From earliest childhood, I’ve always loved dreams. Once, my dream-life flowed seamlessly into my waking life--all one experience. With utmost sincerity, I told “true” stories that I later realized could not have been true in the “real” or phenomenal world. In one, my grandmother and I stood in the dark in our nightgowns. Outside the glass doors that opened to the back patio, a pack of wolves gathered in a circle of light from the candle on the dining room table. Only the panes of glass separated us from the wolves, and I knew from experience how easy it is to walk through glass—no harder than stepping through the skin of a lake into the water below. It was not the glass that protected me from the wolves, but the will and strength of my grandmother, who was very wise. She knew how to transform fearsome predators into friendly companions.
Later that same year, a wildfire raged across the dry meadows behind the house, and I watched adults battle the blaze. The wolves gathered around me, flanking me on both sides. Inside the house. I now know that although the fire existed in the phenomenal world, the wolves were part of my dreaming.
I began writing poems and stories when I was ten. They contained elements from both waking and dreaming life. They were often silly, but at ten, I didn’t mind being silly. I wrote about flying purple pigs, kings, queens, princesses and orphans. The princesses and orphans were all me. I created a private mythology, drawing from waking imagination and dream images. In dreams I could fly, and often gave my poetic self magical (dream-like) qualities. Dreams were more exciting and interesting than waking life and creating poetry from dreams was a way to re-enter that excitement.
I didn’t articulate this until I grew up, but even as a child, I trusted the poemness of dreams. Dreams are communicated through image and metaphor, two major tools of poetry. Many dreams are poems begging waiting to be captured. Poems are rarely given to me in words, so recording a poem means translating images and metaphors into language. Appropriate language is crucial. A good dream does not automatically make a good poem. I use the same skills with dream poetry that I use in creating poems from a waking experience. I avoid clichés, choose musical and rhythmic words, pay attention to line breaks, stanza breaks and other poetic devices.
Not all dreams are poems simply waiting to be recorded. Some dreams are too long, too complex, or too disjointed to make a good poem. In such instances, I might make poems from selections of the images and metaphors of dreams.
Many dreams relate directly to waking life. I often make helpful and healing discoveries creating dream poems. Ellen Bass says that the purpose of poetry is to speak truth, not to heal, but speaking truth is often a first step to healing, and dreams always speak a truth about some aspect of inner or outer life.
Because many of my dreams feel mythological, I am writing a series of mythological dreams, weaving personal mythology into classical mythology. Sometimes, dreams come to me that seem to be a “gift” from another culture. For example, I recently dreamed a short dream (my dreams are often long and convoluted) of an old woman emerging at night from a dark low doorway and opening her hand to release tiny stars which dispersed into the night. I got up and wrote the following poem:
How the First Mother Brought Winged Stars
So long did the first mother sleep in the shadows
of her mud hut that the people forgot her. They forgot
she had come from the sky and given birth to the long
line of mothers, the mothers of all the first people.
The people hunted in the fields and forests, fished
in the streams, and sang under the stars until the first
clouds were born of the seas. The first clouds grew
and grew and covered the stars, weeping on and off
for more than two hands of days. The first people
caught the sadness of clouds, and as the clouds wept,
so did the people. Their sadness flooded the first mother’s
dreams. Though the first mother was ancient and shrunken,
she was spry in dreams, and danced in the dream
shadows of her hut into a dream of stars. She dreamed
herself winged. Flew among the stars. Gathered
great flocks of them into the nets of her wings.
In her hut, she rose singing from her dreams. Came
in the darkness of the nadir to the door of her hut. Called
the people from their shelters to gather around her.
Opened her hands, and released flying stars. Shining
and twinkling, they dispersed into the tall grass
and wildflowers. The people gasped, then laughed,
then sang again. Sang and sang. Now her children,
even those who had forgotten her, had stars, dancing
stars they would call fireflies, stars to shine and call
forth song, even on cloudy nights.[i]
While most of my dream poems involve translating images and metaphors into words, some are given to me in words. One night, I dreamed I was watching a scene and at the same time participating in it, and a voice in my dream mind dictated the words of a poem about what I was seeing. When I woke up, I could not remember all the words, but here is a rendering of what I do remember:
City of Palms
The trailer lurches across a blood sky
on great silver wings whenever the baby kicks.
Lonnie sees the future, a series of images:
a city with palms lining miles of shining sand,
beach tables set with silver, men in pastel shirts
and ties, women in flowered skirts that swirl
around their ankles. This baby will know
a world beyond this rusted trailer tumbled
under masses of kudzu, overgrown
with tall grass and weeds. Below, green
scum broken by mossy backs of giant snappers
covers the pond and the slick muddy banks
are littered with frogs and water moccasins.
Lonnie grips the wobbly railing to let the pain pass,
looks down into the rusting barrel of overflowing
beer cans. She heaves herself up the rotting stairs
into the dark oven where she will wait out
the quickening pains and alone, push out Hope,
red, wet and squalling.[ii]
Although I write poetry for my own satisfaction, it is nice to occasionally win an award for my work. I wrote a poem combining my own sleep and waking dreams with the myth of Persephone, who journeyed to the underworld. (My dreams often feel like journeys to the underworld.) This poem won a first place in New Millennium’s semi-annual poetry contest:
In Murky Waters
In spite of Demeter's sudden, unexplained warning to Persephone
at dinner: "never dive into murky waters," already
Persephone's pink toes disappear into the small shadowed pond
she uses as an entry to the underworld. Persephone
plunges deep into clouded waters, swims strong, and surfaces
in another world. It's not the world you would expect,
if you've been spelunking, not only cold dark damp rock,
stalactites and stalagmites, clusters of bats, dangling spiders.
Here, dark things coexist with an improbable profusion of sunshine,
wind-washed dunes, torrid jungles, mountains, waterfalls, swamps.
Anything you could find in the above-worlds exist below.
Persephone couldn't see them at first, saw only the darkness,
the fire-lit throne room, the endless files of dead passing through,
the grey river Styx and the huge grey swamp through which it flows.
Hades had to teach her. She kept opening her eyes to find other eyelids
underneath, like Dante, taking off his masks. Hades, who kept rambling on
about the "veils," peeled away onion layers of Persephone's eyes
until a dim light, a pale yellow green light began to suffuse the endless night.
Layer upon layer he peeled away, until Persephone herself started clawing,
scraping masks of blindness from her eyes. After days and weeks and months
of this, the sun slowly appeared to her under rock and through rock and within rock
and beyond rock. She saw the rock that is sun. "Look at the sun,"
she said to Demeter, one spring evening, pointing down through rock
into her husband's chambers. Demeter thought her daughter
weak from lack of sustenance, from drinking only grenadine for half the year.
Persephone swore she would rewrite her own myth, imagining an ending
entirely different from this, thinking only of escape from Hades and return to earth.
Now, rewriting her myth again, she sees herself as uniquely privileged
among women, beyond victim, beyond survivor, sun among shadows,
golden fish in murky waters, powerful, winged, and shining
queen of the underworld.[iii]
I love writing dream poetry. For me, every poem, like every dream, is an adventure with something to teach me. I recommend it to anyone who remembers their dreams and enjoys poetry.
For Debbie Hutchison and Robert Moss[ii]
For Erin and Sara Stebbins[iii]
New Millennium Writings, Fall/Winter 1997, for Linda Pennisi, Patrick Lawler, and Janine DeBaise