Running Blind

I am a dreamer. I dream all the time (both while awake, so it seems, and asleep). My sleep dreams are vivid, in color, and I have observed a couple of things about dreaming that I haven’t scientifically proven but believe are true. The first is that the fewer creative outlets I have while awake the more I dream.  The second is I have more dreams when I sleep on the left side of my head as opposed to the right side.

Here is a dream-like photograph I took of a window in my house. I took it while I was supposed to be writing. You can click on it to see it better.

Books by the Window

Sometimes I wake myself up from laughing really hard in a dream.  These dreams are rarely funny when you tell them to someone, but one I think is funny to hear is one that my daughter had. One night she sat up in her sleep at 3:00 a.m. and said to her sister, “Want to know another funny thing about a hot dog?” Then, after asking, “Am I making sense?” she lay back down and resumed sleeping in silence.

I pay attention to my dreams and journal them and interpret them and look up the symbolism of certain things: colors, places, animals, that sort of thing. I have many recurring dreams that usually have to do with not being in control: being in cars or other modes of transportation with no one in the driver’s seat, flying without the aid of anything, or sometimes inside a contraption like an elevator as Charlie in the Great Glass Elevator or in a ship that’s left the water and that I now have to quickly learn to steer high above the ocean. I also have recurring dreams that involve the houses of my childhood – I moved 11 times by the time I was 14. Perhaps that’s why I have to be dragged out if my husband wants to see a movie. I usually just want to stay home and dream. You will see a couple of other recurring themes in today’s poem.

POEM:
Running Blind

Last night I dreamed first in words,
great passages that flashed before me,
too far away to read, but how I strained
to size up, take in those paragraphs,

floating by and blurry
with thick black letters all in CAPS
that began each section, not unlike
some movies we all have seen,

but with messages more urgent,
more important. They broke
apart and floated into space
beyond my grasp. Later, as before

in dreams, I was completely
blind, unable to open my eyes
at all although I was fast awake
in my dream, and tried prying

my eyelids open with markless
fingertips. Even with my eyelids
sealed, I insisted in walking around
carrying my computer and books,

evidence I had once seen. Somehow
I knew the desert stretched far ahead
of me, empty except a finish line
in the distance. I’d just learned

how to run forward in my dreams
and took off, sprinting, not needing
to worry about obstacles. The world
was too barren to provide any.

And now from high above I watched
my sister watching me far ahead of her
in desert dust, a change, progress even,
from previous dreams of running

into the wind, eyes open, but barely able
to swim through air. In those oppressive
traps, I’d turn around, not missing
a step, run backwards, my neck

twisted to see behind me,
which is ahead of me,
and run until I have enough
momentum then flip around

facing forward until pushed back
by the wind again. The only way
to get ahead was by going backwards:
I relived the race over and over

on a pink-oval-spongy track,
sometimes with other runners
in lanes on either side of me,
sometimes alone.

This has happened all my life.
Running in the desert was the second
time I ran forward in a dream –
the first time a couple of weeks ago

when I chased around a young man
with a soccer ball. Robert Main –
do you remember him?
Or he became Robert after I awoke.

I never caught him but could block him
running forwards, sideways and in every
direction a person is supposed to run,
including backwards while facing frontwards.

This first time running in the right direction
was not elating, but the relief of reaching
a long-time goal permeated my body
when I awoke. In the desert, I looked

neither left nor right. I looked for no one,
saw nothing. The only thing to do was run.
The only direction, straight ahead.
The only way, blind.

ELEMENT:
“Subconscious Intelligence”

“….We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Shakespeare, The Tempest, IV, I 156-58

Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux have a wonderful book you might be interested in if you are interested in poetry and haven’t read it already: The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. In their chapter, “Stop Making Sense: Dreams and Experiments,” they write, “Centuries before the surrealists or their immediate predecessors, people of all cultures placed a high importance on dreams and visions as a means to spiritual knowledge. Throughout the ages, people have enacted rituals that involved ingesting hallucinogenic plants, fasting, sweating, self-flagellation, and other practices with the aim of contacting levels of awareness unavailable to the everyday self.”

While I’m not in to hallucinogens or whacking myself on the back, I have come to this point, as I would think most people have, through exercise or going the day without eating if I’m busy or focused on a particular project, or by dreaming. In the first two instances, I believe the body goes into over-drive and is able to push the mind further. This was the basis for my poem, “Follow-Up to Breathing,” an early version of which is posted on this blog and that I wrote after a difficult yet enjoyable snowshoe trek in the Rockies. More often though, I try to pay attention to what’s going on in my dreams. We just can’t function in reality like we do in dreams, with the juxtaposition of images, the passing back and forth between past, present, and future, the unexpected visits from people you haven’t thought about in years.

In The Creative Process, Reflections on Inventions in the Arts and Sciences, Morton Prince’s essay, “Subconscious Intelligence Underlying Dreams,” explores writing poetry as being the same process as dreaming, that is “the same process expresses the same ideas in verbal symbolism as a substitution for the hallucinatory symbolism” (359). Immediately writing down what occurs in a dream produces a different effect than thinking about that dream later and committing it to script. Morton Prince calls it “a subconscious intelligence” (361).  Poets want to go there, so much so that at times we do dangerous things to arrive at the destination.

“A subconscious intelligence” is why poems are at times confusing and ungraspable (even to the poet). Poets pull ideas and images from their subconscious intelligence (what some might call “The Muse”) and weave those into the reader’s consciousness through the use of written words. Even though it may be beyond the reader’s ability to totally understand, the experience of exploring someone else’s “subconscious intelligence,” the poem can still be enjoyable. This is what I believe is happening in James Wright’s poems as explained in QB’s blog, “Poet by Poet.” Through rhythm and the sounds of words (both of which involve repetition, and the incantation of repetition is a topic to discuss in another post), through just enough conscious intelligence we can hang on to the poem, believe in it, even enjoy it although we may not understand it.

Which brings me to another point that is found in the book by the Estate of Louis Untermeyer, The Pursuit of Poetry: A Guide to Its Understanding and Appreciation with an Explanation of its Forms and a Dictionary of Poetic Terms. In the chapter, “The Ambiguities of Poetry,” it states, “Associations, private and often chaotic, originate in the welter of the unconscious and attain clarity only after they have been directed by the conscious mind. Coleridge described the process as ‘the streamy nature of association which thinking curbs and rudders.’” The text goes on to give the opening lines of Tennyson’s poem, “Tithonus” and explains “the reader, wooed by the lovely sounds, accepts the assemblage of unrelated details. He forgets, as Tennyson probably forgot, that the poet is portraying the king of Troy’s brother who was turned into a grasshopper…It is the unreasonable combination of music and imagery which, in its very vagueness, enchants him.” And us.

As a poet, I want to be understood, sure, yet I also want to be mysterious and wallow in that realm that almost makes sense. I don’t want to be understood when only the rules of consciousness apply.

Leaf Shadows

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Dream and Imagination in Shakespeare – an article by Jerome Mandel published by Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.

Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime

Four Dream Poems:
The Song in the Dream – by Saskia Hamilton
I Might Have Dreamed This – by Kirsten Dierking
Dream of the Evil Servant – by Reetika Vazirani
Dream Variations – by Langston Hughes

To the right is another dream-like photo I took while hiking the Vermont Long Trail. I like it because the leaves are green on the rock. They are shadows, but there is green moss or lichen on the rock so the shadows appear green.

Violins and Apple Trees

Yesterday I attended a conference sponsored by the League of Vermont Writers. First in the line up was a presentation by Barbara Dozetos on the different channels of social media (facebook, twitter, google plus, tumblr, etc.) and why writers need to pay attention to social media. Lesson learned; I will be on facebook soon. This was followed by a talk by poet J.C. Ellefson, Professor of English and Poet in Residence at Champlain College. After lunch, we had the honor of listening to former governor Madeleine Kunin discuss and compare the lives of politicians and writers. Her third book, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family, is a must read for anyone interested in learning about fair “family leave insurance” in order to care for your newborn, your sick or disabled dependent, or an elderly parent.

It is Ellefson‘s exercise at yesterday’s conference that leads me to today’s poem. That, and this morning’s reading of the first few poems in New American Poets, edited by Jack Myers & Roger Weingarten. The idea was inspired by the former event, the form by the latter.

POEM:
Violins and Apple Trees

So I’m in this workshop and the guy poet,
(there’s always a guy poet leading
a group of women) he says, “I’m going to
take you to dream land,” and I know
he doesn’t know nothing about my dream
land where the lobsters are black
with shaggy fur and where a goat’s
face turns into a baby’s face and back
to a goat’s face then dies in my arms.
But hey, I’m open to almost anything,
so I close my eyes to go to dream land
at the white table-clothed round table
at the edge of a group of white table-clothed
round tables in the Double Tree Hotel
conference room. Music begins to play.
I open my eyes to peek and the poet guy’s
actually playing the violin, softlike. That’s when
my daughter at age ten pops into my head
and I see her running down the driveway
and climbing the apple tree. I know
she’s slammed the door to the house,
I hear it after she is already in the tree –
the slam juxtaposed with the image of her
cradled in those gnarled branches –
I see her sitting there and I hear her heart slow
to a thumpy tap thumpy tap thumpy tap
right when the music picks up: the guy poet
has turned his violin into a fiddle.
Now, when those who have the need to share
do so at sharing time, they say they went
to Ireland or back to the Civil War
when the music picked up, but I see,
right at this moment when her heart slows
and the bow bounces lighter and quicker
off the strings, I see my 10 year old daughter
look out across the field at something moving.
My eyes dart to the moving figure and back again
to the girl in the apple tree, and I see she’s watching
herself as a grown woman walk across the thigh-high
grass, heading for herself. She, the grown daughter,
is straight shouldered in a soft green flannel shirt,
she is blue-jeaned, and she is walking real easy
but solid-like. I don’t know what happens to the music
at this point, I think it has ended, but for a few more
seconds I watch my 10-year old daughter
get down from the tree, walk back to the house,
and hear her close the door with a little click.

ELEMENT:
Movie-making

The above poem is written with apologies to Jim Ellefson. It is not his fault that he is a guy poet and mostly women attend these Saturday conferences, but that is the nature of the beast at this point, at least in Vermont. The important fact is, Ellefson did take me on a dream journey with his music AND provided the context for the poem, which to me makes the poem multi-dimensional and much more interesting than just conveying the dream itself. After the music exercise, Ellefson discussed how we can take images, dreams, and experiences and transcribe them on paper. He used Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream as a leaping point. In the introduction to this book, Janet Burroway explains that Butler, both actor and lecturer, uses the “Stanislavsky Method” that leads him to teach, “In place of the body, it is the imagination that must be a strong and supple instrument, ready to lead the reader through moment-by-moment sensual experience. And it is in the realm of the unconscious rather than that of technique or intellect that the writer seeks fictional truth” (p. 2).

How does this translate to writing fiction and poetry? In Ellefson’s workshop, he had us first act out skits then transcribe these sensual experiences using dialogue, intonation, gestures, physical appearance, setting, positioning of characters, and timing, to name a few of the elements. When I wrote the first drafts of the poem above, I jotted down the ideas that popped into my head while Ellefson played the violin. Then I tried to work them in a poem. Trying to work something in to a poem is a big mistake. My lines were stiff and too confining. I knew what I was writing was too contrived and pretty crappy (maybe they still are, but they are better than what first appeared, believe me).

Frustrated, I put everything aside and picked up the book, New American Poets, that I just purchased at Ebenezer Books. Whenever I’m stymied by my writing, I read. It always, always, allows the subconscious to take over in regards to my own work. I relax and as I relax I find myself suddenly jotting things down. I always read with a notebook and pen at hand. So it was when I read the first two poems of my new anthology, “Deuce: 12:23 a.m.” by Barbara Anderson (read this poem), and “Man In A Window” by Ralph Angel (read this poem). Even though I had been trying to write today’s poem from the body as Ellefson instructed, it was these two poems that allowed me to do so, that blew open the structure to allow the poem. I backed up and began at the beginning of the poem with the setting that allows the narrator’s voice to come through in the personal dreamscape. I allowed myself to express what I was feeling. With that came, low-and-behold, dialogue, intonation, gestures, physical appearance, setting, positioning of characters and timing. Thank you Ellefson, Butler, Anderson, and Angel.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Demonstration of Creative Process by Robert Olen Butler
Madeleine Kunin
Aboriginal Art and Culture Center– 100% Aboriginal owned and operated
Dreamtime Chart from the site above

 

Skin

Thick-skinned. Thin-skinned. No skin off my back. By the skin of my teeth. He got under my skin.

Tuesday night I had a dream. It was about skin. My skin.

I have thought about skin a lot. And what I think about is the function of it, how you can clean it up time and time again, how it’s waterproof, how it heals itself, and how it’s this tight shell that keeps the rest of me from spilling out all over the place. And how many layers there are. There are so many literal layers to us.

I have also thought about the color of skin, of course, and although that’s not the skin discussion I’m going for right now, I don’t want to ignore the fact that people think about skin color. A lot. When my daughter was four or five and I was giving her a bath, she asked, “Why am I called white when my skin is peach, and why is Yohanna called black when her skin is brown?” She wasn’t asking why we’re different colors, but why we label and categorize people based on those colors. (No wonder she majored in Sociology in college). Bathtub reflections are along the lines of just-drifting-off-to-sleep reflections and children never warn you when the big questions are coming.

Here’s what it says about skin on MedlinePlus, which is a service of the US National Library of Medicine published by the National Institute of Health: “The skin is the largest organ of the body. The skin and its derivatives (hair, nails, sweat and oil glands) make up the integumentary system. One of the main functions of the skin is protection.”

Sometimes, though, our skin protects us a bit too much.

POEM –
Molting

Last night I dreamt I peeled
the skin from my face.
Starting at the hairline, I massaged
my scalp until it curled
under my fingertips, and gingerly
I wrapped my fingers and thumbs
around a thin film –
skin is a delicate matter –
and oh so gently and slowly
I stripped a layer from most
of my forehead. Above my right
eyebrow my skin split,
but I continued pulling
at a diagonal across the bridge
of my nose and left cheek.
I dropped my hands to study
myself in the mirror. None
of my expectations were fulfilled.
No blood. No scars. No revulsion
at the exposure. Instead, new
skin, shiny and tender, lay
next to the wrinkles and leather
of my old face, and my eyes,
both the new one and old one,
stared back at me, freed and focused.

ELEMENT:
Syntax

The website Poetry Archive explains that, “Syntax refers to word order, and the way in which it works with grammatical structures. As we are used to hearing things in certain orders, the effect of breaking with normal syntax is to draw attention to what is being said and the way it is said.”

When the normal order of words (i.e. subject + verb + object) is intentionally changed, an emotional or psychological shift occurs. In poetry (like in other types of writing) syntactic rules can be stretched and bent and broken for reasons such as emotional impact, emphasis, and intentional ambiguity. Additionally, in poetry, how the sentence is broken into lines causes an interplay of sound and meaning, an intentional pace, and an interesting compressed visual composition.

Let’s look at the above poem in terms of its sentences:

  1. Last night I dreamt I peeled the skin from my face.
  2. Starting at the hairline, I massaged my scalp until it curled under my fingertips, and gingerly I wrapped my fingers and thumbs around a thin film – skin is a delicate matter – and oh so gently and slowly I stripped a layer from most of my forehead.
  3. Above my right eyebrow my skin split, but I continued pulling at a diagonal across the bridge of my nose and left cheek.
  4. I dropped my hands to study myself in the mirror.
  5. None of my expectations were fulfilled.
  6. No blood.
  7. No scars.
  8. No revulsion at the exposure.
  9. Instead, new skin, shiny and tender, lay next to the wrinkles and leather of my old face, and my eyes, both the new one and the old one, stared back at me, freed and focused.

There are several things that happen when I lay out my poems in sentences like this. At the most basic level, I clean up some punctuation issues. For example, when copying the poem out in the numbered form above, I omitted three unnecessary commas. Please let me know if there are other grammatical errors like this.

Secondly, I can see more clearly the lengths of my sentences.  I don’t watch for sentence length (or sentence construction, for that matter) while drafting my poems, focusing instead on meaning and sound, but I do pay attention to line length in crafting my poems. In this particular poem, there is a short introductory sentence (is this sentence even needed?), followed by a long compound complex sentence that contains the majority of the action. This sentence, in my opinion, has to be long in order to convey the action as one continuing motion and to draw out that motion over time. This wasn’t a quick stripping of a Band-Aid; it took a long time to reach my nose! The action continues without interruption down to the bridge of the nose where a shift occurs – the skin splits – and therefore a shift to a new sentence complements this. This is followed by two short sentences and three sentence fragments and I consider these to be a transition to the revelation in the poem – that exposure, in this case at least, is a good thing, not gruesome, but liberating.

Thirdly, laying out the poem in sentences allows me to double check the unfolding of the narration.  This is extremely helpful in making sure that details are placed in the “correct” order so that the images are constructed in the readers mind.  Let’s look at the second sentence where most of the action takes place:

Starting at the hairline, I massaged my scalp until it curled under my fingertips, and gingerly I wrapped my fingers and thumbs around a thin film  – skin is a delicate matter – and oh so gently and slowly I stripped a layer from most of my forehead.

Does this fold out the action in a sequence that you can follow? Can you picture massaging your head at the hairline and getting hold of a layer of skin and peeling it like a the layer of adhesive from the back of sticky contact paper? At first I had the words “hairline” and “scalp” switched in the sentence. Writing it out made me realize that that made no sense at all. Starting at the scalp? Your scalp covers your entire head. No, I started at the hairline. What other confusion is there in the sentence? Is the interjection “skin is a delicate matter” a distracting unnecessary commentary, or does it convey something more and connect the physical action with a meaning beyond the literal?  Laying out the sentence like this allows me to double check the image-building of the action.

In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte states, “Cohesion that seems smooth and relaxed is sometimes quite hard to get and is always a matter, partly, of syntactic choices – from the straightforward use of connectors to the most ingenious patternings” (251).

Indeed.

Related Links (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):

Shedding Skin (a poem by Harryette Mullen). Disclaimer: I did not know about this poem until after I wrote mine and searched for other poems about skin!
Body parts idioms
Sin and Syntax