I've been haunted by the night since I was a young boy growing up in Wayne, a small town outside Detroit, ominously named for Mad Anthony Wayne, the Civil War hero. Listening to Ernie Harwell's late-night broadcasts of Tigers baseball games on my transistor radio, canoeing and camping under the stars on Isle Royale, lazing in the grass underneath a shower of fireworks along the Detroit River, attending midnight mass at Wayne St. Mary's, or, crazy as it sounds now, driving all night in my Uncle Cy's 1965 Hot Rod Lincoln up to the Mackinaw Bridge with my high school friends. Just for the thrill of watching the sun rise over Lake Superior ...
Looking back, it's as if I was in training for a life of noctivagating the world: night walks around the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter in Paris; night writing on Naxos with Greek fishermen; riding a train all night from Oslo to Narvik, in the Arctic Circle, to witness the aurora borealis; tracking elephants at night to a watering hole in Namibia.
Looking back over my shoulder at the unreeling film of my life, it seems I have always felt more at home in the night world than in the day world, more comfortable with nighthawks than early birds.
This anthology reflects my fascination with "eating the darkness," as a shaman in the Philippines described to me the act of storytelling by firelight. For years I have been gathering strange material for my Odditorium, which celebrates life after dark, from quotes, poems, chants, and song lyrics to short stories and novels, and even a night-game box score about the oddly luminous aspects of night time.
The result closely resembles what used to be called a noctuary, a record or journal of nocturnal contemplations that aspires to be a source of inspiration for the nighthawk brooding in an all-night diner, an insomniacs guide to the dark night of the soul, or a beguiling companion book to sit alongside a warm brandy on the bed stand.
We now live in a 24/7 world where lights blaze everywhere, as any astronaut can tell you, and darkness is harder and harder to find, as any astronomer can verify. If we are to survive this onslaught of light and withstand the pressure to be always working, then we will have to work on what my main man, Detroit's own Bob Seger, called our "night moves."
Burning the Midnight Oil is offered in the spirit of one of my boyhood heroes, Mark Twain, whose daughters insisted that their father regale them with a different story every night before they went to bed. They would name different objects in the house and insist that he use them in his nocturnal tales, whose purpose was to entertain, of course, but also to become, as Robert Frost suggests in his totemic poem, more acquainted with the coming dark.
I imagine this collection to serve a similar function, an offer to the reader of a wide range of stories, poems, chants, and song lyrics designed to celebrate the dark side of the moon, our endarkenment rather than our enlightenment.
Consider the marvel. One day I was being interviewed at one of the movie studios in Hollywood when I noticed a curious sign on the door of a room where special effects were being created:
Don't open the door.
The darkness may leak out.
Excerpted from Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night's Journey into Day by Phil Cousineau, $16.95, 978-1-936740-73-4, published by Viva Editions, www.vivaeditions.com