Neil Gaiman's ode to vampires

Here is Gaiman's one and only piece of writing on vampires. It's an exquisite sestina.

Nandini Ramachandran June 17, 2011 13:00:07 IST
Neil Gaiman's ode to vampires

A few posts ago I talked about Neil Gaiman. Then I talked about vampires. Last night, reading Gaiman’s anthology Smoke & Mirrors, I discovered "Vampire Sestina", the only vampire-literature he’s ever written. Gaiman! Vampires! The universe is clearly insisting I share the poem with you.

A sestina, just to prove I’m a nerd, is probably the toughest verse form out there. The principle is this: the final words of each sentence of the first stanza— dream; night; love; stone; world; blood— have to repeat across the other five stanzas. Further, the order of the repetition is also set.

If you number the words above 1-2-3-4-5-6, then the next stanza must feature them in the order 6-1-5-2-4-3. The third then places them 3-6-4-1-2-5 and so on and so forth. This order is called the ‘retrograde cross’ because it transposes the pattern upon itself over and over. It is the most common pattern found in the sestina, but poets sometimes experiment with the form. There is, further, a double sestina, but we’ll save that for another day.

Neil Gaimans ode to vampires

Vampire Sestina, the only vampire literature that Gaiman has ever written. Sergio Perez/Reuters

If that isn’t hard enough, there’s yet another rule to the sestina! The final stanza is a tercet (an ‘envoi’ if we’re being literary).

It must include all the six words, usually in the following pattern: 2-5/4-3/6-1. The rules for the envoi aren’t as strict as that for the rest of the poem, and Gaiman shifts it about quite a bit. He follows, instead, a 4-2/1-6/3-5 pattern.


This apart, the poem is a flawless sestina, so do savour it.

Vampire Sestina

I wait here at the boundaries of dream,
all shadow-wrapped. The dark air tastes of night,
so cold and crisp, and I wait for my love.
The moon has bleached the colour from her stone.
She'll come, and then we'll stalk this pretty world
alive to darkness and the tang of blood.

It is a lonely game, the quest for blood,
but still, a body's got the right to dream
and I'd not give it up for all the world.
The moon has leeched the darkness from the night.
I stand in shadows, staring at her stone:
Undead, my lover . . . O, undead my love?

I dreamt you while I slept today and love
meant more to me than life -- meant more than blood.
The sunlight sought me, deep beneath my stone,
more dead than any corpse but still a-dream
until I woke as vapour into night
and sunset forced me out into the world.

For many centuries I've walked the world
dispensing something that resembled love --
a stolen kiss, then back into the night
contented by the life and by the blood.
And come the morning I was just a dream,
cold body chilling underneath a stone.

I said I would not hurt you. Am I stone
to leave you prey to time and to the world?
I offered you a truth beyond your dreams
while all you had to offer was your love.
I told you not to worry and that blood
tastes sweeter on the wing and late at night.

Sometimes my lovers rise to walk the night . . .
Sometimes they lie, cold corpse beneath a stone,
and never know the joys of bed and blood,
of walking through the shadows of the world;
instead they rot to maggots. O my love
they whispered you had risen, in my dream.

I've waited by your stone for half the night
but you won't leave your dream to hunt for blood.
Good night, my love. I offered you the world.

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