all day

i wait all day
for these ten minutes
awake in our bed,
your minted breath,
lick of dark
across my eyelids,
and the little clicks
your glasses make
as they’re folded
and set on the nightstand

from Kerry Ryan’s The Sleeping Life

For years it’s been my habit to spend the first part of each morning alone at my office window. With the east light upon me, I drink coffee and read poems. Whenever circumstances prevent me from doing so, as they have of late, I feel unsettled. Uncomfortable.

Being a selfish reader, or simply selfish, I want the poem to meet my needs. I generally prefer to begin the day with a poem that allows me to explore and exercise my imagination. I want the poem to offer openings. Gaps. Opportunities to wander and wonder. To freefall into the gullies of my mind. To leap.

Of course life itself presents all sorts of openings and gaps. All sorts of reasons to leap. Dealing with the loss of a loved one makes the openings appear much smaller, the gaps bottomless and unbelievably wide. Leaping seems almost impossible when one feels so heavy. What poem can possibly serve a time like this?

As a voracious reader of poems, it surprises me that I completely lacked the desire to deal with poems in the week following our loss. Only today did I wake with the urge to resume my habit. As I scanned my books, wondering where to begin, Kerry Ryan’s poem “all day” came to mind. Even before I pulled the book off the shelf, I could picture the poem’s tidy shape. The lower case letters are unassuming. The lines smooth and clean as the sheets the speaker lies between. The love tucked in.

So there I sat, reading the poem, wondering why it had called to me. Ryan’s book The Sleeping Life is a fairly new addition to my collection and I’d only read the poem once or twice before today. I remember being struck by its brevity and how clearly it spoke. How I’d dwelled on the meaning of “all.”

Today the poem speaks to me differently. The commas after “bed,” “breath,” and “eyelids,” the only punctuation in the poem, cause me to pause now more than before. Or perhaps I’m just more conscious of the pausing. The significance of those words. Each implies a pause of sorts. I think about my own bed, a bed I’ve shared with my husband for more than 20 years. All the breaths we’ve taken there, all the closings of eyes.

Then I remember that other bed. That final breath. That final “lick of dark.” It’s the “lick of dark / across my eyelids” that I fear. That life eventually ends is nothing new, yet those ten minutes of “all day,” a finite and terribly short amount of time, force me to look at mortality through newly-opened, middle-aged eyes.

Then again, maybe the poem simply reopens my eyes. Grief is something we all must deal with time and time again. That’s a given. It’s a time when anxiety heightens the senses, making the “minted breath” smell so much fresher, so much stronger. At times like this memories come forward, the mind leaping from present to past and back again on the back of even the most mundane, routine experience. The “minted breath” made me realize I know exactly how long it takes my husband to brush his teeth. I know the sound of toothbrush against glass. The washing that follows. The sound of the towel on the towel bar as he dries his hands and face. Every sound he makes on his way to bed is a sound I know, a sound for which “i wait all day.” A sound I dread one day I will not hear.

No doubt my activities of daily living are ingrained in his mind as well. “[T]hese ten minutes / awake in our bed,” night after night for all these years, I often take for granted, but at times like this I am awake enough to realize what I have and all that I stand to lose. At times like this I am listening. I hear the poem’s hard clicks (awake, lick, dark, across, clicks, make). I hear the t’s and the l’s. I hear all the a’s. But that’s not all. These sounds leave me longing. I want to hear every little thing that clicks or doesn’t click in our relationship, both literally and figuratively.

and the little clicks
your glasses make
as they’re folded
and set on the nightstand

I trust he, too, hears the little clicks my glasses make. Especially now.

While “all day” brings me to my senses, it offers no comfort, but perhaps comfort is not what I’m after right now. As I look at the poem on the page once again, I marvel at its brevity. Like life, “all day” passes quickly. It leaves us with the sound of glasses being “folded / and set on the nightstand.” I can see the folded arms against the frame. My frames. And I can feel the weight of two frames on the frame of the bed. Our frames. And I know there is no period for closure, no final rest. There’s just the clicking. The setting down. The knowledge that corrective lenses are no longer needed. At least not for the moment.

Brenda Schmidt lives in Creighton, a mining town in northern Saskatchewan. Her third collection of poetry, Cantos from Wolverine Creek, was published by Hagios Press in 2008.