Paul Shaw breeds insomniac flies. He tilts
test tubes at unstable angles, then watches
wide-eyed as the flies inside go haywire.
Thousands of flies fly inside Paul’s hypotheses;
thousands of flies defy them. As fast as he
identifies a pattern, the field of sleep expands.
Paul celebrated tenure in October,
and all the Shaws flew in from the West.
We partied on Paul’s deck under a heat lamp.
Even my mother, who missed my father more
in crowds, was surprised the Shaws
felt so familiar. She called them cousins.
All the Shaws are thin, except for Matt,
who’d played American pro football overseas.
We watched him slice the necks off
champagne bottles with a saber, and we
whooped as corks flew over the fence
into the neighbor’s yard, since the neighbor
moved, and his house was empty, and since
he’d left a second-story window open
for pigeons and for our imaginations,
which tend to think of houses as our psyches,
as endless rooms we move through in our dreams.
Paul believes sleep was the primordial state,
that we slept our way into sentience, which may
be why the first lifeforms were called stromatolites,
from the Greek for mattress; these early creatures
left records in the rock layer, relics of blue
and ochre, in sweeping patterns like an etching
of a cyclone, or like the shape of the human brain
in a dream-like disorder of waves. And I don’t know
what it says about me, but I do not wonder
what it was that caused whatever was like an eye
to open, whatever was like an ear to listen
outside slumber to the world beyond itself.
I know that it was grief—even if infinitesimal,
when proto-life drifted in solution
over a patch of sea just one degree cooler
than the rest, an effect like free-fall pulling us all
in the wake of understanding we are mortal,
spurring us to develop fins, then limbs—to specialize
and specialize, until we sit like scholars
on a pinnacle, who contemplate, in the cold air,
the miracle that everything’s connected, so that
the air between what’s here and what comes after
thins, as it seemed to do at Paul’s house
when we arrived somewhere we’d never been
and felt at home. It was as if, in that keyhole
of conviviality the deck reflected back to heaven,
we could attract our fathers’ spirits back to us,
that they might lean down out of the ether
to look on us again, though we could not know
how they might look, since the annoying
flies that stowed away under Paul’s lapels
had come alive in the late October light,
weaving spells in cloud-like hatches over our heads,
shoring the gaps between here and eternity
like a kaleidoscope of is now, was, and always will be.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.