A friend recently told me that his father had stopped eating gluten and that this had drastically helped his sleep apnea. Before this dietary change, at some point in the middle of the night, he would stop breathing and the shift in his breathing rhythm would wake up his wife who would then shake him and say, “Wake up, you’re not breathing!” The absence of the sound of breathing would come into her sleep and wake her up.
Part of what struck me in this account was how much in just that animal sense of sleeping next to another person, there’s so much care going on, how attuned she is to his breathing that when he stops, the change wakes her. And then that action of the one close enough to hear, or not hear, the one who is there to say, Wake up, you’re not breathing!
And I thought about all the people who have come into my life and in one way or another shaken me like that, made me aware of all the ways some part of me had stopped breathing, was in a state of suspension, or deferral. And it made me think of how poems often do this, shake you awake. Did Rilke exhort the reader, “You must change your lifestyle?” No. Your life. “Here there is no place
that does not see you.” To be seen is to be fully shaken.
In addition to the poem itself actually being the one shaking the sleeper awake, poems often find their occasion in such a moment of being shaken awake. Here’s one of my favorite Stanley Kunitz poems, “Robin Redbreast,” which addresses such a moment.Robin Redbreast It was the dingiest bird you ever saw, all the color washed from him, as if he had been standing in the rain, friendless and stiff and cold, since Eden went wrong. In the house marked FOR SALE, where nobody made a sound, in the room where I lived with an empty page, I had heard the squawking of the jays under the wild persimmons tormenting him. So I scooped him up after they knocked him down, in league with that ounce of heart pounding in my palm, that dumb beak gaping. Poor thing! Poor foolish life! without sense enough to stop running in desperate circles, needing my lucky help to toss him back to his element. But when I held him high, fear clutched my hand, for through the hole in his head, cut whistle-clean… through the old dried wound between his eyes where the hunter’s brand had tunneled out his wits… I caught the cold flash of the blue unappeasable sky. –Stanley Kunitz, from The Collected Poems, W.W. Norton, 2000.