INTRO by Phil Cousineau: Swiftly, night comes on. Dusk is upon us. Darkness rushes in. The crepuscular voices in this opening section remind us that night is more than earth’s dark turn away from the sun. It is the first step in the long journey into the original twilight zone, the liminal world between night and day that has haunted human beings since the red dawn of time. Through the soulful picture language of mythology, the Greek poet Hesiod tells us why. Out of the Chaos at the moment of creation, he writes in The Theogony, came the first gods, the personification of the powers of the world. One was Eros, god of love and desire; another was Erebus, the face of darkness, and also Nyx, goddess of the night. The numinous imagery tells us that night was born of desire, which the Greeks believed to be one of the great forces of nature, and darkness. It is the love of darkness—soul work—and night brings forth light and day, but not for the usual reasons.
“Last night / the rain / spoke to me,” writes Mary Oliver, “slowly saying / what joy / to come falling / out of the brisk cloud / to be happy again.” This world of fog and shadows, which we are exploring here, alternates between loneliness and exultation, yearning and the whitestripe fever of driving in the dark. What the contributors here share in common is an embrace of endarkenment.
Usually regarded as a poet of crystalline light and clarity, Sappho captures the often lacerating loneliness of sleeping alone while granting it dignity. The Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore offers a short poem about nature’s own lamps, in “Fireflies.” The bard of New Hampshire, Robert Frost, calls for us to befriend or become “acquainted” with the night, while Emily Dickinson offers an astonishing insight, that the night is vital because “Either the Darkness alters— / Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight…” The transcendent nature writer and novelist Annie Dillard describes how the very stars “trembled and stirred” with her breath. The English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy hauntingly evokes the central theme of this opening section, in “Afterwards,” where he writes that night is full of mysteries and a poet is one of whom it is said, “He was a man who used to notice such things.” The labyrinthine Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges has a vision in “Baruch Spinoza” of the medieval philosopher “building God in the twilight.” Irish novelist and musicologist P.J. Curtis encounters an old traveling man who describes “the book of the night sky, every night a different page.” The Milwaukee poet Antler sees the stars as the beautiful breasts of a cosmic mother. Poet and novelist Linda Watanabe McFerrin explores a different kind of ecstasy in “A Little Night Music.” Her sentences are an exercise in heavy breathing: “Later, his arms still around me, we sat for a while, like nesting boxes, braced against nightfall, looking out toward the shadowed horizon.” She captures not only the elusive frisson of freedom at night, but also the way that romance can act as a bulwark against the loneliness of the long-distance traveler who is alone at night.
Not only desire but fear is aroused by the fall of light, as we learn in historian Huston Smith’s dramatic telling of his terror of lions on the Serengeti Plains as darkness began to fall.
Writer and teacher Jane Winslow Eliot tells about following in the footsteps of her grandmother, straight to the edge of the Grand Canyon, on her honeymoon.
“There had been a rhythm of the day and now there was a rhythm of the night,” wrote the Irish poet Padraic Colum. Nightfall can accompany astronomers, lovers, and comedians alike, as we learned from George Carlin: “Tonight’s forecast: dark. Continued dark tonight turning to partly light in the morning.”
The question of the dark mysteries hovers, so it is helpful to learn what the noctivagators, the night walkers, have to say about their own encounters with the world of tumbling light, the twilight, just before dark.
Clearly, there are light and dark secrets. The night moves on, revealing stars and sleep and the darkness that restores.
“This will do,” Annie Dillard thought. “This will do.”
It will, it will.
“Each Breath of Night”
Like any out-of-the-way place, the Napo River in the Ecuadorian jungle seems real enough when you are there, even central. Out of the way of what? I was sitting on a stump at the edge of a bankside palm-thatch village, in the middle of the night, on the headwaters of the Amazon. Out of the way of human life, tenderness, or the glance of heaven?
A nightjar in deep-leaved shadow called three long notes, and hushed. The men with me talked softly in clumps: three North Americans, four Ecuadorians who were showing us the jungle. We were holding cool drinks and idly watching a hand-sized tarantula seize moths that came to the lone bulb on the generator shed beside us. It was February, the middle of summer. Green fireflies spattered lights across the air and illumined for seconds — now here, now there — the pale trunks of enormous, solitary trees. Beneath us the brown Napo River was rising, in all silence; it coiled up the sandy bank and tangled its foam in vines that trailed from the forest and roots that looped the shore.
Each breath of night smelled sweet, more moistened and sweet than any kitchen, or garden, or cradle. Each star in Orion seemed to tremble and stir with my breath. All at once, in the thatch house across the clearing behind us, one of the village’s Jesuit priests began playing an alto recorder, playing a wordless song, lyric, in a minor key, that twined over the village clearing, that caught in the big trees’ canopies, muted our talk on the bankside, and wandered over the river, dissolving downstream.
This will do, I thought. This will do, for a weekend, or a season, or a home.
English poet and writer, former trombonist, Zen teacher
When at midnight my wife turns the shield
of her back to me, feeds the baby, then whispers,
It’s OK, shh, there’s another one, it’s OK,
as she lifts him on her shoulder a moment
before giving him to the other breast,
I can see his face up there dark from sleep.
The eyes glisten. More than that,
they shine with their own chemistry:
phosphorescence, the lambency at night
of certain polyps, an urgent bio-luminescence
with its own laws, its own necessities—
things more important than my own sleepy head
already in its prime, restless on the pillow.
July 19, 2016