Strangers in the night

by Westbrook

There is a heartbreaking passage at the beginning of the last book of the Iliad in which Achilles tosses and turns all night in anguish for his dead friend and lover, Patroclus, before walking alone on the beach at dawn. Characteristically taking his material from both life and literature, John Westbrook references it in this poem about sleeplessness as another example of the, now largely vanished, hold of Greek and Latin poetry over writers’ imaginations up to the twentieth century.

See the illustrated blog post, a vase painting of Achilles from about 450 BCE, here.

Strangers in the Night

What is that strange spot beneath my arm?
Is all, will all, be well with me, with her?
Can that window-frame be saved? Will there
Be war? No harm to pray a little prayer
To somebody…

I shift from side to back and back to side
And close my eyes to keep the dark at bay.
A crowd of strangers shares my wakeful night:
Proust in the darkness wheezes for the dawn,
Wondering where the whirling furniture will land;
Carroll recalls improving verse, to skirt
A deep and tempting rabbit-hole of sin;
Shakespeare frets that he is old and bald,
Unloved and common, and his stuff’s no good;
Achilles, the killer’s killer, weeps and mourns,
Yearning for the motherly embrace
Of Patroclus.