Category Archives: Dreaming

On Resting

6a00d8341c595453ef010536b12fe0970b-320wiThe frontier between wakefulness and sleep is a demilitarized zone planted with bulbs and landmines. It’s where silly thoughts arise—a casting agency for dreams, methods of organizing sound effects, plans to market masks of people’s younger faces—placed next to all things horrifying. One of three nights, I suffer potential illnesses and accidents followed by unreeling deliberations about how to survive the end of the world.

I either drift into unconsciousness or take a u-turn, embracing gentle senselessness or fighting cold sweats. Sleep has never been easy for me, and sometimes I concentrate on images—one picture leading to another and another—and gingerly celebrate when an arational association suggests utter darkness ahead. When I fail, a shovel swings, and one dire possibility outdoes the last. I dig deeper until I achieve hyper-consciousness, staring up at the still bright sky from a trap I’ve made myself.

Stephen Wright used to joke: “People ask, ‘How did you sleep?’ I answer ‘I made a couple of mistakes’.”

The other night, I started thinking about my son’s spring break road trip and tried to settle all my questions about medical care in faraway states and the various ways to reach him quickly if he needed us. I finally fell asleep when I considered how difficult it might be to travel with penguins.

There is, in all this wavering between worry and fantasy, a larger observation about how we humans operate. The mind has its own agenda and carries us directions we don’t control. Were I an inventor or one of those exceptionally creative types who turn accidents into opportunities, were I sure each random thought offered limitless potential, I might be glad, but mostly I want rest, relief from ambition and aspiration and promise.

A rear-guard reaction comes with every hope—“This will work if…” or “What we need to pay attention to is…” I wish I might put everything aside and live. It’s an unpopular perspective to offer in a society obsessed with what wonderfulness awaits us, but I’m not sure what our “progress” has wrought. Have you ever considered humanity without a fixation on the future? What dreams do plants or other animals have? What rest—offered to every other organism—eludes us? Are we superior or tragic, endowed by our creator with special powers or damned by our minds and our pride in our intelligence and get-up-and-go?

These questions may revisit me tonight. If they do, my only real defense will be slipping past them and into random, spontaneous, and unplanned whimsy. Another moment may bring something new, and, if it’s a splash of the surreal, something visited upon me rather than constructed with my all-powerful, all-anxious human brain, perhaps I’ll delight in it. Perhaps I’ll be. Perhaps I’ll rest, assured a place after all, a role in the world that isn’t running it.

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Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Hope, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Worry

Poetry? Oh Noetry.

bad-poetry-oh-noetryHere are some answers (in rough order) I give students who say poems are too complicated to understand:

Don’t worry about that right now, just read the damn poem.

My wife and I went to our first parent-teacher conference when my son was in pre-kindergarten. His teacher spilled the usual preliminaries: our son was bright, enthusiastic about playing with others and happy about learning, curious, yadda, yadda, yadda. As a teacher I awaited the other shoe. Our son, she said in kind, diplomatic terms, was impatient. He wanted the answer right away and wasn’t willing to struggle if he felt she had it and was simply withholding it. He needed to learn to tolerate searching for solutions. I’m not sure much has changed for my son, but he’s hardly alone. Most people loathe the feeling everyone except you already knows the answer. When we asked our son’s pre-K teacher what we should do, she said, “Give him more practice.” Sometimes I tell students that’s all they’re doing, practicing.

What is understanding a poem anyway? Maybe you do understand it and don’t know it yet.

We understand so many things we can’t explain. We know how a piece of music makes us feel and can express how a photograph in a newspaper or a painting in a gallery affects us. T. S. Eliot said that most people apprehend poetry before comprehending it. The music in the words, the quality of the imagery, the very rhythm and thing-ness of the thing speaks what it’s about. We can go back and locate the source of our feelings… or not. Sometimes, when you really admire a machine, you want to discover how it works and take it apart. Sometimes, when you love a game, you love the specific rules and traditions that make it. Sometimes, you appreciate a work of art so much you want to study it, crawl inside it , copy it, and somehow top it. Sometimes, art is so beautiful you want to leave it alone. Fine.

So you’re going somewhere strange. Let it be strange. Try to enjoy it.

The beauty of a story is its connection to our world, the sense that it might happen to someone we know or, at least, in the story’s context, might make sense. A poem is different. It’s more like a dream than a movie—the usual rules of logic are in abeyance—and just as you calmly accept the absurd in a dream, you should accept whatever the poem offers. Part of the fun is the craziness of it. Real life is real and sometimes boring. Leaving what’s real can make it vivid again. We see that everything we accept as true is only a version of truth and that other possibilities, out there floating in poems, enrich what we perceive in “reality.”

A poem isn’t always as complicated as you make it.

“Mr. Marshall,” a student once said to me, “I think ‘The Mending Wall’ may be about World War II.” I didn’t want to mention that the poem was published in 1914 and likely composed years earlier. I didn’t want to shoot down my student’s enthusiasm that he’d arrived at such a discovery. My students are conditioned to believe poems are difficult, and we’ve all been infected by modernists who’ve convinced us complexity is the highest aesthetic value and that, with poetry, complicated is better. Even the simplest poem must be about something more. And when my classes encounter a gentle little poem like William Carlos Williams’ “This I Just To Say” (a poem about Williams eating plums his wife was saving) they want to endow it (and, indirectly, themselves) with Great and Glorious Meaning. Sometimes the hardest lesson is that poetry says exactly what it means. And what it means may be complicated enough without our piling on.

Besides, have you ever written poetry? What if it is complicated?

Writing poetry, you feel a compulsion to achieve elevated speech. You want to define the indefinable and represent that which cannot be named. It isn’t easy, this pressure you feel that this statement, this time, must be right, must be perfect. You might revise and revise and revise until you find love for every word. You might enter the poem so fully you’re lost in rooms you’ve fashioned. And you might lose readers because, try as you might and try as they might, no one ever quite got there, just did the best they could to apprehend subtle feelings that, really, can’t be penned by language or expressed rationally.

People don’t write poetry—or write fiction, or make music or movies, or dance, or paint or do just about anything else creative—because they have answers. They do it because they have questions and obsessions they can never quite settle.

Why do we seek solutions the authors couldn’t locate themselves? Shouldn’t it be enough to know something about their questions, to understand what bothers them and what, if we can be empathetic enough, might bother us too?

If life were clear and sensible, poetry might be too. But as long as life is confusing and neither this nor that but something indefinable between, poetry needs to be too.

Maybe reading poetry requires acceptance. Maybe, in the end, that’s all it takes.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Dreaming, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Poetry, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

Missing

broken+mirror+chaos+deities+deathHe cleaned the mirror, removed the gray, but he knew it’d do no good. His reflection disappeared. He looked down at his hands and arms, torso and legs, and saw he was there. Yet no eyes stared back, no clothes, no shape where his body should be.

It was embarrassing, inconvenient. He didn’t want to visit public restrooms when others might be there, and he rose earlier to wash before his wife. He made excuses to avoid the gym. Confirmation would be devastating.

He tried to state his problem, in oblique ways. “Can you see yourself clearly?” he asked, “Do you think you can know yourself?” Yet—try as he might—he crept no closer to confessing. Bigger than the challenge of shaving a missing face was what his absent reflection meant. Alone, he put his face close to the mirror, pressed his forehead to its cool glass, and saw the room behind him. He waited for someone else to see he was gone.

And every day he wished he might glance at some surface without forethought and discover he stood there. He examined photographs and lingered on his face beaming from group and action shots. He’d never wasted a moment revisiting the past, but now he wanted reassurance. He thought of sketching what he remembered of his face on a mirror, hoping the artificial image might lure the real thing back.

But he felt fine—whatever psychological loss he’d experienced wasn’t physical—and, if his attempts at magic failed, a solution would be that much further away. “No person really knows what he of she looks like” he told himself, “No one sees himself as others do.” He tried to believe he understood more because he understood that. Perhaps he was blessed.

Then, one day, waiting in line in the lobby of a hotel, his wife pointed to a reflective brass plate a few yards away. “Your shirt’s buttoned wrong,” and, looking down, he discovered she was right.  His mind spun, the vague nausea of his initial discovery returning. None of the perceived world was suspect to anyone else. Only his place—and really only his knowing his place—was missing.

“Thank you,” he said, but he didn’t mean it. Like a dead patch on his retina, black borders spread like an irresistible stain.

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Filed under Allegory, Blogging, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Identity, Metaphor, Parables, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Voice, Worry

Waking in Sleep

Zhzi5Sometimes—when I’m really tired—falling asleep reading or watching a movie doesn’t stop the story. My dreaming brain carries the plot forward and Macbeth meets a cousin who takes him to a loud but terribly run-down amusement park or Sully of Monsters Inc. repairs to a laboratory to work out the exact laughter-to-energy ratio to assure the imminent Holiday promotion will still make money. Any story can become Groundhog Day, as the last page or minute of consciousness walks into walls, backs up, and walks into them again.

Recently, reading a science fiction novel before bed, I dreamt its main character escaped his troubles by taking a rocket to the international space station and staying there, circling and circling in floating bliss. He wasn’t alone. A cranky Russian occasionally appeared with hectoring messages, but my new astronaut generally resisted any demand on his time or attention. He might have stayed there until morning, but he was due to check into a swanky hotel in an unspecified location. And then I was standing in its lobby, awed by the lush purples, blues, and reds of it complicated carpet, the golden glow of its fin de siècle fixtures. After the bright sterile white and brushed steel of the space station, all the colors and candlelit patches seemed wet. Somewhere in there—I couldn’t say when—the character became me.

Dreams are more transparent to others than they are to you, which is why telling them presents dangers. English teachers especially excel at picking out prominent symbols and translating them. When one student says to another, “You were in my dream last night!” I want to stop them there. That key he tried to get into a lock isn’t a key, and that lock gives me good reason to start class right then. And you don’t have to be an English teacher to read dreams.

Other people must comprehend my dreams as readily. But don’t bother. I think I understand. In fact, I’d love to reverse the process and speak in dream, to transform the vocabulary of daily life into a-logical analogues. Maybe that’s what fiction is, dreams cleaned up enough to fit in this world.

I fell asleep last night during Moonlight Kingdom and found myself in a world where everything lurked. Every person watched, and every statement paused on the brink of revelation. No one said exactly what he or she meant, but their expressions said they meant something. And it all seemed so yellow, as if dawn had never quite dawned and, like some Swedish summer, might never reach dark. I felt unfulfilled because I didn’t have glasses and everyone else did. Though I could see fine, I searched relentlessly as others talked about mysterious departures coming up soon. I was going to miss something. Yet, looking for my glasses, my vision became too foggy to pick them out of the crowded surfaces I scanned. I was in a Wes Anderson I Spy book and wanted out… or in… I’m not sure which.

My wife tapped my shoulder to say I should go to bed, and I did. But, just as consciousness infects dreams, the reverse occurs as well. In those groggy moments, life and fiction commingle and it all seems invented instead of perceived. I wonder what might happen if I dropped off during Awakenings, the Robin Williams film about the doctor who revives patients who have lived in stupors for years. Would I dream I was fully aware at last, face to face with pure reality?

Probably not. Chuang Tzu says Chang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly and flew around in utter joy from blossom to blossom not knowing he was Chuang Chou. And then he woke up. He knew he was Chuang Chou then, but he didn’t know if the butterfly dreamt Chuang Chou or the other way around. Clearly, some distinction separated the two states, but he couldn’t say which was true.

Where am I translating and where am I reading reality’s hard surfaces? It might be better not to think about it. Perhaps our dreams aren’t telling us something. Perhaps they are something. Perhaps our interpretations are the dreams.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Fiction, Groundhog Day, Identity, life, Meditations, Metaphor, Reading, Thoughts, Worry

My Sentences

Some teachers say the sentence is the building block of all writing and believe that, if you can help students learn to form all the varieties of effective sentences, you can teach them how to write. The rest of composition, they say, builds from those variously shaped but geometric blocks.

I’m not sure I agree—you need something you care to write about—but I like creating sentences.

Recently, I’ve been reading Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, a long prose poem comprised of tenuously connected sentences. Broken into unnumbered units, each poem contains clues to the life at its center, but no entry ever compromises the whole’s collective mystery. I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what the book is about, but it’s beautiful, as mercurial and tidal as thought. And it’s inspiring. I’ve found myself composing sentences without thinking about what lies beyond their shady edges. They have no next.

Because I’m busy, I’m offering 15 of the sentences from this week. They aren’t stories or poems or little essays, and maybe they are only valuable to me. But they’re all I have this Saturday…

1. Before dawn, I saw something else in the bush, as if its berries were bulbs about to come on.

2. If I gaze at maps long enough, I see them as places themselves.

3. She awoke from her early evening nap saying she’d had a slew of dreams, but I thought she said “stew” and almost smelled its aroma leaving through open windows.

4. At the moment of the accident, I felt the physical intrusion of another reality—just after, I considered all the paths leading in other directions.

5. Some affection grows so thick it becomes impossible to see or breathe.

6. Every time I saw him, something replaced an event we’d shared, as if the past were a body renewed fresh cell by fresh cell.

7. The way my father painted shadows they carried colors that, up to the last moment, looked impossible.

8. Now, when I hope to sleep, I find myself begging madness to govern my thoughts, but it stands outside, stubborn.

9. Cinematographers have a way of filming the moon and sun to make them loom, and sometimes I imagine them on opposite horizons, each staring at each.

10. What if the world periodically fell into time-lapse, everything suddenly slipping into its future unchecked?

11. Most flowers look like props to me.

12. You wonder which history will tell what just happened, so you speak your version out loud knowing your hope will be obvious.

13. The strangest music is an argument in another language.

14. Under a streetlamp, enjoying the day’s last breezes, I watched shadows of leaves teeming like gray moths.

15. My mind returns to memories of itself drawing, forming shapes or filling them in or covering them up to make room for another layer of new images.

See you Wednesday…

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Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Doubt, Dreaming, Education, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Lyn Hejinian, Memory, Poetry, Prose Poems, Recollection, Thoughts, Tributes, Writing

20 Thoughts on Metaphors

Metaphor:  two seemingly unlike things compared to one another. Unlike simile, you don’t use “like” or “as” in the comparison. Example: Life is a tale told by an idiot

1.

I never liked the definition of metaphor describing it as “A comparison not using ‘like’ or ‘as.’”  It isn’t just that it’s insulting to metaphors and similes to define them using the other’s terms. It also misses a metaphor’s stature. The “like” or “as” that reveals the comparison also mediates between the thing and the thing it’s being compared to. Nothing intervenes in a metaphor just as nothing intervenes in a kiss.

2.

Some definitions of metaphors describe them as “a comparison of unlike things.” I understand that if they are too alike you have no reason to compare them. They are one. But if they are unlike, where is the basis for comparison at all? A metaphor needs to be a new species of worm that wriggles from the soil where you stand.

3.

What if parents recalled first metaphors as they recall first words?

4.

In third grade, I started my report on zebras with the exact words of the World Book Encyclopedia. The World Book must have been clever, because Mrs. Stone read my opening to the rest of the class. It called them a flashy cousin to the horse. Mrs. Stone might have wanted to shame me for stealing, but I was happy about the theft. I had cousins. Zebras were my teenaged cousin Billy, who was much flashier than myself.

5.

Metaphors, according to I. A. Richards, have tenors and vehicles. The tenor is the original. The vehicle is the likeness. In “life’s but a walking shadow,” “life” is the tenor. The “walking shadow” is the vehicle. In every metaphor, the vehicle is boss. Even when the vehicle is a shadow, it controls the pairing because the vehicle is new and interesting and subjugates the tenor to its terms. Sometimes the vehicle has no driver at all, as when you say you “grasp the concept” or “catch my drift.” You see only the invention.

6.

I sometimes think I live in a metaphor, making every hard and harsh object I observe into one I can hold.

7.

Wallace Stevens said, “Metaphor creates a new reality from which the original appears to be unreal.” I take this to mean metaphor replaces reality— the explanation overturns what it explains, the described becomes the description, the likeness is the subject. The act of rendering anything as anything else incinerates reality.

8.

Metaphors don’t have to resort to language. In visual art, a thing can stand in for another thing. A tree can be hand-like, and a face can also be a landscape. Any thing looking like a thing looks metaphoric after a time… until the world becomes one knotted likeness and no one knows what fundamental and incomparable thing began it all. If it had a beginning.

9.

The Epic of Gilgamesh describes sleep as mist, the first recorded use of metaphor. Gilgamesh is to withstand sleep seven days and six nights, but while Gilgamesh is resting on his haunches, sleep comes upon him… mist comes upon him. Sleep or dreaming is mist, and Gilgamesh can’t resist. The compulsion comes upon him, and mist, as natural and inseparable and unalterable as nature itself, comes upon him. He sleeps and dreams metaphor.

10.

If dreams are metaphors, they’re metaphors you inhabit. If, in a dream, you move from room to room into strange chambers of buildings that look much larger from the outside and then find yourself going into even more impossibly situated rooms as small as the first claustrophobic box of a nautilus, that probably means something. The trouble is knowing what. Something is being compared, but is it the something compared to that room or is the room waiting for something to be compared to?

11.

“No one, ever,” Gustav Flaubert said, “can give the exact measurements of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sufferings, and the human world is a cracked cauldron on which we beat out melodies for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity.”

12.

Suppose you challenged each person in a class to devise an anti-metaphor, a comparison with no basis at all. Someone would surely justify each comparison. Someone would find it true.

13.

Once I tried to write a story where everything was itself and something else. The idea never worked. Soon nothing was but what it was not and, soon after that, only abstraction survived. Events and characters sat outside the narrative, lost in thoughts as solid as stone.

14.

Metaphors are synapses.

15.

Synesthesia supposes senses have more dimensions than most of us can perceive. Coffee makes a sound, and the L passing overhead fills the air with color unknown before now. Are these moments the realization of alternatives or the discovery that this world, the one we think we know, is really only a representation?

16.

It’s occurred to me that metaphor is not comparison at all. It’s understanding one thing as if it truly were another.

17.

Wallace Stevens believed there was no such thing as a metaphor for a metaphor. “One does not progress through metaphors,” he said, “reality is the indispensible element of each metaphor.”

18.

When the world slips, one image overlaps another. Superimposition gives one image another—the body, the blood, everything. Each is each or unto each until time ends, and, once we cross, nothing can uncross again. So we have pretense then. We believe likening and unlikening is in us.

19.

I could not count the number of metaphors I’ve made. No one could. The best metaphors—whatever definition of “best” that implies—live long after. They are handles to move the world and windows cut into air.

20.

To see one thing as another, to make them one thing—maybe metaphor is the visitation of an odd god, one who can speak no other way.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Metaphor, Poetry, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Wallace Stevens

Nocturne

I’ve been noticing my dreams lately and wondering if that is a good sign. Most nights—even on the restless nights—I remember nothing. Whatever internal untangling takes place in my sleep goes on unimpeded, and I’m reconciled in ways I didn’t know I needed reconciling. But not lately.

The other night I had a dream about needing gifts for someone—can’t remember whom—and, finding a bunch of those colorful South American frogs hopping down the front steps of a museum, I gathered some for my pockets and then, when I ran out of room, put some in my mouth.

Wait, don’t indigenous peoples use their secretions for poison arrows?

The dream goes on, but I can’t. Other people’s dreams are either dull or disturbingly transparent. I look for trouble signs in my own dreams and sometimes seek second opinions, but really I hope daylight and reason will wash out any worrisome details.

I dreamed that I ran for Governor of Texas against a woman with a beehive hairdo and bumble-bee dress, and counties flashed black and yellow on a map as they fell to her campaign.

Most dreams only merit one sentence. Any more and I begin to fear. I don’t want too much of my life to be conscious. Which is to say, too much of my life seems conscious already. Which is to say, life seems hard. I don’t mind being less aware of that.

Enough instant trouble appears in my life—shit hitting the fan—that I’m grateful when my unconscious says, “I’ll handle this.” Do I need to see my unconscious trying to get more shit through the fan?

I dreamed that I drove down the street without my hands on the wheel, bumping between the parked cars on either side of the road, relying on them to channel me home.

Dreams are reassuring when you put on an imaginary lab coat and regard them as phenomena. You appreciate your nascent imagination working hard even after the day is done. Or celebrate them as relief from reality. Or other people do.

In another dream, my father wanted me to go to the courthouse to search for something depicting the underside of our house’s foundation, but I couldn’t figure out how to describe my desire.

That says something.

In most matters I love the examined life. I object, on principle, to blissful ignorance. However, here is the exception to feed the rule. Good sleep is like a smooth zipper, gathering teeth as reliably as a train gathers railroad ties. It brings the two sides of everything into one whole.

I’d rather not see the sandman working the zipper back and forth trying to free extra fabric caught in the middle.

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The Muse As Dreamer

All of this is a continuation of the lie, but if I am consistent in it, approximates the truth in its effect.

Franz Kafka, diary entry, May 11, 1916


Here’s a dream from high school: knowing beyond doubt my strategy for running cross country races was all wrong, I hit upon a new plan—drop to my belly just as Coach fired the gun and scramble on all fours, alligator fashion, through the three point one mile race. And bang, it worked. I was instantly 500 meters in the lead, feeling remarkably smug and saurian. I’d never felt such exhilaration before.

Then doubt crept in. The pack gradually—agonizingly—caught up to me and, when I finally abandoned my hope and stood to run like a human, I found myself in my own race, no other competitors about, striding through a labyrinthine hotel remarkably similar to the Chateau Frontenac in Old Quebec. I stopped to study the carpet. The shade of red wasn’t right.

Needless to say, I never finished.

The particulars of that dream amused athletes I used to coach—it could be they just enjoyed my imitation of a running alligator—but I could never express how unfunny and compelling that dream originally was. When we tell dreams we recall the absurd and comic detail and forget that, at the time, the dream’s logic, doubts, and certainties were absolute. The stuff of dreams often moves us to retell them, but we can’t communicate their absurdity entirely.

When my wife tells her dreams, she sometimes “cleans-up” plot lines to put odd details in clearer contexts, but, to me, the true part of the dream is its bizarre form. I always ask for the dream exactly as it happened.

Early surrealists, led by André Breton in his Manifesto in 1924, tried to reproduce dream structure in poetry. They valued automatism (automatic writing) as a sort of dictation from the subconscious. “If thought is liberated from the dictates of reason and from moral and aesthetic strictures,” Breton wrote, “it may achieve a form of expression beyond the domains of hitherto recognized artistic expression.”

At the time his advice probably sounded dramatic, but it’s become familiar. Even homespun poets like William Stafford warned, “Intention endangers creation” and, “any time we adopt a stance that induces an analytical feeling, we may be subverting what art depends on.” Intentionally avoiding intention seems an impossible contradiction, but, every once in a while, even in a sonnet or haiku, the dream happens.

In Writing the American Crawl, Stafford said poetry is like a car trying to start on ice, where the ice is the interface between writer and reader. He said a writer can only gain “traction” by using “statements that do not demand much belief, easy claims, even undeniable progressions without need of authority. No solicitation of the reader’s faith.” Poems balance surprise and familiarity—Emily Dickinson called it “amazing sense”—with structure as well as imagery. Ordinary imagery can be quite surreal.

How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? …Two, one to hold the giraffe and the other to fill the bathtub with brightly colored bicycles. So goes the joke, but surrealism doesn’t live at the opposite extreme from Stafford, groping for something pointedly alien, intentionally outlandish. The structure as well as the contents create dreams.

Beyond that brilliant oft-quoted first line of “The Metamorphosis” (“When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”), it’s a fairly ordered tale. Its success rests with its structure as much as with that dramatic first choice.

Kafka wrote in his diary in 1921 that “All is imaginary—family, office, friends, the street, all imaginary, far away or close at hand,” and to me he writes best when he believes it. In his diary, reality is infinitely pliable. He says, “the truth that lies closest . . . is only this, that you are beating your head against the wall of a windowless and doorless cell.”

Mighty depressing. However, the broader sense of this statement, the feeling of inescapability, seems essential to art. Things are as they are because they have to be. Intentionally trying to invent that necessity pits your fabrication against the subconscious. Dreams suggest you’ll lose.

Once I dreamed the packages strewn about a room contained all the important statements of historical figures. No one else noticed them, but I spent the whole dream desperate to protect them and preserve what they held. But they had no bows or ribbons and weren’t easy to stack up in my arms. No one else seemed to care. They were invisible to everyone else. If I were awake, I would have asked, “Then are they real?” In the dream, nothing was weird about their existence. The only criterion for reality was belief.

“Whatever care the mind takes to isolate itself,” Marcel Raymond says in Baudelaire to Surrealism, “it cannot help being fed by elements originating in the external world.” In writing about the mind, we have no means of expression but words of this world and, hence, can’t entirely avoid intention. The secret surrealism tells, however, is that a mind ready to accept both the content and structure of the unconscious interferes as little as possible.

If the muse is a dreamer, let’s not wake her to explain herself. Let’s not trouble her by assessing the eccentricity of her night babble. Let her sleep. Record the movement of her closed and ever-shifting eyes.

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The Least Dream

A reprise… fiction for a change…

Genghis Khan felt his least dream promised stratagems, and so he gathered counselors around him each twilight to read the twitching of his eyes beneath their lids. It grew dark quickly and, soon, the counselors slept.

Every night, the youngest of them gave himself to sleep instantly, eager for his own dreams when he might roam over the steppe on a stunted pony, dragging his feet, or he might fly on just one arm, the other hand at his lips to silence his wonder.

One night, he awoke in a dream as he might to day. Walking to the tent flap as if it were real, he pulled it aside and found the camp empty of soldiers. It was afternoon. The day was hot, the land unshadowed, but the wind seemed to have arrived as if over a glacier. Despite the sun, the air raised goose bumps.

Senses usually eluded him in dreams. They were impossible to gather in a single impression, but this camp appeared outside his mind. Each object so clear it vibrated, he walked as in a map where everything shouted a label that became the thing itself—the charred wood of dead fires looked black enough to absorb all light, the sky so blue it became liquid, the yellow grass stiff as swords.

And, for a while, he enjoyed it alone. Up ahead though, he saw someone sitting on a log in the space where tents thinned. The man was smoking a pipe, and, by the tilt of his chin, the young counselor knew him instantly.

He thought of turning and walking away but he’d been seen. The arm of the man beckoned him. The young counselor’s feet broke into a trot beneath him.

“You’ve found me,” the man said.

“Yes, sire.”

“The others have not.”

“Yes, sire.”

“You may sit, boy. I won’t raise my eyes to you.”

Even in a dream, the counselor’s body fell onto one knee, and he averted his eyes.

“You know why you are here.”

“No, sire.”

“Scratch my back.” He shrugged and hunched to move his back beneath the boy’s fingers. His face relaxed. He moaned with pleasure.

“You will listen. When I ask you whether or not to act, you must tell me ‘no.’ To my every question, your answer must be ‘no.’ Do you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“Yes…” he twisted his head to look at the boy and smiled, “you know what I ask and say ‘yes,’ but I hear you say ‘no’ even now,” he waved his hand and frowned, “That’s fine. Good. You may go.”

But the young counselor didn’t move. “How can I go when you told me…”

The answer, a burst of laughter, startled him.

“I knew your father better than you remember. When he brought you to be a soldier, he warned me, ‘Don’t let him have his own mind, or he will never listen,’ but I spared you battles. I didn’t want another man who listened, or only one who listens as my horse listens or as the tree listens for storms.” He chuckled, “You will understand the word means less than nothing. That is why you will say ‘no.’”

He held the young counselor’s eyes again, and said, “Now go. You may go. I must have a quiet pipe…because I can never have a quiet pipe.”

When the young counselor jerked awake he found himself at the Khan’s foot. All around him the other counselors had melted into sleeping forms. They leaned in such different directions that no one wind could have arranged them so. The faint sawing of their breath matched the noise of insects eating outside the tent.

Only one other set of eyes was open.

“Boy, you’re awake. The others have given in. Have you heard anything? Did I speak? Has my spirit shouted?”

“No, sire,” the boy said.

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Filed under Allegory, Dreaming, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, Parables, Words

In a Closet

I have an odd affection for Kafkaesque parables like the one below and write them periodically as a kind of exercise. A simple premise unreels thoughts I hadn’t known I’d been collecting. I don’t post these exercises as often as I write them because I’m afraid they’re odd, not quite story and certainly not essay, less interesting than curious, products of a dreaming irrational brain.

Nonetheless, as I’m busy buying gifts this weekend, I thought I’d offer this piece, particularly as it speaks—at least in part—to the possessive mania of this time of year…

In a closet, she kept a box of possessions no one ever saw. They weren’t embarrassing things—she didn’t have to fear someone finding them someday—but they were private, known only to her. Sometimes, she imagined someone spilling the box’s contents and looking quizzically at her collection. “What’s this?” they would say, and move on to investigate containers filled with more sensible and valuable, less personal, things.

She’d had the box a long time and moved it from place to place. When she was younger, she’d add to and subtract from it, but, as she aged, managing its contents grew impossible. She became lazy about culling, and, as her house morphed into a warehouse of memory, the box stretched its volume. Now she did not have any room to add and didn’t. The limited space made it complete. The hopelessness of rearranging it to find one spare centimeter meant it was finished.

And the box, the closet, and the house were really nesting chambers, each inside the other. She had few visitors to hide the box from, and, anyway, everything inside it sat in her brain along with everything else, part of the catalog every mind makes. Maybe, she thought now, it doesn’t matter where anything is.

She rarely opened the box anymore, but, occasionally when she couldn’t sleep, she’d try to remember exactly what was there, picturing each thing, its dimensions, colors, and how it felt to hold it, along with all its other material aspects. Most of the time, imagining gave her comfort that helped her doze again, but, increasingly, trying to visualize things only set off mourning. The loss of particulars was a bigger emblem of how her life had faded. The next day, she might think about getting the box out and comparing her memory to what she found, but she lost the will to investigate almost as soon as it came upon her.

Someone encountering the box might try to make its contents into something else, the way a photograph is one square of a larger scene the viewer envisions, but she didn’t see it that way. There were no photographs and nothing she considered a memento or keepsake. It was hard for her—as it would be for anyone—to think of those things as only themselves, without associated meanings and implications. They weren’t collected randomly, after all, because the act of collecting supplants randomness. But she believed more than ever that each object connected with nothing grander, and they had no relationship with one another, except that they were all in the same box hidden in the closet.

Invisibility was their only significance. She’d removed them from the world, squirreled them in the darkness. Possession, she considered, might be no more complicated than theft, taking from the general pile so something could no longer be shared or even seen. This box of things, being stored in her closet unopened, was not hers, really. Being nothing actually in the world at all, it was no one’s.

She’d long stopped thinking of life as infinite. She no longer visualized life stretching into the unknown and saw a terminal becoming definite ahead. She would no longer be traveling with all these things, and they would reenter the world without her, without her as their central sense.

If she had time, she thought, when her end was closer, her final act of control could be taking the box down from her closet and, without opening it, wrapping it in brown paper and a cross of string. She could leave it somewhere public, walking away before anyone could mark it as hers.

Then, maybe later, some bomb squad might find it sitting unattended and dispose of it properly.

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Filed under Dreaming, Experiments, Fiction, Kafka, Meditations, Parables, Play, Thoughts, Writing