The second sleep is when nightmares awaken. Resurrected, the ungrateful dead get on a horse and gallop through the graveyard, carrying the battered psyche along the narrow cobbled ginnels, marshy areas, and rocky shores to where a shadowy evil awaits. Arms outstretched, your legs twisted by your unforgiving hooves, you wake up with your arms crossed. With his silver thread, a robin stitches the hem for the new day. These unstable steeds are still half a beat ahead of your heartbeat. You can recall that someone died yesterday: they overslept the dawn. This is the first day that you have no bridle, no bit, to hold your hand or steer your way.
(Note: Second Sleep in print has the right-hand margin justification typical to the prose poetry, but impossible reproduce here. The italics have been added for this online text with the author’s permission.)
I came across this week’s poem in the anthology Seconds (Ings Poetry), published last summer to celebrate the 50th open mic poetry gig at The Triangle in Shipley, West Yorkshire. There are many familiar names as well as new poets (or at least new to me) among the featured poets. Alongside this week’s poem, I’ve admired contributions from Carole Bromley, Matt Nicholson, Rachel Bower, Nick Allen, Andrew Lambeth, Ian Humphreys, Gaia Holmes, Mark Connors, Harry Man, William Coniston and Suzannah Evans. The poems are all worth reading. To buy a copy of the book, see Mike Farren’s website here.
Hannah Stone is a poet-theologian who loves prose poetry. Her passion for the genre is reflected in previous anthology publications, a chapter in the essay collection Prose Poetry in Theory and Practice and three unpublished pamphlets in preparation – among them, the enticingly named Twenty-Nine Volumes.
Stone’s prompt, the editorial call-out for poems on “seconds”, coincided with her interest in a concept that apparently preceded the introduction of street lighting. She explains: “I was aware from a poem I wrote about Pepys that in the 18th century it was common for people to conduct all sorts of business, in and out of the bedroom, in the intervals between sleeps. I am an experienced insomniac and have had many experiences with night-time lucidity. I have also observed that most of my vivid dreams occur in the pre-dawn hours of somnolence. I wrote this poem in the aftermath of my mother dying, just after Christmas 2021, which coincided with me getting Covid, which is still with me in its postviral state, and produces a lot of very weird mental processes and sleep issues, among other things.”
Second Sleep is a descriptive phrase. It could be used to refer to death or the post-death sleep that some religions believe happens before resurrection. Or it could also mean a magical, uncanny daylight doze. Hannah’s explanation chimed with my own experience: I often “sleep off” my first tiredness for a couple of hours, then feel fresh enough to start a mini-day. The most fascinating dreams are in the second sleep. For me, they often dramatise a long-term fear, and have a mysteriously shadowy public setting – railway station, airport, concert hall, classroom. While I do have some control over these spaces, I am simultaneously lost and in a hurry. You may see corridors, stairs and even a giant computer screen.
For Hannah Stone’s narrator, the second sleep is a haunt of deeper nightmare, and the dream she recounts evokes an involuntary dash at an uncontrollable and fatal pace. The “bruised psyche” is strapped on a hurdle, being dragged along by galloping horses driven by the dead. One of the definitions of “hurdle”, and the most relevant to this nightmare, is “a frame or sled formerly used in England for dragging traitors to execution”.
The specification of the dead as “ungrateful” is potent. It is reminiscent of the psychedelic rock band Grateful Dead and hints at the threat that the dead, feeling betrayed in many cultures, can pose to the still-living. These phantoms will drag their prisoner through a poetic landscape that promises more damage. Adjectives work hard, and increase the reader’s sensation of being jolted bodily from one obstacle to another. The ginnels (a ginnel is “a narrow entrance between houses”) are “narrow” and “cobbled” (indicating danger underfoot and on both sides); the fields, “marshy”, the shores, “rocky”. Although we may not be in hell yet, it seems like we are racing through its hostile and unpredictable outskirts. Of course, the terrain is also that of the psyche, the “shadowy nastiness” a place in the human mind we might identify as evil.
Having judiciously skirted the use of the first person, the narrative shifts to the vocative and addresses a “you”. Waking, this “you” remains in a state of near-sleep, “pinioned by unforgiving hooves”. The nightmare is going on somewhere, the heart still races, though the robin’s song suggests a new day, a newly stitched garment ready for the bruised psyche to wear. There’s a sort of distancing effect in the half-punning phrase “unstabled steeds”. But waking up latches the nightmare to the new reality it has deflected: “someone died yesterday … they overslept the dawn”. Now the full weight of the term “second sleep” is felt. And the “you”, like another nightmare horse, lacks bit, bridle or reins: lacks the guidance of a rider. That turn is quietly achieved and all the more haunting as apocalyptic fantasy fades, and the protagonist enters what might be called, in a suitably horrible phrase, the “new normal”, directionless and lost.
Perhaps the term “second sleep” is the old name for what more recently became known as REM sleep. It’s the period when most, though not all, dreaming occurs, and is essential to brain health. The late poet Derek Mahon alluded to it memorably in his villanelle The Dawn Chorus, which concludes: “Awaiting still our metamorphosis, / We hoard the fragments of what once we knew. It is not sleep, but dreams that we miss. / We yearn for that reality in this”.