Nicole Cooley and Peter Cooley

Insomnia, A Love Story
December 22, 2023 Cooley Nicole Cooley and Peter

Insomnia, A Love Story

Nicole Cooley
Peter Cooley



Insomnia, A Love Story/Process Notes

Everybody sleeps.  Our poem starts with that premise. Sleep is a requirement of living in a body, something we reckon with from birth to death. And yet so many of us also struggle with what is a basic biological process.  Our poem also starts with that premise.


Why write together? Why collaborate?  In particular, by writing “Insomnia, A Love Story,” we have learned crucial lessons about form, audience and process.


Form: when writing in response to someone or alongside someone else, you are challenged to come up with new forms.  Writing in dialogue makes your own work shift and change.  We found ourselves borrowing from each other, borrowing from other poets, borrowing from definitions and etymologies as we sought to keep our language fresh.


Audience: when writing our own poems, we may not be conscious of audience. In the case of writing this poem,  we have an intrinsic sense of audience: each other. As the poem develops, our sense of that audience alters as we must constantly consider the other poet’s voice.


Process: The two of us have a long history of writing together, beginning when Nicole was a teenager and we would write poems at Mister Donut down the highway or at the mall food court. Deliberately low stakes.  Now with this project—and its fixed subject—we find ourselves back in a kind of free zone again.  We wrote “Insomnia, a Love Story” via email, sending sections back and forth, but our work was punctuated by long in person sessions of reading aloud—often we read each other’s sections—and writing together. This way of working gave us space to play and experiment.  And as always the rules and restrictions were profoundly liberating.



Insomnia, A Love Story

Here I am unsettled, restless in bed—


the sky outside the window, unapologetic and blank.


Sleep is a drug. I never discover
the right dose,
a novel I read before, or love,
using another’s body to take me into dreams
or not, just that Lethe, where I can doze.


Oblivion: canvas stretched tight on a frame, no brushstrokes, nothing to interrupt.


Oblivion: river running silver-black under train tracks.


Oblivion: when I tell my class the page is a visual field.


My C-pap machine measures
my sleep, tells me how many times
per hour I wake up. The results
terrify, sometimes up to forty-five.
How can the machine know,
has it ever suffered
the morning, staggering to find
its steps?



Recall sleepless nights with babies,
in the green rocking chair or hallway,
baby strapped to my chest, baby in my arms.
Nights with my girls imprinted on my body.
Milk-drunk smiles, tiny fists.
How I would wish for a clean white bed.
Meanwhile, the heft of a small body kept me anchored.


But the father, too, has his baby insomnia.
The other author of this poem in my arms.


Pacing, I felt the small squalling
about to fall, and caught her,


jolted awake, kept pacing, pacing, pacing.


Objects that won’t help:
Blue square of a meditation app.
Lavender mist to whisk
through the bedroom air.
White noise.  Pink noise.
I fetishize pajamas,
as if the perfect set
will fix my circadian rhythms,
read book after book
about “sleep architecture”
much too late into the night.


It is said the dead sleep
peacefully, which my shrink
would say is “transference.”


From Middle English,
slepen, from Old English,
Proto-German, Old Saxon, Middle Dutch,
slegto be slack, be languid–
I have always connected sleep to weakness,
to giving in, to giving up.


I’ll sleep when I’m dead,
my friend says.
She sleeps deep
into the noon light.
I wake the sun,
make sure it’s at the east window
to transfigure it.


Dickinson wrote, “Me from Myself–to banish–”
and how often I have wished for this,
lying awake beside my husband.


I raise the shade, it’s 1943,
and, my chin on the windowsill,
I see my father on night patrol,
safeguarding our neighborhood
from Germans I’ve been told
may bomb Detroit.
Trembling, I go to bed again.
Another night I can’t, I’ll try, sleep.


How not sleeping tears
you loose from yourself, how


you imagine your brain eyelet,
ragged lace, how you stand


on the street in front of the bed store,
each mattress a wedding cake,


wishing to crawl between someone
else’s cold, expensive sheets.


If only I could be a sleepwalker
I would be of interest to myself.
Instead, I’m the one who stays in bed
waiting for he knows-not-what


and then awakes to find the dawn,
syncopation of that cold and blue.


Let’s talk about sleep aids—Trazadone. Doxepin.
Gabapentin.  Melatonin.  CBD.  Herbal patch.
Or the Tylenol PM you spelled out in my palm
each night after Mom died. How I lay
wearing her nightgown.
on the couch where you found her.


Poets say death is sleep, sleep death,
reciprocity of metaphor.


Sleep: Andy Warhol’s 1964 film in which the audience watches
his lover John Giorno onscreen sleep for more than five hours.


Is this all a fear of death,
the need to stay awake
as if to drink life to the dregs?
If only! My mother, gone 23 years,
told me as a baby, I couldn’t sleep.
I slept, I woke, slept-woke. I kept her up.


Oh Hypnos god of sleep and dream,
deliver me, I don’t say,
on the flat mattress upstairs
where I have gone to sleep alone,
to swipe my sleep app, finding no
voice soothing. I recall
how my mother died in her sleep—


My wife said she couldn’t sleep,
her back ached
on the mattress of our bed,
she’d sleep on the couch in the living room,
just this one night.
Then 6am, sleepless,
I touched her head. My wife,
cold forehead, she was dead.
Fifty-two years together.


Philip Larkin wrote, “Beneath it all the desire for oblivion runs,” and I’ve always wondered if I believe this. So often, I can’t break the surface of the water but float underneath, eyes forced open, not swimming, or drowning, but not asleep.



My sleep doctor, debonair,
calm, his hair slicked back,
his voice the basso profundo
of a soap opera medic, advises
no medication, just my third
overnight in the sleep lab,
an inferno without Dante.
My last visit, another guy screamed,
“I’ll never, never, never do this again.”


Sleep: can a mechanism for sleep be broken,
like an unsteady fulcrum or a cracked switch?


“I go to bed, I sleep, I get up, Peter,
what’s the trouble?” my friend said.
“I write later in the day,
when I’m a little tired.
That’s when the juices flow.” His poems
are enviable, full of lush imagery,
discord and dissonance. He’s never
liked tea, coffee, sleeping aids.



I can’t sleep so I read a book about sleep,
learn about sleep architecture, picture
a Turkish minaret, a Garden District house.
A girl’s fairy village in a corner of a yard.
Yet my sleep is more likely scrub grass
and trash at the edge of the Grand Central Parkway
in Queens, a shack at the Mississippi’s edge
with a broken front door.


My sleep mask leaks,
the app tells me at first light.
As if I didn’t know, my waking a fulcrum
of squeaking misalignment,
plastic hose to plastic frame.
Is this the poetry of complaint,
a long tradition of English verse,
“The Lover’s Compleynt” etc?
I am no lover and no one is listening.



This is the poetry of complaint—
my exhaustion dull flush,
skin on my face pulled too tight,
as I scrape a pan clean,
set my grandmother’s plates on the table,
all the while wishing for bed. All
the while hoping sleep could flood
over me, sweep me in an undertow.


“I, too, dislike it,” Marianne Moore said, speaking
of poetry. She could have meant this poem.
And Auden in Yeats’ death-elegy, “poetry
makes nothing happen.” Let me confess:
I thought writing this would transfigure
the sleep problem. Light it, in gold leaf,
send an angel down on one knee,
as he bows in Quattrocento paint,
to pray before my bed And then I’d sleep
as I have never slept. I dreamed of that.


My friend and I text about sleep.
Our troubles with. Our lack of.  Our desire for.
Today she notes insomnia is like anorexia—
In both cases you deprive yourself
of what you need to live.
The prickle up my spine
as I refuse a muffin, a cupcake, a meal.
Yet am I refusing sleep?
Instead: a row of days
blinked open, too bright.


Why do I think sleep is metaphor?
It’s a bodily condition like hunger.


Insomnia is metaphor:
both the tenor and the vehicle.
Rusted car stuck on the side of a road.
Unwashed plate set back in a cupboard.



All right, it’s metaphor. How else
can I deal with this, the inexplicable?



How I would like to enshroud myself.

How I would like to yank sleep

over my head like a sweater

or a too hot wool dress.


Sleep like a lover. A succubus perhaps,
a creature never to dream of except
in your sickest waking. Tonight I clutch self-pity
like a pillow to my breath.
Why me, why this wakefulness again?


The bad witch of sleep is here
to spread exhaustion yet not let you rest.


The bad witch of sleep will prick your skin
on her spinning wheel, fill your mouth with rags.
Dressed in white, what she loves most,
is to watch you waste hours each night.


A witch? No, no, and
I have done worse
with my succubus.
I enshroud myself
in oblivion’s
black sarcophagus.


I would like to be the bad
witch myself, standing on the chest
of a man who sleeps soundly,
a revenge waking.
I calm myself in the middle
of the night imagining a line
of cots in an orphanage,
old childhood fantasy,
in a narrow bed.


He means well, my sleep doctor,
almost impossible to see in person
like the Wizard of Oz. His technician,
recites to me the findings on my C-Pap machine.
I’m doing better but not good enough.
They’ll raise the pressure,
give me more air. In the hospital basement,
the Gnome King has his kingdom.
He won’t let me sleep.


Tennyson wrote, in “The Lotos Eaters,”
my favorite poem for years when I couldn’t sleep:


All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence, ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.


Silence, ease, rest. Words to turn over and over
in my mouth.


The last days of his life, Bronte writes,
Heathcliff, sleepless, stalks the moors,
just as I, dazed, stuporous, walk
the levee above the Mississippi,
the end of my street. Across the river,
birds I have no names for hold the sky
over my eyes, blindfolds sparing me.


Gaston Bachelard believed,
“The repose of sleep refreshes only the body.
It rarely sets the soul at rest.” I don’t believe it.
I want to wind sleep neatly like a spool of thread,
close it in a drawer for safe-keeping.



Like Marcel the narrator,
in Remembrance, I am sent to bed
right after dinner, the youngest
in a house of parents, older sister, uncle, aunt, grandmother.
Wide-eyed, I start my ascent
up the rope ladder, “boy wallpaper,”
blue and red cross-hatchings,
masts of a ship,
I climb to touch the sky.


A ship: I too would like
to climb a mast,
bury my face in the blank
of a sail
as I lie awake.
What will root me
to my body,
tether me to the earth,
where I can finally
close my eyes,
quiet my mind?


I’ve prayed for sleep, then cursed Jesus Christ,
whom I believe in, who has directed
my walk with my surrender to belief,
taken me up mountains of sure ascent
for years when my soul couldn’t find the tread
to even start my climbing.
I have prayed, tossed, tossed and tossed.


I don’t pray but I have tossed and tossed
and now believe as my friend said:


Insomnia is a poison.  Which oddly comforts
as I imagine a blue poison bottle—the kind


another friend collects—flung out
a kitchen window long ago, to be found


years later as a treasure buried
in a yard. Or perhaps it’s the bad


witch again, working her magic,
as I toss and toss and rise


at 4, wait for the first train I can take
to work at 6.


Medieval debate poems, body vs. soul.


Let’s complicate the dialogue, make it
a love triangle, body, soul  and I-me


wrestling in my bed, Who’s tangling whom
I ask the night air, thick and viscous,


the season any season I can’t sleep.


Kafka suffered from insomnia—no surprise—
and said, I believe this sleeplessness comes only
because I write.


My sleep machine
speaks in a melodious tenor,
while some stringed instrument sings,
every night, assures me I am rested.
Why, then, this morning did I wake
with some renewed exhaustion,
my eyelids twitching, vision at half-mast?

Nicole Cooley is the author of six book of poems, as well as the forthcoming collection Mother Water Ash (LSU Press 2024). She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing and literary translation at Queens College, City University of New York.


Peter Cooley is Professor Emeritus at Tulane University and was Louisiana Poet Laureate 2015-2017. His 11th book was THE ONE CERTAIN THING, elegies for his wife, who died in 2018.