The Ad Hoc Cartography of Nightmares

By Jesse Gabriel González

“To sleep is to put the universe for a little while out of your mind” — Jorge Luis Borges

The problem with draining the world from your head
is what rushes in to take its place. For you, my love,
after you rocket back into daylight, I imagine it was Hell—
different each night, but always in the form of the Labyrinth.

For you, I’ve cataloged them all: a Spanish colonial city with
the street signs carved in runes; an endless white-sand beach
and an unbroken trail of hoofprints;

the worst, though, is the Winchester House, and your hunt
for the death mask at its heart: a stained-glass window,
sunk in a room with no sun. No blueprints, either—
not that I haven’t looked:

I’ve plotted the flight paths of the archangels
to find the one closest to our bedroom, begged him
to guide you, tucked prayers into your pajama pockets;

one quiet morning, I read and re-read the coffee
grounds in your porcelain cup, tracing an archipelago
of stains as if my ancestors were babalawo,
not loosely Catholic, and had often done the same.

But I couldn’t connect those dots, or the stars
I saw in your birthmarks, or even know for certain
that constellations prowl your mind’s night sky.

No map of mine can lead you home—
even if you could keep it, tattooed on your arms
or tucked under your tongue like a razor—
with my luck, you’d land in your nightmare’s stable

clutching a weather report, scribbled forecasts
for Havana and Cartagena, Crete and the vicinity.
As if I know anything about barometry or cyclogenesis;

as if I’m anything more than a child-meteorologist,
crouched in a corner, chanting rain, rain, go away, come again
but in the day.

See, my problem isn’t a love for rituals
but a need. I crave them. I cleave to them

when you fall asleep and I stay up here,
knuckled under the sheets and the smoke alarm’s
red pulses.One, two, threelike a rosary

I count the seconds between them my eyes
pried open don’t blink don’t breathe until it’s just
righteight, nine, tenuse that little burst of light

to squeeze out the darker visions—the knives
out of the kitchen; the way all hands, by design

must know the mechanics of violence, would know,
if asked, how to wrap a belt around a necknineteen,

twenty—and what god wouldn’t want prayers like these,
all tension and torque? Try tossing your head,
shake out the horseflies caught in the cobwebs.

If only my mind had high corners and spiders,
had anything with teeth, to run from or blame…

Instead, it’s just me, caught between two mirrors,
infinity unspooling back and forth across the night.
What else can I do but watch

as my thoughts tear through the darkness like lightning,
all crash and flare—except one doesn’t seem to fade,
only flickers, like some distant obelisk gone up in flames.

If only I could find itand then what?
As if knowing its exact height, the angles of its peak,
how many gallons of gasoline were poured over its sides
would make it any less real, or any less mine.

It’s easier, mostly, to imagine Hell for someone else.
But, when you talk in your sleep, I still can’t help
but think our labyrinths are almost the same:

no great mysteries, no sharpened bull; not the panic
of Theseus when he drops the string, but the daily dread
of the Minotaur, who wakes to see the sky but
rises to remember the walls—

the quiet, looming geometry of the things we’d rather forget.
What good is a map if we’re already home?

Please, my love, take my hand

and maybe tonight, it’s enough to just lie down in the
dirt of the maze and hold for a while that trembling thread;
let it tether us to the edge of all we know and all that
remains as unknowable as the future; as love;

as the number of dust motes floating, sunlit, in a far-off doorway.

Headshot of Jesse Gabriel Gonzalez

Jesse Gabriel González is a poet from the great state of New Jersey currently living in Seattle, Washington. He holds an MFA from the University of Oregon and a BA from Cornell University. He was a 2021 Anaphora Arts Fellow and the recipient of a 2023 Contributor Award from Bread Loaf. He serves as an editorial assistant at Poetry Northwest.

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