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Sleeping with the Moon

Sleeping with the Moon

by Colleen J. McElroy

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Colleen J. McElroy's poetry shoots for the moon, and takes it in, too, in one way after another. The collection’s award-winning poems animate women’s experiences of sex, shopping, and dancing, while offering telling insight into the struggles and silver lining of lust, love, illness, and aging. Rich with vivid imagery and candid storytelling,


Colleen J. McElroy's poetry shoots for the moon, and takes it in, too, in one way after another. The collection’s award-winning poems animate women’s experiences of sex, shopping, and dancing, while offering telling insight into the struggles and silver lining of lust, love, illness, and aging. Rich with vivid imagery and candid storytelling, Sleeping with the Moon takes readers on moonlit adventures under the night sky, through the barroom’s smoky haze, and under the covers.

...Beware: such delicate

sights have driven more than one woman to despair

instead she watched him breathe— relishing

for a moment that secret space where night

grows soft and the moon’s detumescence forgives—

and where if this jeweled light holds they might

strip themselves of years if only for one night

—from “In Praise of Older Women”

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“She will happily give the MFAs a headache with her unfashionably clear statements and heartbroken admissions and the bold planting, in almost every poem, of the moon, which she annexes to her purposes, only sometimes romantic.”—PoetryFoundation.org

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Illinois Poetry Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Sleeping with the Moon Poems

By Colleen J. McElroy University of Illinois Press Copyright © 2007 Colleen J. McElroy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07476-9

Chapter One Pillow Book

(for Denise Levertov)

in the absence of a lover books occupy my bed's extra pillow those words have never failed me though paper ages-grows brittle every phrase stays muscular laughing at all the right places saddened by slights by deaths the significance of even simple language: curtains blowing at a window a cup abandoned on a table I hear them breathing Denise confesses more surely than ever any man beside me she tells me how on her pillow books take hold of her dreams: a sort of Levertov then and now she says age so deceptive the difference between 50-60 becomes more like 20-40 time faster than any clock

Lady Nagiko writes in her pillow book:

the mirror grown cloudy the lover on his second nighttime visit the scent of incense burning: things not to forget

nights my bed is occupied solely by books and lingering smells of some lover's sweat so vague time has fallen away: leaves a dim profile-a name on the tip of my tongue- I remember riding my bike in a park Denise says in London and the war just beginning I think there was a wrought iron fence benches a few pigeons I remember leaves curling brown I never learned to drive a car even later after there were men to do that for me- we abandon our tea cups for memory offering up a wordless page or two of youth as do those lovers returning in dreams resting their heads on the cup of my pillow exchanging stories as if one has spoken to another and all of them heavy with sighs

the Empress wore a robe of green Chinese silk beneath an unlined jacket a skirt of elephant silk nothing could compare to her beauty

the shape of your pillow holds old lovers the way an elbow rests in a palm the way his voice sounds each morning just as you awaken from a dream where in the dead of night you rise thinking: he's gone - later it comes true this dream for years you've resisted you lift up on one elbow and stare at his face etching all the lines into your memory an effort to keep him close you will remember only the small things Denise says: the way you quarreled one holiday when the roast burned the pepper too coarsely ground on Sundays Monday morning's after party face the face we are born with and one we grow into and one that we earn the body records a life dutifully without specific instructions or directions long forgotten words in creases and folds no day separate from the other and easy to read as any book from front to back or reverse except in half sleep where you retell the story to suit

where is a book before it is born is one book born inside another how old does a book have to be before it can give birth

I am the lover of books my life gives in my youth I learned to love words how they felt on the shape of my tongue I practiced languages I wanted to know the gestures honed in a mirror fingers tracing the angle of a jaw sweet hair curled at the nape of the neck don't confuse writing of love and finding it Denise warns and I tell her how in dreams profiles blend one into another until lovers blur with each take how strange that most of love I say lives in the imagination

books and lovers Nagiko writes: I have had the good fortune to enjoy them equally

let's say it started in June when no one kept an appointment and commitments were swept out the door with the last of spring cleaning-or let's say Denise tells me it was in the kitchen at a party you noticed how familiar the little gesture passing between them not what they said but in the eyes silence I tell her was a family emblem at five in St. Louis during the war I'd sneak into my mother's room watch her sleeping behind a curtain of dreams her eyes moving under lids as if she and all black women were reading books of their men off fighting for a country willing to forget them for the color of dark skin-those days passed slowly years five to six moving at snail's pace the world blowing up in bits and pieces I thought I'd never grow up whole and dreams would come true if only I crossed my fingers and said: I wish on the moon and pain was easily erased-now I know

Everything that happens is to be adored

in her pillow book Lady Nagiko writes:

understand the hand cannot write itself closed eyes cannot read

in the garden patio Denise sets three cups on the table-curtains billow at the window time compressed stopped for a moment I have brought a lover who makes casual conversation and I think: If only we had made love only to each other when we made love sweet dreams Denise says as we leave where has the time gone when yesterday so close seems years away-the cups left on the garden table something from a dream and each time I clear the pillow of books beside me a lover's breath at night seems shallow

I have become la femme d'un certain áge falling into the cup of dreams where innocent breezes pose no warnings and there is nothing between me and the night but curtains moving before an open window-books and lovers on the pillow beside me both breathing deep their own dreams-a place where sweet desire never leaves Mother Love

five floors above the ground my only view the park peaceful the shrink says a place to think I am waiting to talk

about my absent daughter the park is deserted only a figure in the center changing clothes inside a sleeping bag the grass

around him evenly green my daughter once again has changed her mind about being my daughter I am puzzled why

is the park so empty except for the quick change artist centered on the slope of grass flushed green why does he prefer

all that space public for such a private act my daughter never modest has cloaked herself in Jesus proclaiming Him in public loud as the doors she once slammed almost covering how beautiful she has grown since that first time she shed home at 18 declaring herself a woman

the man struggles like Houdini changing pants shirt shoes dead center the park privacy the shrink says is sometimes dangerous

out in the open no one can surprise you with sudden moves my daughter has moved two continents an ocean away somewhere she sleeps holding

tight to her beliefs nothing else will do none of my unused acts of contrition supplications I forgot almost before I left

the confessional booth none of grandma's hymns or my mother's warnings I am alone under an empty sky staring at a man in the park

his task done he stows belongings in a bed roll leaving a small impression grass bent a fracture barely visible seemingly warm to my naked eye Catching Gar

we build a fire-a false moon to lure them toward the light:: catching gar my father says

is a matter of timing they're all teeth he says uglier than any mud fence

and full of piss flesh he baits a hook for what we'll eat :: jack salmon

sweet fleshed as spring he loads my bait-the .22:: tells me how he fished

in Georgia-fat channel cats caught on a shoestring while white folks slept::

the Mississippi rolls by under a pork bellied moon the brightest light our fire

bait for gar swimming up from river bottom-needle-nosed and long as rusted saws::

my father clicks shut the .22 tells me to aim with both eyes open :: in the car my mother sleeps open-mouthed nothing will wake her not the pop-pop of the wicked

.22 I load and reload-not the flop of fish tossed bony head toward tail in clean

shots-not the flutter of night birds or random owl warnings:: this story is ours-father

to daughter-this fine art of killing that marks him a soldier :: the odds

of any battle-death in sight and only the moon to light the way I Speak to the Girl Some Dim Boy Loves

(after Hugo)

It takes the table girl a week to learn the route: The patient spray of table tops, the swirl of cloth The food to scrap and dishes on the belt become Her world-students at their complicated books

Are of another life-but in six months A year or less, she'll have their manners down: A little splash of color to her polyester dress A flick of wrist or hair, a lipstick smear and She'll be more like one of them than any of them dares.

This is the state solution-employing her kind Here among the population who decides The number of any kind a society can abide. We are the learned few, the two or three

Who make the rules, who read the books That tell us how humane we've made this life: The charity of how we grow polite enough To pin the handicapped to our routines.

The table girl keeps thirty tables clean And speaks only to the boy who works the dishes From conveyer belt to sink, who elevates and leaves Her hopeful as her dyed blonde hair.

But her face will not grow beyond its flat despair And I believe I've fathomed all of this alone as dishes Slip across the belt's rubber sheet, until one day I place humanity beside my Goodwill stare and ask: How goes your day? She says: "Monday, Clive dropped The baby on its head-things ain't been the same since. Birds seem louder-the stream is down to a trickle. I 'spect we'll bury the baby tomorrow." My cup falls over. She clatter-bangs more dishes on the belt. Anniversary

before the night is over he will fold her like a letter heels over head over knees into shoulders his idea he says of what makes her tick in a decade he forgets what he has spent so much for one body part so little for the heart a gameboy bartering life the carpal pull of every slap-bang brings a little kiss alternating Sisterwoman and Zap Mama Angel Baby Madonna battered and curled like an old fetus his Sugahgirl his Honeybunch his Little Woman celebrated in paper, wood, silver & gold Most Wanted

what I remember most not passion but simple desire how once while we were on an errand I watched an arrest a nice couple both middle-aged ordinary perhaps running an errand (like us?) and lit by a backstreet moon the woman neither pretty nor plain and her man handsome in his way standing so certain in handcuffs and she in tears her face caught in an escapade gone sour a bust and how the cops allowed for one moment a last kiss that you beside me never noticed and later said you didn't remember the couple or how in that peculiar light they resembled us


Excerpted from Sleeping with the Moon by Colleen J. McElroy Copyright © 2007 by Colleen J. McElroy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Colleen J. McElroy is a professor emeritus of English and creative writing at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the author of several poetry collections, including Traveling Music.      

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