Counting Sheep

In Laura Jensen’s poem “Sleep in the Heat” — which begins “I switch on the light” because of course one can’t sleep in the heat — the speaker says, after lovely insomniac descriptions of the clock, crickets, and dizzy dark,

I try to balance — one sheep fills me,
one is a shapeless chance,
one disobedience, one regard.
They feel I do not deserve them;
they are sleepy and kept up all night.

The sheep have hunger. Slowly, they fade
into my eyes. My breath is their noon whistle.
Waking they are in me,
grazing in the pastures of my tongue.
It is morning and I brush them out.

The section starts by making the sheep (and by the way the phrase “counting sheep” is never stated, but of course we know that’s what’s happening) by making the sheep at first symbolic. They they’re real, with opinions and hunger, and then they fade (lovely line break there) into her eyes (and what does that mean, exactly?). And then, the sheep having done their work, the speaker wakes and the sheep are all four things at once — real, symbolic, miniature, and image. The “grazing in the pastures of my tongue” and brushing the sheep out in the morning image is wonderful, but look too at the emotional weight of the symbolic images — what balances the the sheep that fills is a sheep that’s not just shapeless but a shapeless chance. And disobedience and regard are not typical opposites either.

In most of Jensen’s poems, as David Young says in the Longman Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, “The voice that speaks of these emotional extremes is calm, and the poems have a lyrical lilt so that an interesting discrepancy sometimes arises between subject matter and tone. In addition, that quiet voice keeps turning unexpected corners; readers face new and sudden prospects without knowing how they got there.”

(Those unexpected corners are what make it a bit frustrating that Jensen’s poems aren’t available online — I’m focusing on the sheep bit for this post but don’t go thinking that’s the entirety of this poem’s engagement with the world. But more on those corners of hers another time.)

In Russell Edson’s prose poem “Counting Sheep,” “A scientist has a test tube full of sheep. He wonders if he should try to shrink a pasture for them. // They are like grains of rice.” The poem continues in this logical vein, taking the idea of counting sheep into a straightforward context, a scientist in a lab with a microscope, a scientist who wonders about what he’s looking at.

“He wonders if it is possible to shrink something out of existence” is the most philosophical line. He also “wonders if the sheep are aware of their tininess, if they have any sense of scale. Perhaps they just think the test tube is a glass barn . . . .” He wonders about their commercial value, he wonders what they could be used for (“a substitute for rice, a sort of wooly rice . . .”). He wonders “if he shouldn’t just rub them into a red paste between his fingers.” In the penultimate sentence he wonders about the very basics, if they’re breeding, if any have died. And then the last line, completing the joke, “He puts them under a microscope and falls asleep counting them . . . ”

Edson’s sentences, as they usually are, are straightforward. The context is what makes them surreal, weird, bizarre. But the characters in them, exemplified by this scientist wondering as he counts his tiny sheep, have this open curiousity about their world. They look, and they ask, even as they go about ridiculous tasks like brushing a tree’s hair or have a fight over a dinner of ape, etc. But they rarely understand. That’s for the reader, maybe.

Laura Jensen’s tone as similar in some ways. In Edson’s poem, the violence in it is incidental, is scientifically detached. In Jensen’s it’s more personal, less direct, more interior. But there is in both a tone of curiosity toward this other the speaker’s been confronted with (sheep in the mouth, tiny sheep in the test tube) that gives the poems life. And also, of course, they’re both excellent examples of pushing at everyday bits of language.

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