Tuesday Poem: Two Spells for Sleeping by Michael Donaghy

Eight white stones
in a moonlit garden,
to carry her safe
across the bracken
on a gravel path
like a silvery ribbon
seven eels in the urge of water
a necklace in rhyme
to help her remember
a river to carry her
unheard laughter
to light about her
weary mirror
six candles for a king's daughter
five sighs for a drooping head
a prayer to be whispered
a book to be read
four ghosts to gentle her bed
three owls in the dusk falling
what is that name you hear them calling?
In the soft dark welling,
two tales to be telling,
one spell for sleeping,
one for kissing,
for leaving.

© The Estate of Michael Donaghy 2005
From 'Safest', published by Picador, London 2005

This is the last poem in Michael Donaghy's final collection, published posthumously.  I love its simplicity, the feeling of nursery rhyme or folk tale - the mysterious princess gazing in her 'weary mirror' - the four ghosts that 'gentle her bed' and that nocturnal prognosticator, the owl who cries 'Who?' In some cultures it is the foreteller of death.  In the poem, as in most traditional folk tales there's the sense of a journey about to begin, a leave-taking.  For Michael Donaghy it was the ultimate leave-taking.

Michael died suddenly, from a brain haemorrhage, in 2004 aged 50.  He was Irish-American, brought up in New York, in the Bronx, where he witnessed endemic racism and every-day violence. Even as a young child he was drawn to books, spending time in the library rather than on the streets. He later said,  “I owe everything I know about poetry to the public library system.”  He went to university (which he referred to as his ‘miseducation’) and by the time he was in his early twenties he was the editor of the Chicago Review.  Michael was also a musician and, when he moved to London in 1985, he joined Don Paterson and jazz musician Tim Garland to form the fusion music group ‘Lammas’, which is where I first encountered his work.

I love this collection and feel sad that his enormous talent has been lost, though Michael never lived life in safe mode.


Since I posted this, poet Polly Rowena Atkin has drawn my attention to a poem by a Scottish poet called Alastair Reid (who was a friend of Robert Graves) called 'A Spell for Sleeping'  and it seems to me that Michael Donaghy was very remiss not to acknowledge his sources.  The poem above is an obvious borrowing/reworking, but several of the lines 'Four ghosts to gentle her bed/Three owls in the dusk falling','two tales to be telling/one spell for sleeping', and 'six candles for a king's daughter/five sighs for a drooping head' are identical - lifted in their entirety.   This is the Alastair Reid original:

 A Spell for Sleeping

Sweet william, silverweed, sally-my-handsome.
Dimity darkens the pittering water.
On gloomed lawns wanders a king’s daughter
Curtains are clouding the casement windows.
A moon-glade smurrs the lake with light.
Doves cover the tower with quiet.

Three owls whit-whit in the withies.
Seven fish in a deep pool shimmer.
The princess moves to the spiral stair.

Slowly the sickle moon mounts up.
Frogs hump under moss and mushroom.
The princess climbs to her high hushed room,

Step by step to her shadowed tower.
Water laps the white lake shore.
A ghost opens the princess’ door.

Seven fish in the sway of the water.
Six candles for a king’s daughter.
Five sighs for a drooping head.
Four ghosts to gentle her bed.
Three owls in the dusk falling.
Two tales to be telling.
One spell for sleeping.

Tamarisk, trefoil, tormentil.
Sleep rolls down from the clouded hill.
A princess dreams of a silver pool.

The moonlight spreads, the soft ferns flitter.
Stilled in a shimmering drift of water,
Seven fish dream of a king’s lost daughter.

Copyright the estate of  Alastair Reid, 1926-2014

I reviewed 'Safest' here.  


  1. I used to read this poem to my children when they were little. The anthology it came from got torn and I chucked it out. Regretted never copying it down. Ah, and now thanks to your blog I know who wrote it. You have no idea how long I've been looking for it!!!! Thank you, Kathleen!


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