Friday, August 03, 2007

Poetry Friday: This Century of Sleep

This Century of Sleep
Or, Briar Rose Beneath the Waves

Her bones do not betray the years she’s slept
beneath the ocean of her wan exile.
Her skull, pale as a mushroom’s root, round as
an oyster’s house, defies the tides that stroked
her cheeks into thin, ragged strips against
the sharp-toothed shells. Although her sallow
fingertips tap dirges on her knees, and
shoulders sag against the seaweed tangled
in her toes, her eye-wells cradle coral
fires within their excavated caves.

She waits to wake until the ocean thaws.

The wind peels back the waves like linen sheets
and sucks upon the juices of the sea
as if it were a grape. The raw arousal
rising from this century of sleep
denies the hero’s swordfish mouth. She knows
no kiss can lift the spindle’s fall, the gall
within the witch’s curse, the sleep that was
not sleep. Her breath hangs stale. The yellowed jaw
gapes loose from famine but her coral eyes
smoke cinders as she burns her satin bed.

Copyright 1995 by Farida S. T. Shapiro
Poem reprinted with the author’s permission (!)


“You do know that you won’t be able to make a living writing poetry,” my advisor said to me during my sophomore year of college.

“Yes,” I replied. “I know.” However, secretly I thought I was going to make my living writing chapter-books. I'd carried this assumption with me from early childhood on up.

I wrote “This Century of Sleep” during my senior year of college. I had taken a Folklore class my sophomore year, which had rejuvinated an interest in fairy tales. I'd also read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. The Inuit story “Skeleton Woman” inspired me in particular. (This period of time was long before I decided to leave alone Native American stories in order to focus on folktales people were actually willing for me to retell.) A year later, I sent my poem to Jane Yolen after reading her picture book version of Sleeping Beauty and her novel Briar Rose. To my surprise, Yolen sent it onto her editor. Her editor contacted me for permission to include it in the fairy tale collection Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears.

I had another poem published a year earlier in a now-defunct women's humor magazine. After publishing “This Century of Sleep, ”I thought I was on my way with my career as a writer. However, the chapters I wrote for a book project were deeply unsatisfying. I abandoned that project to work on another. During the second project, I started to suspect that my desire to write was greater than the story I actually had to tell. When my third project fizzled despite lots of notes for background story plus a few good paragraphs, I finally understood that chapter-books were beyond my scope. I could write a good 2000 word short story every few years, plus lots of 5-6 paragraph vignettes, but I was better at telling other people’s stories than creating my own.

As I reread the poem I wrote over 10 years ago, I can’t say I understand it all. “This Century of Sleep” was one of my serious poems meant for publication, though all the while I wrote light, silly rhymes and songs for my friends’ amusement. What I appreciate most about the poem is that its publication was in the manner of a fairy tale: an aspiring writer sends her poem to a much-admired established writer, and that established writer says, “I like it! This poem should be published!” Thank you, Jane Yolen (and Ellen Datlow, too!), for that pinch of pixie dust.

Miss Rumphius is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup today.


Elaine Magliaro said...


I read your comment about my Poetry Friday posting at Blue Rose Girls today. I left a response for you.

Here's the URL to "Fairy Tale Poems"--a Poetry Friday posting I did at BRG in February.

Have a great weekend. I hope your weather is better than ours in Massachusetts--hot and extremely humid.

cloudscome said...

Wonderful poem. I love the language - it sings. How delightful that Jane Yolan passed it on to be published.

This is a great post. I too have spent decades thinking I would be a writer and wondering if my desire to write is greater than the story I have to tell. Not giving up yet because I know there is still a lot buried in me.

Anonymous said...

So how do you make a living? Does storytelling pay all the bills?

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Anonymous: Before I became a mother, I worked as a freelance storytelling on the side. After I became a mother, I did substitute work in the library system and did freelance storytelling on the side while my husband's work pays the bills. Now, I'm building up my freelance storytelling business, but I am still primarily a full-time mother (and no, that doesn't pay the bills either!). My colleagues who can pay the bills with their storytelling and musical programs typically charge more than I do and work many more performance hours than I do.

Cloudscome: Thanks! I'm glad that you are persevering with your writing.

Elaine: I appreciate the poetry recommendations! Today is much cooler than yesterday-- it even rained. My plants are grateful.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Whoops, something got lost in that last post when I backspaced. What I originally wrote was that I worked as a children's librarian with freelance storytelling on the side.

Lone Star Ma said...

I think the story of that poem's publication is wonderful. You know that I am personally a fan of your adolescent poetry and all of your stories that I have read since.

Jules said...

That is beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

Eisha and I tagged you. Feel free to promptly ignore if you hate that kind of thing, by chance.

I'm going to email you in a minute!

HipWriterMama said...

Love your poem. And I have to tell you, do not deny us something that Jane Yolen clearly saw years ago.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

HWM: Thanks so much! You are very kind.

Jules: You are such a mischief-maker.

LSM: What would I ever do without you?

Melangell said...

As I recall, there is a side story to this poem that I love. Alkelda, weren't you in Library School, and the prof was handing out photocopied of reviews to the students, the better to compare reviewing media? You received a photocopied sheet from Kirkus Review, and by gosh and by golly (or by serendipity, or the angels), a review of "Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears" was there, including a mention of you by name. Amazing.

Noodle said...

Lovely! Very visual, almost tactile use of words. My favorite poems and stories are like that. I'd love to read more. :)

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Melangell: Yes, that is a true story. It was serendipitous indeed.

Noodle: Thanks! Most of my poems are buried in boxes, and quite experimental (i.e. putting on different guises and forms). Reading Carl Sandburg and Pablo Neruda actually ruined writing poetry for me in some ways-- I read their works, said, "Well, that's the way I would have loved to write," and just let it slip away. Puzzling.

diana said...

I admire people who can write as well as you flows so nicely. You have a great talent and gift-- I am glad you put it to good use!