/ 12 May 2024

‘Flayed rams hang above our sleep’ as disasters deprive us of our peace

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Palestinians who left their homes and took refuge in Rafah try to survive under harsh conditions in makeshift tents they set up in the empty land as Israeli attacks continue on Gaza on April 22, 2024. (Photo by Hani Alshaer/Anadolu via Getty Images)

As the tanks enter Rafah many people find that, in the words of the great Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, “A dog cloud chews our sleep.” One can only imagine the impossibility of restorative sleep in Gaza, how the children who survive will confront the nights now and 20 years from now, how their children will inhabit the long dark hours before dawn.

When Shakespeare’s Macbeth kills Duncan, the Scottish king, to seize the throne he hears a voice declaring that “Macbeth does murder sleep” and goes on to give what must be among the most beautiful affirmations of the value of sleep in the English language.

Sleep, that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

We need sleep to heal, to learn, to be creative, to be present in relationships, to work precisely and creatively. Driving tired can be worse than driving drunk. Without enough sleep relationships become brittle, work grey and flat and obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression, cancer, suicide and dementia more likely. 

The leading experts on sleep, including South African psychiatrist Hugh Selsick, recommend a similar set of strategies to recover the nourishment of sleep. Some, such as being in the sun in the morning, exercising during the day, sticking to a strict schedule of sleeping and waking times, avoiding caffeine and alcohol too late in the day, not eating after the evening meal, cutting out sugar and not scrolling a phone in bed are available to everyone. Others assume that one is not in hospital, or prison, that one has a job, that one does not live too far from that job, that stress is not so objectively overwhelming that it cannot be managed, that it is possible to feel safe in the room where one sleeps, that one doesn’t live in a shack under the “high mast lighting” that evokes a concentration camp rather than a neighbourhood and that it is possible to reserve a room for the sole purposes of sleeping and sexual intimacy. Among the recommendations that assume a home with the luxury of a room not used for sleep is that when sleep doesn’t come after 30 minutes it’s best to get up, move to a different room, and do something relaxing until one feels like sleeping.

Everyone will agree that checking Al Jazeera on the phone will not be a wise way to pass this time, that rooibos will be better than coffee and that Leonard Cohen or the new Abdullah Ibrahim album on low volume is a better idea than The Clash or John Coltrane’s Ascension. Reading is often recommended. Novels are a good idea. The measured pace of Orhan Pamuk or Toni Morrison seems like a better call than the more frenetic energy of Roberto Bolaño.

For those with the taste for poetry, choices are abundant and becoming richer as we add voices such as Yomi Sode, Ocean Vuong and Claudia Rankine to the global treasure chest.

If sleep is being stolen by how the world has been ripped apart and some of its people ripped away from others to be excluded from those who count as people, those who are worthy of our grief, then perhaps the worldliness and sense of the beauty of the world of the great communist poets may have something to say.

For Alain Badiou, the French philosopher, the communist idea must have a life apart from the actuality of states and parties describing themselves as communist. This is no evasion. Few would disagree that the idea of democracy — the rule of the people, all the people — should not be reduced to the states and parties describing themselves as democratic. For Badiou the communist idea centres on the recognition “that all belong to the same world as myself”, the axiom that “there is only one world” and the aspiration for “the emancipation of humanity as a whole”. 

He observes that “in the last century, some truly great poets, in almost all languages on Earth, have been communists” and, mentioning Nâzim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, Yannis Ritsos and Mahmoud Darwish among others, argues that:

“There exists an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand ‘communism’ closely in its primary sense: the concern for what is common to all. A tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common; the desire that what ought to be common and accessible to all should not be appropriated by the servants of Capital. The poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the Earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night — that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world.”

The poets that he mentions are all grounded in a radical openness to the universal, an unbordered apprehension of the beauty and power of being. They are also all men, and Badiou, writing in 2014, does not mention that Neruda was a rapist, something that became widely recognised in 2010. Some boundaries matter, and matter absolutely.

Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet and certainly one of the great poets of the second half of the 20th century, is surprisingly absent. In his 1956 letter of resignation from the French Communist Party, in which he was clear that he was renouncing the party rather than the communist idea, Césaire insisted on “a universal enriched by all that is particular”.

The work of Darwish, the great Palestinian poet, and Ritsos is abundant with similar sensibilities expressed in poetic form. Both men knew political suffering, both suffered prison and exile and both found and affirmed beauty from within suffering.

Darwish gave us a brilliantly kaleidoscopic poetry of pomegranates, doves, gazelles, olives, salt, blood, love, lust, Jerusalem, Damascus, Andalusia, trees, butterflies, rivers, coffee, memories, dreams, home, rifles, tanks and mourning. 

In the midst of the siege of Ramallah in 2002 he wrote:

Our coffee cups. And birds. And the green trees

With blue shadows. And the sun leaping from

one wall to another like a gazelle . . .

and the water in clouds with endless shapes

in what is left to us of sky,

and other things of postponed memory

indicate this morning is strong and beautiful,

and that we are eternity’s guests.

Ritsos could simultaneously write that “Flayed rams hang above our sleep”, that “High above the galaxy is fragrant with burnt fat and salt”, declare that “The wound speaks of life” and invoke “The root creeping in the stone”. 

Both men offered profound visions of peace:


When a day gone is not a day lost

but a root that raises the leaves of joy

this is peace


The dreams of a child are peace

Peace is the smell of food in the evening

Words of love under the evening trees are peace

There is a certain kind of directly stated international among some of these poets. Darwish and Ritsos were close. In Like a Mysterious Incident — composed before the knowledge of Neruda’s rape — Darwish writes: 

“In Pablo Neruda’s home, on the Pacific

coast, I remembered Yannis Ritsos

at his house” 

In Neruda’s lavish home he recalls a conversation in Ritsos’s austere home in Athens and a conversation where Ritsos says:

It is the mysterious incident, poetry, 

my friend, is that inexplicable longing 

that makes a thing into a spectre, and 

makes a spectre into a thing. Yet it might also explain 

our need to share public beauty …

For many of these communist poets the pomegranate, a symbol of beauty hidden behind an unremarkable exterior, is a powerful metaphor.


I am the son of what you do in the earth, son of my wounds

that have lit up the pomegranate blossoms in your closed up gardens 


we shall sow seed where they slept and a 

pomegranate bud

shall burst like a baby’s first laughter at the sunlight’s breast 


the pomegranate that fruits one in one year

can fruit one thousand;

and the world is so large

so beautiful 


Christmas arrived, announcing itself first with a tingling of desires, a

thirst for new tendernesses, a burgeoning of vague dreams, then with a
purple rustle of its great joyous wings it had suddenly flown away, and after

that its abrupt fall out over the village making shack life burst like an

overripe pomegranate.

Neruda’s life and Badiou’s masculinism mean there can be no absolute peace with the idea of the international of communist poets. We have to be unsettled, even when we need sleep to come on. But the opening to the universal, the abundant apprehension of beauty in times of suffering and the profound vision of peace in the work of people like Darwish, Ritsos and others does connect us to a humane way of being in the world in times of systemic organised cruelty funded and legitimated by the most powerful forces on the Earth.

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut in the United States.