the day I dozed off like most of the passengers, and when I woke up she was gone. Perhaps she’d taken a quicker bus to rush there that much sooner. Perhaps she’d had bad news and decided to stop somewhere, or even head back towards the mountains. It was something I wondered about for years afterwards, this girl who was so full of life and energy, and yet so contained . This girl who seemed so out of place in the bleak dustbowl of the prairies.
I wondered if she ever managed to scatter her father’s ashes as he wished. I pictured them catching in the wind, sweeping down from Ontario, North and West over the great lakes, and eventually back to the prairies. Mingling with the dust of mountains, of worn away bone, wood and metal. Grouping and whirling in clouds, ready to wear down whatever tried to move across the prairies. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.