The Six sleeps : 6 poets

Bruce Ross-Smith

I was born in the Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island, Canada in 1949. I have lived variously on both sides of the Atlantic, for decades now in Oxford, England. I am a writer, poet, and lecturer.

The Six sleeps : 6 poets grew out of a challenge to write on sleep for the Hall Writers’ Forum, St Edmund Hall, Oxford. The link with Russia stems from an evening spent at the residence of the Russian Ambassador to London,  on Saturday, March 31st, 2018. Hosted by the Ambassador and Mrs Yakovenko, Anasastia Kuznetsova, singer, songwriter and translator daughter of Joseph Brodsky, performed songs From Those Who Have Forgotten Me, a perfect combination of her own compositions, settings of her father’s poems, a beautiful Hebrew song,  and much else.

Anastasia’s  powerful and moving performance coincided with the writing of Six Sleeps, sleep as a starting point to write poems on Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), a Portuguese poet noted for his use of many poetic personae, so the “names” in “what price sleep”; Rosalia Castro (1837-1885), who wrote in the dialect of her native Galicia, in northeastern Spain, and as a result has not been as widely read as she deserves (not too late); Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), one of the greatest poet and playwrights of the  mid-twentieth who spent the last years of his life in East Germany; Cecilia Meiriles  (1901-1964), Brazilian neo-symbolist poet and teacher who spent a considerable amount of time in India, where she was deeply affected by the life and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi; Alexander Blok (1880-1881), who needs no introduction to Russian readers; and Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), also needs no introduction.

While there are no biographical or direct literary links between Blok and Akhmatova and the other four, all led complex and intense lives, often caught up in what the Elizabethans called “a fine frenzy”, waking and sleeping.  To dedicate these six poems to the memory of Joseph Brodsky, who said in an interview: “A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language,” is a small thing in itself but I hope the great Brodsky would have appreciated Six Sleeps : 6 poets, his critical red pencil at the ready.


Six sleeps : 6 poets

(to the memory  of Joseph Brodsky, awake always)

1. Fernando Pessoa &  his heteronymns:

what price sleep?


Entre  sono e o sonho

between times,Fernando,

asleep at the Brasileira

or Matinho, sleeping

in public places

a tabling of queries

buried by dreams.


Did they sleep, all too many

cropping the waves

in the Devonian seas,

cortisol at the ready

for a sluggish awakening,

the evolution of sleep

a comedy of means.


Fernando the smoker

wrote standing up

and was said to sleep

on his feet when chasing

away dreams, brandy

at his elbow just in case

the names tried to wake up

too early and leave him in peace.


But what peace that might

have been,  just one name

held steady under

a midnight rotunda,

just one pair of eyes tight

shut on a circling  varanda,

just Fernando for one night

only in a palace of delights.

Or would that have been

at too great a price?



2. Rosalia Castro:

sleeping too late


Plato called “n” an internal sound,

as in your negra sombra, you

of the dark angels, silent

in the sweetness of sleep

with a lover who couldn’t

keep awake, at least not

when the bedding seemed light

beyond the rhythms of all night.


You didn’t blame him,  greedy

as you thought you were

for more than cold tendons,

the wretchedness of sleep

is “it’s not being awake!”

might be trite but you knew

when the rain stopped

you would have to slip away,

later to sleep the rest of this day.


Your longing lingers in sheets

long past dawn and damn sleep

for closing down hope, for remaking

the bed as if order really matters.


Negra sombre, then, wounds

unbound, lost paradiso

could surely be refound?

To sleep or not to sleep

really not the question

to be mined deep through

your mind, nor the diviner

of all you had to leave behind.



3. Bertolt Brecht:

take on the night


Lobet die Nacht in hope

and folly and don’t

waste time on shaving

when the morning  later

stumbles off to a mirror

of forgetting, but let’s

certainly praise the night

for buggering up sleep,

for pissing on dreams,

for not pretending

to be to be anything but ….

well, you know, heaven

in a shell, tossed, turned,

crushed, sleepy as a dead

whale, Lobet die Nacht

doesn’t bring Johann

Sebastian back, Nun

Danket alle Gott, organ

at the ready with only

a swealing candle

to impair the fugue

of not forgiving,

all I’ll say to Galileo

is sleep by the day.


As  for blindness,

quack John Taylor

did it for Bach

and I’ll not lament

that loss: Lobet die Nacht

could only end on the cross.



4. Cecilia Meireles:



Sou poeta is not in doubt

anymore than turning off

the lights in an empty room.

You used to get up early

to prepare for teaching,

half asleep but deep thinking

of where the borders lie across

oceans, time zones abstract

to some, but not to you,

Brazil to India and back

seaward with Gandhi

your teacher in the earliest

hours. Of course you never

knew him but heard him

in your sleep, saw him

in dream and spoke

into pillows of what

you then took home

to your students

and laid on the page.


A neo-symbolist poet

is what if not a charter

of hidden islands,

all hands on deck

before the sun’s

over the yardarm,

somnambulant at best

between sleep and late dream,

later the better for the senses

to heave imaginary sails

where lagoons meet the sea.


Psychology bored you

for its dim shadows,

blinking at nothing.

And waking always

borderline, staying

or passing, you chose

what to do.



5. Alexander Blok:



The black raven in the snowy twilight

carriaged off to the shores of the Baltic,

a mystical fusion inside or out

could electrify sleep for this poet

in his coat of brilliant dreams,

his Valentina real or imagined

really doesn’t matter in this half life

of sea streams and bridges, sudden

to darkness in a torrent of kisses,

midnight sliced off without notice,

winner takes all for the wakeful

and the willing, St Petersburg

unwilling to yield to this night.


Or so it could have been for

Pushkin’s bronze horseman,

eyes ever open  over

the waters of the Neva,

symbols never a lost cause

through  a swift flight of comets.


But hang on, Blok,  you cast

shadows in the dark

which only you can see,

only you with your eyes

closed, what hides there

if not frenzy and fall,

what is it you fear?


Nothing. Impulse is

my shield, waking

or not, and eros

my lance, clear

to those who know

how to feel the snow

trailing  the twilight,

nothing more to reveal.



6. Anna Akhmatova:



Must a lithe gypsy suffer

all the torments of Dante?

whispered  Mandelstam,

careful to play down

the where or the why.


The Cabaret Stray Dog

had been a good place

not to sleep, eyes held

on to the follies of truth,

your non-sleep spliced

around a million voices,

a mediation Dante knew

only too well.


The great Blok couldn’t

look at you, too much

to know. Decades later

an Oxford philosopher

thought he would never

speak again; and still

you couldn’t sleep,

all senses heightened

for fear of what ? Must

you ask … must you ask

what lists of loss can’t hide?


Destiny you declared

never an answer,

just the drivel of surrender,

and insomnia no excuse

for not dreaming forever.


I wouldn’t have known how

the quince tree blossoms,

love, peace, the roaring

storms of the south

were not the forces

of forgetting. How could

they  have been against

the million voices you

had to assume? How could

they not remember what

being awake means to the few

before the many, false until true.     (Oxford : Easter 2018)