Variation on the Word Sleep by Margaret Atwood

“Variation on the Word Sleep” by Margaret Atwood is one of those poems that every time you read it, it’s like reading it for the first time. Last night, I felt inclined to pick up my copy of 180 more: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day selected by Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. I read the poem last night before I went to sleep and again this morning; I’m reading it now in between the sentences that I write here.

With each word lulling forward into each new sentence and stanza, the movement feels dreamy and fluid, but somehow still provides vivid images. Atwood has captured that altered state of movement one feels in dreams (are we in our own bodies or floating above them?; how fast can I run from one point to the other?; it feels like ages but I’ve walked two feet). The images she describes are so perfectly constructed. They are very specific and unique, but we can all imagine these moments happening in a dream.

I once had a Shakespeare professor in college say to the class, “If you have no poetry in your life, you have no life!” So, without further ado, I share this poem with you to start your week off right.

Variation on the Word Sleep
by Margaret Atwood


I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and as you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

(courtesy of


  1. Thanks for posting this. It is beautiful.

    My eReader has unexpectedly led me to rediscover my love for short stories. Perhaps I should look for some good poetry collections to put on it, too!

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