In Variations on the Word Sleep the narrator of the poem immediately addresses his/her conscience need to connect with the other person, and they also recognize the hopelessness of this goal: “I would like to watch you sleeping, which may not happen”(1-2). The opening to the poem, as we see here, could be considered typical of Atwood’s writing in the sense that one person longs to bond with another, and recognizes the difficulty. It is this type of vulnerability that we have come to expect in Margaret Atwood’s writings, because, as with many feminist writings, we are aware of the power struggle between men and women, and even between women. But this poem refrains from identifying sexes; it only discusses a deeply internal need of one person for another, who is on a journey through the dark maze of their consciousness.
The first stanza evolves from a simple plea from the genderless speaker to watch their lover sleep, to a deeper, spiritual need. Atwood chooses to remain ambiguous in this respect, which helps a wider audience identify with the work. The poem also has merit because within seven short, simplistic lines we glide from a gentle longing to a love complex and intense, with two minds merging together in a dream: “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.(3-7)” The action of the poem continues to evolve as Atwood carries the reader through what appears to be a lover’s dream or fantasy. The narrator at first wishes only to watch their lover sleep, then he/she desires to enter the same sleep, then envision him/her descending through the layers of consciousness.
As the reader follows along with the admiring narrator and his or her companion, they become increasingly aware of the narrator’s need for transcendence. In the first, second and third stanzas, Atwood uses words that help guide us along the action, such as “watch,” “enter,” “over,” “descend,” “follow,” and “become.” All of these words are effective in making the reader feel as if they too are stumbling along side of the narrator, desperately trying to enter the depths of their love. The narrator is so anxious and passionate, that they are willing to follow their lover towards their worst fear in order to protect them “from the grief at the center.”(16) This is especially interesting in the aspect of feminism because Atwood’s female characters are usually exemplary of achievement and empowerment.
If one is to assume the narrator in this poem is female, than Atwood is describing a woman chasing her man in a desperate attempt to become his center, and even to “be the air that inhabits you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed that necessary.(27-30)” The word “unnoticed” here could be seen in a couple different lights, as could the entire theme of the poem. On one hand, the narrator is reducing him or herself to being virtually invisible, by becoming the air of their lover. Yet on the other hand, she has abstained from identifying sexes, and the poetry itself is painfully honest and romantic in its portrayal of sacrifice.
The narrator is recognizing that the object of their affection, whether they are male or female, has a consciousness worth exploring, and they are willing to carry this person away from darkness. The other reason that this poem should be valued is because of Atwood’s use of the elements. The imagery of the poem moves from water “smooth dark wave”(6) to earth “forest, cave”(6,9) to water again “become the boat that would row you”(21) to fire “a flame in two cupped hands”(23) then finally, air “I would like to be the air that inhabits you”(27-28). The poem “Variations of the Word Sleep” is an excellent example of Atwood’s talent for revealing feelings of separations and also for showing the romance in giving up ones’ own identity for the sake of love. This theme is not typical to what the public would consider ruthlessly feminist, but Atwood’s writings redefine the realms of what women desire and deserve in love.