(That’s my newest grand-nephew in the cover shot. Is there anything more wondrous, more beautiful, more entrancing than a sleeping newborn?)
When They Sleep
by Rolf Jacobsen
translated by Robert Hedin
All people are children when they sleep.
There’s no war in them then.
They open their hands and breathe
in that quiet rhythm heaven has given them.
They pucker their lips like small children
and open their hands halfway,
soldiers and statesmen, servants and masters.
The stars stand guard
and a haze veils the sky,
a few hours when no one will do anybody harm.
If only we could speak to one another then
when our hearts are half-open flowers.
Words like golden bees
would drift in.
— God, teach me the language of sleep.
I liked this poem a lot more when I had only read it cursorily. The first few lines grabbed me, and the last two sentences melted my heart. The middle, that I skimmed over. Now, reading it more carefully, I’d say that skimming is the best approach.
Because the middle doesn’t hold up under the power of the opening and the closing. The middle sags. Why are the hands of sleeping people suddenly half-closed when they were fully open just three lines previous? Why must the stars stand guard? In a poem about peace, the military imagery seems out of place. Why is a haze covering the sky? Haze is a weather condition particular to certain nights, and Jacobsen is writing about all nights, all sleep situations.
Perhaps this is a translation issue. Or perhaps I’m missing something. The title is “When They Sleep,” not “When We Sleep.” Could the military imagery and the reference to soldiers and statesmen point to who the they is? Is Jacobsen imagining an army at rest in their tents? A war-mongering world leader in his bed?
Even so I’d still think there’s a muddle in the middle, a cliched vagueness. But that ending! Beautiful.
I taped the poem to a lamppost in a northern Michigan park. Nearby children played on a Civil War era cannon. How’s that for subtlety?
Rolf Jacobsen (1907-1994) was born in Oslo. His father was a dentist, his mother a nurse who home-schooled him until, as a teenager, he attended a private school. Jacobsen went to University of Oslo for 5 years but didn’t graduate.
He served 6 weeks in the army, and then worked for a newspaper. He wrote or signed onto editorials that supported the German occupation of Norway. For that he was convicted of treason and sentenced to 3 ½ years of hard labor.
This is a strange episode in the life of one of Norway’s most beloved poets. The extent of his Nazi sympathies is a question up for debate. For certain he was a socialist before the war, grew disenchanted with the far left, and then signed editorials in support of the occupation. Some say this shows a stand against socialism and not a support for Hitler.
At any rate, after prison he was a book seller for 10 years, then a journalist. At age 43 he converted to Catholicism. He lived in a little house by the railway, had a long and happy marriage and had two sons.
He published 12 books and won Norway’s most prestigious award, Aschehoug Prize in 1986.