At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems 2007-2019 by Franca Mancinelli (trans. John Taylor)


By Michael Collins

A brief remark from Franca Mancinelli opens a window to some of the central mysteries of At An Hour’s Sleep From Here, an English translation of two intricate volumes of her poetry. The window, however, opens onto unexpected pages of the book:

The blank pages give a rhythm to my books. They mark the rhythm of vision and breathing. As in any journey, we need a place to halt, to let what has entered our gaze, our listening, settle in. In this blank space, the life of anyone passing through the pages has the possibility of encountering the life that I have tried to translate into words. To me, a book without blank pages seems a deaf monologue, a house built for nobody: dark and without windows. [i]

A blank space where we may encounter and listen to other lives, let them “settle in,” is also a good description of dreams, a theme recurs in the poems, at times also as a metaphorical boundary between modes of perception:

you spoil like food

even if you show your face

orderly like a document

and in hostile territories go through

customs, beyond sleep. (143)


The linear progression of the first four lines indicates that we behave “orderly” in an attempt to avoid our own entropy, an unspoken, unkept bargain underlying much of social conformity. However, as in many of the short, often sharply surprising poems in the collection – and as in dreams – the ending and beginning are integral to one another and must be read side by side to “settle in.” In the final line, which ends both the poem and the dream it has been indirectly referencing, we learn for the first time that the “hostile territories” we sought to avoid constitute all realms “beyond sleep,” not any mere borders within the day world. This places the opening line’s apparently existential statement in a new context: We now feel the presence of death because we have not been able to get something essential through those “customs” into consciousness when we returned from the dream. Dreams, like the poem, also transcend personal context, which broadens the address of the opening “you” to include, the reader, the dream, and the speaker. In this second reading, we begin with awareness that life itself is originally present in and to us in the dream and poem, challenging our pragmatic perceptions to welcome transformation, despite what may “spoil” or turn back from “orderly” faces and documents. “[F]ood,” after all, like a dream or poem, is wasted if not taken in.

In various poems, sleep can also be read as a metaphor for our own unknown aspects, which act in our lives unseen by our conscious perspectives: “in the depths / where the wind writes us down” (173; italics original). Fear of relinquishing conscious, practical control, losing the literal ground, is compensated for in such cases by a deepening groundlessness in even more stark confrontations with social reality:

The light spreads

like a stain. Someone,

with a thud, has spilled another day.

The streets will again be traced

by shoes walking on

confirming the boundaries

of things among things. (175)


An even bleaker impression likens our reliance on social reality for identity to execution in a similar defamiliarization of day world roles when they are perceived from the perspective of the dreamer – or poet – more closely connected with their ethereal life sources:

It’s the executioner who wakes you up early,

peeling you from the darkness, lifting off

your covers, leading you down corridors

dug into ice

where others are running waving

a hand, a mirror. (177)


However, importantly, these apparently hollow and threatening endings offer impressions of the social and external worlds that are born of the feeling of leaving the dream. Nonetheless, one complicated offering of these poems, as we have already seen, is their ability to present the interrelated day and dream worlds simultaneously, yet distinctly, within one text. The day world with its “boundaries” presents the other side of the dream, offering the source of images for the expressive aspect of its life – or perhaps it is better to say, for our conscious capacity to take in such expressions. Fittingly, the places where the day world scenes appear most threatening and chaotic, as in the ending lines here, take place when characters have lost their sense of reflective connection with the dream world and therefore are pushed and pulled through a hurly burly social world by one another’s orders and projections.

One formal window into this paradoxical positioning of the poem between day and dream presents in the poems almost always beginning in lower case. Notice how immediately we feel pulled into a strange and shifting world: “into this gangrene opened by gestures / I see, and stop sprouting / this useless resin” (225). The combination of lineation and suspended syntax creates the initial impression that the speaker is entering the deadened flesh. In the second line we understand that the movement being described is actually caused by insight; however, the resulting cessation of defense stops the flow of “resin,” a plant’s form of self-protection.

These interlocking transformations open to a similar self-division and symbiosis in the second stanza: “Then with my lips I pick myself up, / carry myself to bed as would / a cat her kitten” (225). The speaker’s act of returning herself to sleep crucially closes the loop that the first stanza began. The opening insight presents two experiences simultaneously: being seen into from the outside and seeing into an aspect of one’s own interior. The second half of the poem consciously resolves to return the mind to its own valued alterity, from which we are thus seen. Here Mancinelli’s own thoughts on the use of lower case are instructive: “I prefer that the beginning of a poem remains open because it does not belong to me…. [I]n the beginning, I like to honor the gift that I’m receiving. I am welcoming a voice that has reached me.”[ii] A corollary syntactical effect is that, although the opening phrase functions as a complete sentence, the placement of our arrival into the sentence is, by grammatical logic, unclear due to the lack of signified beginning. Similar to the experience of insight, the poem simply arrives in the course of its own offering of attention to part of a mystery, often in the form of another, yet unseen part – and not always without anxiety.

Sequences of natural and animal imagery are another feature these poems share with dreams. In the case of the “red ants,” we find that they are a clear threat to our daily personae, “finding in your face / a good bowlful” (191). However, the speaker also wonders whether the animals we encounter as “the body / gathers the night” harbor similar ambivalence about the perils that present to them in and as our waking:

How many animals

migrate within us,

passing through our heart, halting

on the curve of a hip, among the branches

of the ribs, how many

would rather not be us,

not be ensnared

between our human contours. (125)


The dream animals and their earthly counterparts embody the openness to being that allowed the speaker’s therapeutic insight above. Correspondingly, they fear, here again, entrapment within conceptual thinking.

Their recovery from machinations of consciousness is similarly intuitive: “a rifle shot and again / you breathe. Snout to the ground” (129). This poem also provides an example of poetic structure mirroring dream progression, in which one’s image may pick up the expressive thread of a predecessor:

and it all moves away. The trees

bend to one side, losing

their voices in every leaf

that learns from the birds

and for a few moments flies. (129)


Mancinelli addresses similar morphing of and transitioning between perspectives as features of her books’ composition and structuring: “I try to create a space where meaning can emerge by taking form in a sequence of texts and by transmigrating into subsequent sequences. This meaning is a fragmented trail that runs through the whole book beyond changes in space-time and in the subject who speaks.”[iii] In this poem’s microcosm, the trees’ own experience of partial death, recalling the earlier speaker’s gangrene, is mirrored in the witnessed, hunted animal, even while referencing the birds, who simply fly on. All of life, here figured as the trees’ “losing / their voices,” nonetheless sings the next season into being.

The images and perspectives in such progressions respond to one another in inter-complicating ways, in some cases directly inspired from dreams or nature, in others perhaps tutored by their associative modes of self-presentation. Another opens, intriguingly, “a finger runs over my back, opening it, / removing the longest thorn” (217). Already we have to balance hints toward both invasiveness and healing, yet in the second image, presented syntactically as a development from this first, we move to what appears a more Promethean torture: “resolved to make the flesh harmless / slips in to pick /the bitter organs” (217). The concluding image seems quite discordant with the second, yet harmonious with the first: “for an instant I turn / to spot the theft / with the features of a child” (217). The commonality among the three images is skin, which appears first as a persona wounded from the outside, then as concealing the interior aspect of consciousness uncomfortably perceiving itself, finally as the self-presentation of new world-facing consciousness, unscarred. Through a movement made possible by associative, dream-like shifts, we explore these metaphorical connections, rehearsing in both form and process how consciousness can often only be healed from where it cannot perceive and only in ways that it finds uncomfortable.

Other image-shifting poems of healing potential move more spatially, as this one moves from the contextual silence inextricably inward towards its source:

here nothing is uttered

teeth are gritted

the neck wrapped

in warm hands obedient

to the duty that draws

a door in the wall. (145)


Aided by the omission of punctuation until the end, this poem also can be read in three images, each two lines: The silent opening defines the palpable tension of a non-specific “here.” The ominous middle lines leave open various possibilities: Is this a tense medical setting – or an execution? The sensation of a life hanging very presently in the balance supersedes the narrative context. The final two lines do not resolve this superposition between life and death, yet they point nonetheless to a resolution of the tension in the image of the “door,” thereby cutting through the “wall” of the enclosure stifling the voices of all in the room. In either case, the door to breath – or death – is also the door out of the poem. “Here,” again, the potentially healing other presents as a perceived danger. The poem, like a dream, tells a truth with multiple potentials, not a biographical future.

As we have seen, this complexity of perception also applies when the healer and the healed are the same person: We aren’t always glad we’ve put ourselves to bed until we awaken. The faith necessary to do so is the beating heart of this book – and its creation story:

every endless night I would sleep

on a blank page. In the morning

a shadow of my weight, some creases

and suddenly it turned: to continue

is this beginning of a new line,

a mouth that passes warmth on

to the air if it could awake

still be saved. (237)


Again, a page turns between sleep and waking. The speaker does not flinch from the reality that inspiration arriving from that blankness cannot survive as itself, only as a “new line,” perhaps one of the initial ones that begins in lower case.

That said, such passing of inspiration, insight, consciousness of inter-complexity to new life in the other is a form of salvation in these poems. Likewise, these ethereal forms of “warmth” are their offerings of grace to the reader – an approach to poetry finely balanced between meditation, prayer, and thought.

Indeed, the “eye” that can perceive and reform the connections between itself, the world, and the reader, functions as a pun and metaphor for the speaker’s own fluid identity and perception:

I’ve written what I wanted to tell you

under my eyelids. Tomorrow

once I open them, you will read.

But just look at me and I won’t have

to carry all this whiteness between my lashes.

Give me your eyes and I will be saved. (189)


Concurrent perception of the diverse lives of nature, dream, and our own constructed world as mutually arising aspects and expressions of one another is cultivated in the quiet practice of allowing such connections their “settling in.” The blank pages of the book, where readers and these poems may breathe into one another, therefore await your eyes when they are prepared to rest into rebirth.

You can find the book here:

Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines.  He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.


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