On the Night Shift

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One who knows does not speak
one who speaks does not know.
TAO TE CHING LI

In bed at last, the light turned off, the chorus
Of daylight voices dies, and in profound
Silence I sense the singing in my ears,
A ghostly sibilance, an immense susurrus
Filling the whole house with its wraith of sound.
Then drifting towards the pit of sleep, one hears

A call ‘Sign off now!’ quiet voices say,
‘Your last job was to put the body to bed;
The Night Shift will take over when you’ve gone.
We expect you’re ready: it’s been quite a day.’
The circulation slows and in the head
The oceanic rhythm of sleep draws on.

Although quite ready to go, I wonder what
The Night Shift is, since all controls are set
On automatic, brain idling, will shut down,
Breathing long-slow, heart at a quiet trot …
Cleaners perhaps, night watchmen is my bet
Or maintenance to service my sleeping town.

Last night I learned I could not be more wrong.
Those humble processes take place indeed;
But when I go from the controls, it seems
My brain is taken over by a throng
Of revellers and roisterers who proceed
To invent whole theatres of improbable dreams.

My back-room boys exulting to make over
Scenarios of the scripts I write by day
To season them with melodrama or farce,
Reveal the coward I just keep under cover,
The Greedy Boy I struggle to keep at bay,
The envious Doubles who haunt my looking glass

And some, more sinister members of the cast,
All anxious in my absence for a romp,
Each longing to display what he can do,
Freed from my finger in his pie at last,
Onto the empty, waiting stage they tramp
Jostling for parts and snatching at a cue.

There they act out dream sequences galore
Which visit me in helpless sleep all night,
Long parodies of worries of the day,
Nightmares that grind till I can bear no more
And wake unable to shake off my fright,
Journeys of sheer frustration and delay.

But there are other actors who employ
Their talents to bring me pleasure too, who show
Marvellous landscapes, prospects of sky and sea,
Reminders that living is an act of joy
Dreams full of colour and light that change and glow
And unfulfilled love now made up to me.

Some hoping for my praise too, scribble verse,
Give lectures, plan whole novels, cook up plays
In which if I miss cues, forget my lines
Or fail the whole performance, which is worse,
I still know, though they tease in all these ways,
To shame me is no part of their designs

But to exalt their own parts, give me powers
That in real life I lack and much deplore,
As on those rare occasions when I stand
Conducting a great symphony which soars
Composed impromptu and whose only score
The players read from motions of my hand.

And if, on waking, it seems wretched stuff
I cannot laugh at them for I recall
These are my helpers on whom I depend,
Providers of fresh images in the rough,
Insights I am not capable of at all
And words not mine that lead me to my end.

These are my fellow workers every day
In that weird business of composing verse.
Without them my part falters flat and tame;
Without me in their wild surreal play
Formless inconsequence would prove their curse
In kindling from dull fuel a soaring flame.

Was it another dream last night when I
Resolved to join the Night Shift, climbed the stair?
The door was locked, a sign announced ‘Stage Door
Keep Out!’ I knocked but there was no reply.
I wondered, can it be there’s no one there
Although I heard them from my lower floor.

I knocked again. A voice! The door flew wide.
There stood a person I had never seen
Who barred the way and asked me ‘Who are you?’
I told her who I was, but she replied,
‘Look, we’re in the middle of a scene.
You say you work here: what is it you do?’

‘There’s no one works here answering to that name.’
‘I’m just a poet who runs the show,’ I said.
‘Oh, Management!’ she said. ‘They’re all downstairs.
Come back tomorrow, if it’s all the same.
There’s only one man there, he’s gone to bed
A long, long time ago and said his prayers.’

With that she pushed the door to in my face
And left me standing in the dark alone;
But I had seen the Night Shift. Now I knew
The secret all oneiromantics chase:
The cause of dreaming, hitherto unknown
To the whole psychoanalytic crew,

As to their predecessors, shamans, scriers,
Diviners, mages, witches and old wives,
The Future was not theirs to know and most
Messengers from beyond this world prove liars.
Dreams are the simple means a poet contrives
To tap creative energy from a host

Of clues he is forbidden to meet below
Levels of consciousness he is master of.
On the Night Shift unhampered they work free,
And I in sleep am quite content to know
They are engaged then in a labour of love
Unquestioning, and unquestioned too by me.

I offer this insight to the critics too,
Bright chaps at best who mostly guess awry
Since ignorant of the way that poems begin.
It’s an odd business best left to the few
Who practise it, and of their lot am I.
Interviews with poets may be Original Sin.

Since half the process by which poems grow
Is something not even their authors understand
Inevitably they give themselves away.
What part the Night Shift plays they never know
But talk as though they had the whole thing planned
And it was theirs alone to call the play.

‘Tell me,’ some questioner asks, notebook in fist
Or pushing a microphone into my face,
‘How you get inspiration, analyse
Your sources of creative energy, list
The writers who have influenced you and trace
The deeper drives on which each poem relies.’

I mumble and footle. He takes the nonsense down
And seems content as if with holy writ.
The Night Shift listens in; they laugh and crow
And slap their sides ‘Help! Listen to the clown!
That babble will soon be printed, every bit.’

And sure enough, half drivel and half guess,
It all sees print, is solemnly studied. Profound
Conclusions pin my literary drift.
And I too laugh to watch my critics assess
A poem, as their game goes round and round,
My game of blind-man’s bluff with the Night Shift.

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