Great Sleeps I Have Known, by Robin Becker

Once in a cradle in Norway folded
like Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir
as a ship in full sail transported the dead to Valhalla

Once on a mountain in Taos after making love
in my thirties the decade of turquoise and silver

After your brother walked into the Atlantic
to scatter your mothers ashes his khakis soaked
to the knees his shirtsleeves blowing

At the top of the cottage in a thunderstorm
once or twice each summer covetous of my solitude

Immediately following lunch
against circadian rhythms, once
in a bunk bed in a dormitory in the White Mountains

Once in a hollow tree in Wyoming
A snow squall blew in the guide said tie up your horses

The last night in the Katmandu guest house
where I saw a bird fly from a monk’s mouth
a consolidated sleep of East and West

Once on a horsehair mattress two feet thick
I woke up singing
as in the apocryphal story of my birth
at Temple University Hospital

On the mesa with the burrowing owls
on the mesa with the prairie dogs

Willing to be lucky
I ran the perimeter road in my sleep
entrained to the cycles of light and dark
Sometimes my dead sister visited my dreams

Once on the beach in New Jersey
after the turtles deposited their eggs
before my parents grew old, nocturnal

Drench, by Anne Stevenson

You sleep with a dream of summer weather,
wake to the thrum of rain—roped down by rain.
Nothing out there but drop-heavy feathers of grass
and rainy air. The plastic table on the terrace
has shed three legs on its way to the garden fence.
The mountains have had the sense to disappear.
It’s the Celtic temperament—wind, then torrents, then remorse.
Glory rising like a curtain over distant water.
Old stonehouse, having steered us through the dark,
docks in a pool of shadow all its own.
That widening crack in the gloom is like good luck.
Luck, which neither you nor tomorrow can depend on.

Bread and Cake, by Kevin Prufer

The black Mercedes
with the Ayn Rand
vanity plate
crashed through
the glass bus stop
and came to rest
among a bakery’s
upturned tables.
In the stunned silence,
fat pigeons descended
to the wreckage
and pecked at
the scattered
bread and cake.
The driver slept,
head to the wheel.
The pigeons grew
rich with crumbs.
The broken glass winked.
God grinned.

The Hour and What Is Dead, by Li-Young Lee

Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
through bare rooms over my head,
opening and closing doors.
What could he be looking for in an empty house?
What could he possibly need there in heaven?
Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?
His love for me feels like spilled water
running back to its vessel.

At this hour, what is dead is restless
and what is living is burning.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

My father keeps a light on by our bed
and readies for our journey.
He mends ten holes in the knees
of five pairs of boy’s pants.
His love for me is like sewing:
various colors and too much thread,
the stitching uneven. But the needle pierces
clean through with each stroke of his hand.

At this hour, what is dead is worried
and what is living is fugitive.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

God, that old furnace, keeps talking
with his mouth of teeth,
a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
of gasoline, airplane, human ash.
His love for me feels like fire,
feels like doves, feels like river-water.

At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
and helpless. While the Lord lives.

Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.
I’ve had enough of his love
that feels like burning and flight and running away.

Study for Salome Dancing Before Herod, by Eric Pankey

In the movement toward disappearance,
She is pulled by an undertow of ecstasy.
She wakes in a room where she never fell asleep.
A thousand starlings leaf-out a bare tree.
She wakes in a dusky, tenebrous zone.
Evening on the ridges and in the mountains,
But light still spills on the valley floor.
What transport brought her here?
The shape of gravity embodies a pear on the table.
Here time is the only sovereign.
She is like an arrow slipped from its quiver.

Bed in Summer, by Robert Louis Stevenson

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

King Lear, by Lisa Sewell

For the father who wakes
and wakes himself, eyes full of himself

and for the one, who when the sun descends
slips into the stormy

smite flat the rotundity o’ the world.

Done in with conspiracy and murder
in his sleep (his eye-tooth finally unfixed
and tucked into a cheek for safekeeping)

he dreams of a three-armed garment
unable to wonder or comprehend
how he has come to this blurred ridge and broken—

I try to fix in my mind, his shining eyes
the terrors he shut his lips against

and his early morning utterly lucid accusation:
“I never would have believed,” he said to me
“that you would be among them.”


About this Poem

‘King Lear’ is part of a sequence of poems that explore the intersection of reading and the construction of identity. Many of the different relationships in King Lear have resonated for me at different points in my life and by the time I wrote this poem, I had already written two other poems with this title. During the last days of his life, my father, mad with what the hospice nurse called ‘sundowner syndrome,’ made me understand the play again in a completely unexpected and heartbreaking way.

Lisa Sewell

Spiral, by Roddy Lumsden

These years lift over coldly now: Aprils
and Augusts are gifted to ice, or sprawl
into mid-summers or year ends—pillars
of lesser standing. Still come no replies

to boyish queries, how the belly sleeper
buoys, begins again, becomes poor soul
or bull of appetite; why when the pearls
drop, no spool dares connect the ripples.

As one listens to the rain, by Octavio Paz

Listen to me as one listens to the rain,
not attentive, not distracted,
light footsteps, thin drizzle,
water that is air, air that is time,
the day is still leaving,
the night has yet to arrive,
figurations of mist
at the turn of the corner,
figurations of time
at the bend in this pause,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
without listening, hear what I say
with eyes open inward, asleep
with all five senses awake,
it’s raining, light footsteps, a murmur of syllables,
air and water, words with no weight:
what we are and are,
the days and years, this moment,
weightless time and heavy sorrow,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
wet asphalt is shining,
steam rises and walks away,
night unfolds and looks at me,
you are you and your body of steam,
you and your face of night,
you and your hair, unhurried lightning,
you cross the street and enter my forehead,
footsteps of water across my eyes,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
the asphalt’s shining, you cross the street,
it is the mist, wandering in the night,
it is the night, asleep in your bed,
it is the surge of waves in your breath,
your fingers of water dampen my forehead,
your fingers of flame burn my eyes,
your fingers of air open eyelids of time,
a spring of visions and resurrections,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
the years go by, the moments return,
do you hear the footsteps in the next room?
not here, not there: you hear them
in another time that is now,
listen to the footsteps of time,
inventor of places with no weight, nowhere,
listen to the rain running over the terrace,
the night is now more night in the grove,
lightning has nestled among the leaves,
a restless garden adrift-go in,
your shadow covers this page.

Night Life, by Vivian Smith

Disturbed at 2 a.m. I hear a claw
scratching the window, tapping at the pane,
and then I realise, a broken branch,
and yet I can’t turn back to sleep again.

Slowly, not to wake you, I get up,
thinking of food, perhaps a quiet read.
A cockroach runs across the kitchen floor,
its lacquered shell as quick and dry as seed.

Outside the chalice lily lifts its cup
in adoration to the mirrored moon,
full of purpose as it trembles there,
collecting drops of moisture on its spoon.

Noises of the night, it’s all alive,
birds shifting in the steady trees,
slugs and snails eating fallen flowers,
a moth freighted with fragilities.

Nocturnal life, the other side of things,
proceeding whether we observe or not,
like rows and rows of brown coastal ants
transporting food from here to another spot.

My Father’s Hats, by Mark Irwin

Sunday mornings I would reach
high into his dark closet while standing
on a chair and tiptoeing reach
higher, touching, sometimes fumbling
the soft crowns and imagine
I was in a forest, wind hymning
through pines, where the musky scent
of rain clinging to damp earth was
his scent I loved, lingering on
bands, leather, and on the inner silk
crowns where I would smell his
hair and almost think I was being
held, or climbing a tree, touching
the yellow fruit, leaves whose scent
was that of a clove in the godsome
air, as now, thinking of his fabulous
sleep, I stand on this canyon floor
and watch light slowly close
on water I’m not sure is there.

from The Princess [Sweet and low, sweet and low], by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Sweet and low, sweet and low,
   Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
   Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
   Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.

Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
   Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother’s breast,
   Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
   Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.

Hunger Moon, by Jane Cooper

The last full moon of February
stalks the fields; barbed wire casts a shadow.
Rising slowly, a beam moved toward the west
stealthily changing position

until now, in the small hours, across the snow
it advances on my pillow
to wake me, not rudely like the sun
but with the cocked gun of silence.

I am alone in a vast room
where a vain woman once slept.
The moon, in pale buckskins, crouches
on guard beside her bed.

Slowly the light wanes, the snow will melt
and all the fences thrum in the spring breeze
but not until that sleeper, trapped
in my body, turns and turns.