Thursday, April 01, 2021

A poem a day keeps the nighttime devils at bay

Every night before sleep, I call up the Poetry Foundation page and read the poem of the day. It's an eclectic mix, featuring classical bards and contemporary voices. In the last week, I've read work by Grace Paley, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Amy Lowell. Lowell's "Lilacs" was featured the other night. I read it twice, not to make me tired but to fix the look and scent of lilacs in my mind so my dreams are more lilacs and less horror story. 

Dream experts say that we can do this, fashion our dreams before sleep. I'm only partially successful at this. Maybe it's a holdover from the bedtime prayer that my parents taught me. Here it is:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take

The key element is "if I should die." This is not a comforting thought for a six-year-old. I say my prayer and settle in for a quiet night of hellfire and brimstone. It lingers there among the more positive terms such as sleep and soul and Lord. My late brother Dan often complained about his insomnia. I never thought to bring up the horrible prayer that we recited every night. The current version of the same prayer goes like this:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

May angels watch me through the night

And wake me with the morning light

Much more comforting to have angels watch me in the night. Most angels then were beautiful winged creatures bathed in heavenly light. So preferable to horned devils rising from the fiery pit. Our choice was clear: angel or devil. If we chose devilish behavior, we could confess the transgression in confession, say a bunch of prayers, and start over again. That was the wonderful thing about the American Catholicism of my youth -- a promise of better days ahead. If I disobeyed my parents or conjured unclean thoughts, I could spill it to the priest, a shadowy figure behind an obscuring curtain, the kind CNN reporters use when interviewing whistle-blowers or mobsters. Once released, I could say my penance and flee to play baseball with my friends or to sin again -- my choice. 

Lowell's "Lilacs" is a beautiful poem, one that the nuns may have made me read, although Sister Theresa was more likely to assign us rhyming couplets. A description of "Lilacs" called it a patriotic poem. Lowell was a Boston Brahmin, a New Englander to the core and related to Harvard presidents and famous scientists. She may have had to say the same bedtime prayer as I did. That prayer comes from The New England Primer, the first reading text in the American colonies. It was published by printer Benjamin Harris who so hated and feared Catholics that he fled to the Americas during the brief reign of James II. Quoted on Wikipedia, New Hampshire senator and former college English prof  David H. Watters says that the primer was "built on rote memorization, the Puritans' distrust of uncontrolled speech, and their preoccupation with childhood depravity." No wonder it's still sold online as a text for Evangelical homeschoolers. The primer was based on The Protestant Tutor and taught Puritan children their ABCs: 

In Adam's fall/We sinned all (with drawing of Eve being tempted by big snake and then, presumably, tempting Adam)

My Book and Heart/Shall never part (with drawing of Bible with heart on cover)

Job feels the rod/And blesses God (with drawing of Job plagued by boils and pustules)

My parents were diehard Catholics born in the 1920s teaching their 20th-century children a 17th-century Puritan prayer. This 21st century lapsed Catholic enjoys the irony. Meanwhile, I'll skip the praying and keep reading Heid E. Erdrich, Abigail Chabitnoy, Marilyn Chin, W.B. Yeats, Yusef Komunyakaa and many others. 

Now I lay me down to sleep...

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