Sasha Fletcher's "when i go to bed i go to bed with the lights on"

Thoughts on what we value.

when i go to bed i go to bed with the lights on

Every morning I look up at the moon and I think
You are a kiddie-pool and I will drown in you.
I think about field trips and cold cuts.
I think about dividends and other words
I don’t understand. I make five hundred
lunches in advance. I want to be prepared.
I want new shoes. I want them to be waterproof
and unforgettable. I want the kind of resume
that takes home all the prizes and a salary
commensurate with thunderstorms. I want to believe
that there are people in this world
whose lives are the size of houses and their bills
are paid on time and when they see birds in the sky they think
that’s a nice thing to see. In my free time I clip coupons
and put them in my wallet where I forget
to redeem them and this gnaws at me
day in and day out and when I close my eyes
I can feel my heart and it is trembling.

from It Is Going To Be a Good Year (Big Lucks, 2016)

This was the first Sasha Fletcher poem I ever read. To call it my favorite is to throw all of Sasha’s work into some vast and lonely otherworld where words like favorite matter. So I won’t call it my favorite Sasha Fletcher poem, because that doesn’t matter. But this was the first poem that introduced me to both what Sasha writes about, and how Sasha writes about what Sasha writes about, which are two important things that seem to have a lot to do with this world, and what we value, and how it destroys us.

Perhaps I turned to Sasha’s work this week because I’ve been reading Martin Hägglund’s This Life, where he writes:

What you love is worth fighting for event though it is finite and calls for your care because it is finite.

I see Sasha’s work operating within that finite world, and I see the speaker of Sasha’s poem today trying to navigate that immense feeling of loneliness that comes when you notice something it feels like others do not notice. Obviously, there’s a great deal of humor in this poem, and something approaching joy. You get it immediately, in those first two lines:

Every morning I look up at the moon and I think
You are a kiddie-pool and I will drown in you.

These lines introduce us to a speaker who witnesses the world with an almost joyous, full-throated abandon. Who isn’t afraid to admit it. It’s a beautiful way to begin a poem because it takes the wonder of life — have you ever looked at the moon? — and the absurdity of what we are capable of — have you ever described the moon as a kiddie-pool? — and flattens the distance between both things. Which is part of what life is. Part wonder, part absurdity, all at once. And so the poem not so much introduces us to that, but reminds us of it. It reminds us of that part of us that is willing to be defiantly wonderstruck. And it says hello to that part of us.

But then this poem becomes a lonely poem. I think, at its heart, today’s poem is a deeply lonely poem. Immediately after that almost childish (and childish will always be a positive word to me) beginning, the speaker says:

I think about field trips and cold cuts.
I think about dividends and other words
I don’t understand. I make five hundred
lunches in advance. I want to be prepared.

Juxtaposed with that wonder of the world is a harsh reminder of the consumable nature of the world. In This Life, Hägglund writes:

If we are committed to capitalism, we are committed to commodifying more and more aspects of our lives.

And these lines remind us of what those commitments to commodification and capitalism are. The speaker is not committed to capitalism, but exists within structures that limit choices, that remind the speaker of things he must buy — cold cuts — and things he must have knowledge of — dividends — if he wants to succeed in this world that he doesn’t “understand.” That’s one of the reasons I love Sasha’s poetry, because, in its criticism of the world, it reminds us of how one of the most sinister aspects of the world is the way it can render what used to be an aspect of wonder into an aspect of fear, or even abject terror.

Think of the word childish. Think of how it’s a word that has absolutely no negative aspect of its literal definition. Think, instead, of how what is childish is often inherently good. How what is childish is innocent, or joyful, or grace-filled, or easily given to laughter, or wonder, or play. Now think of how often the word childish has been used to demean adults because of their unwillingness or inability to submit to whatever they are asked to do in service of growth, or profit, or commodification. Think of an adult at their job, laughing and wanting to inspire communal joy by getting other co-workers to laugh. Think of a boss interrupting. Why are you being so childish? Think of what that word really implies. Think of how the boss is saying why aren’t you fulfilling your main obligation as an adult to grow, earn profit, and submit yourself to industry. To be an adult today who is in love with wonder — who finds themselves stopping and admiring such wonder every chance they get — is an inherently lonely thing.

And so I find the speaker in today’s poem lonely too. I find this poem to be a litany of loneliness. I see it here, in these lines:

I want them to be waterproof
and unforgettable. I want the kind of resume
that takes home all the prizes

In another poem, Sasha writes:

Today my resume feels alive with purpose.
What does that mean exactly? I couldn’t say. If I were to think about it
my head would explode

Both of these excerpts get at — in two different ways — the immense loneliness of life in a world that values profit. The latter excerpt calls out the absurdity of our corporate language in this world. It reminds me of a Vulture article by Molly Young about “corporate speak” that closes with this final sentence:

The meaningful threat of garbage language — the reason it is not just annoying but malevolent — is that it confirms delusion as an asset in the workplace.

The direct consequence of that delusional language — a language that lets companies bill themselves as “community companies” or advocates people to bring their “whole selves” to work — is that, when those false and vapid promises fail, as they will, it leaves us, the people on the receiving end of such promises, feeling utterly lonely and isolated.

One reaction to such loneliness is to want, as the speaker in Sasha’s poem does. To want so much. To want contradictory things. To want to be prepared. For what, exactly? Perhaps everything. To want products. To want “new shoes.” To want a better resume. To want to believe in the vision of success that has been advertised. A world where “bills / are paid on time.” And yet to also want love. To want others to feel the same sense of wonder as you. To want others, simply, to appreciate birds.

But such wanting will never be completely fulfilled. In fact, such wanting only drives us into deeper pits of loneliness. As Sasha writes:

In my free time I clip coupons
and put them in my wallet where I forget
to redeem them and this gnaws at me

The small act of forgetting to redeem coupons becomes a failure of life in a product-driven world, in a world that values consumption and production over anything else. And even though this is such a small thing, notice how it “gnaws” at the speaker. Notice how it tears him apart. To feel like it is a failure. To feel, in that moment, so powerless.

In the end, we return, one last time, to loneliness, and fear, and sorrow:

I can feel my heart and it is trembling.

I think Sasha is such a brilliant poet because of how close he brings the absurd into the framework of our actual lives. To read his work is to laugh for a little bit and then to cover your mouth with your hand and realize that the world you are living in resembles that absurdity more than you ever thought it did. And maybe, then, the poem offers you permission to love in the joyful and childish way you know how, to feel, hopefully, less alone despite your loneliness.

In another poem, perfectly titled “I love you,” Sasha writes:

I want to tell you something real important.

I swear to god.

That desire, to tell someone something “real important,” is at the heart, I think, of our lives. I think that is so often what we really want. To say something valuable. To be someone valuable. To know our value, and, on occasion, to hear about our value from someone else. We do not live in a world where that conception of value is communicated consistently. We do not live in a world where people are seen as valuable for the sake of being people. They are seen as valuable for their labor, or their status, or their money, or one of many other things that have to do with living in a world that commodifies everything but does not value the people who work and buy and sell and live and die within it.

To be lonely, I think, is to feel inherently undervalued. To not feel valued at all. This is why love is a beautiful thing. It gives us a space, in this mess of all messes, to communicate value to someone else. To try and tell someone something important. To try and try again. And, in that process, to feel valued and loved and flawed and forgiven and offered grace and loved still.

There’s an ending to a poem by M.A. Vizsolyi that offers this image:

i heard you laughing & we laughed for

300 years me on the floor & the bowl

put away i said think how ridiculous we’ll

look by then with our love the way it is

It’s such a sweet moment. It is, at its heart, childish. Two lovers laughing: at the world, at each other, at the collective joy that is themselves.

That is a kind of freedom. To feel ridiculous for your own sake. To feel ridiculous not because you failed to understand finance, or because your boss told you to stop making jokes in the office, or because you forgot to buy whatever was on sale. But to feel ridiculous because you are in love, because your guard is down, because it no longer has to be up, because it’s okay to feel ridiculous, because it’s okay to play the way a child does, because it’s okay to want to drown in the moon, because it’s okay to be alive and filled with wonder and willing to pause and notice and shout and dance and love. Because it shouldn’t not be okay to find value in yourself, and to have the space and time to communicate and cultivate value in others. That is a kind of freedom our society tells us we cannot afford. It’s a shame. It tells us we can afford so much else, but not that.