The Nocturnal Proof

Dreams, the nocturnal proof that all of us are poets in some deep corner of consciousness, were our inspiration this week, and the result was a bumper crop of good things.

Emily Winakur began with a confession: “I’m a psychologist so dreams (dreams of dads, in particular) are my bread and butter. This is my ‘dream assignment,’ David. I wrote the following poem years ago as a rejoinder to a poem by Julie Larios called ‘Please Give Me,’ an abecedarian selected for inclusion in a mid-2000s Best American Poetry—a comically enraged denigration of Freud.”

In Defense of Freud

I’ve dreamed of fucking my father.
The rain stops.
The sun comes and goes.
An action film. Men, weapons.
It wasn’t even symbolic,
his pipe in my mouth,
the beak of his favorite bird in my hand.
The rain starts.
The rain is the emptying of a bag.
It was plain, real fucking.
One man dangles another from a high hotel balcony.
The sun glints on the gun.
I glance away.

A film is a flick.
A dream is a reel of scenes,
one end whipping loose.
A bird beats his wings
through sun and rain,
reading the scars of the earth.
For home, a four-letter word.
My father blows smoke rings,
flicks the ashes.
Two of him—one
flesh, one reflected—
ease into their chairs,
settle in for the night

How well I remembered Julie Larios’s double abecedarius from The Best American Poetry 2006. It delights me always when one poem begets another.

A distinguishing element of these columns is the colloquy among participants—the way one poet can help another with a useful insight. On the basis of his succinct comments I have no hesitation in declaring Michael C. Rush to be the critic of the week. I liked, for example, what Emily Winakur called Michael’s “radical pruning” of Angela Ball’s “True Dreams,” written in homage to Denise Duhamel, from whose poem Angela lifted the “in my Maidenform bra” formula:

I dreamed I declared
my conscience
in my Maidenform bra.

I dreamed my fellow senators
silenced me
in my Maidenform bra.

I dreamed I broke the glass ceiling
and it tore me to maiden

I dreamed my Maidenform bra
a slingshot, and my nipples,

Michael’s view: “Dump the first three stanzas—the final stanza is a perfect poem.” I tend to agree, though other good suggestions—cutting the second stanza, for example, or changing it—were advanced, and I’ve no doubt Angela will revise to the benefit of the poem.

Charise Hoge’s “Verso” has a dream-like disjunctive energy that made me sit up and take notice:

I’ve never heard my name in a dream
no one calls, there’s no phone
my mother visits often
and the airplane takes off but can’t ascend
I’ve heard a dream in my name
it called my mother
to visit—she cried, “I can’t have this baby”
during delivery, but the doctor reassured:
twins, even, would be feasible

Wrote Michael C. Rush: “I almost really like this one. ‘Feasible’ is a fascinating word choice here.” Charise responded astutely that “the ‘almost’ is fascinating as well.” Both “feasible” and “almost” are rare instances of modifiers that are neither superfluous nor predictable.

Stephanie Cohen offered a poem “Based on a True Story”:

Rodney King is in my basement
reaching for a limp cold cut
dipped in pcp—yes the drug—on a silver platter.
I too am there noshing on this nocturnal
delicacy, after having just seen my baby
sister folded up in a monstrous mason jar
pickled in preservative.
Message received.
Steeped in unwarranted derision—
I walked out of both rooms.
Asleep—yes. But human nonetheless.
All the while, Rodney King
had the dream of his life.

Michael C. Rush edited the poem in one stroke: “If this ended after ‘Message received,’ it would be awesome.” I liked the new, shorter version but objected to the title, “Based on a True Story,” which struck me as tired, and Stephanie indicated she was open to alternatives. Candidates came in. From Michael C. Rush: “True Story.” From Paul Michelsen: “Hors d’oeuvres.” From Justin Knapp: “Pickled Sister.”

Michael C. Rush submitted “Lucid Dream #183”:

Distraction eased then erased by a sudden euphoria,
I realized I was dreaming and attended the world.
Vision reassembled, and I was on a dirt road passing
through a scenic rural region, all hills and vista.
Seeing some flyspeck white and yellow flowers
decorating the side of the road, I fell to my knees,
lowered my head to them, and saw that they were perfect.
How did my brain draw them, each unique, and move them
in the breeze, and give them form under my fingers?
I draw like a kindergartner while awake. How, now,
these genius talents asleep? A whole reality, roughed in
but ready to pop, fractally, into clarity, under focus.
So if we know that we are dreaming, must we accept
that no detail we devise to delight us matters?

In response to which Millicent Caliban urged cutting the last two lines on the grounds that “How, now, these genius talents asleep?” should be the climactic question. Clay Sparkman and I agree, and it will be interesting to see what Michael decides to do.

Ricky Ray expressed doubt about his poem “The Sense Makes,” worrying that it might “read as total disjunctive babble.” I can assure him that it doesn’t and that Angela Ball is not alone in admiring “the senses so flammable”:

In which the monster emerged sludgehearted and fond of hares.
And triplets were born of a wish that blew itself apart. Candles
ignored the wind. Her face, thirty years on ice, the one
my waking mind can’t find in the crowd. Water in the streets
so high you could swim. I was a woman. I was a wolf.
I could hear hunger as a longing for death without the intermediary
of the body. A song, and the toes were millennial scrollwork
along dark’s invisible score. What comes now, under the skin,
the senses so flammable they ignite at the slightest …
a house loses its dreamer, an owl dives, blood forgets
the curses it cast like crows over the moors.

Emily Winakur believes—and I concur—that Diana Ferraro’s poem deserves a better title than “Rehearsed Nightmare on a Hearse”:

I dream of bricks. Broken walls of dwellings
where I’ll never live, open labyrinths
leading nowhere but to a question,
where, and its handcuffed partner,
when. Then, there are the dirt roads,
and the pebble roads which drag me
into a nonstop walk to the next wooden
palisade while I was looking for marble
and bronze. I used to dream of men,
a hunk of a man, the incredible hulk,
the hull of a boat, the pull of the sea,
motherly dreams with water, the shore,
a bull on a plain, the green, the golf, and
again, the orange pebbles of a tennis court.

I would make the same observation about Courtney Thrash’s dashing “Lover’s Nightmare.”

Traces of pity lace bone-dry eyes
looking on me—prone, pleading—
beyond the shame we should be feeling—
defector, beggar, traitor, tramp
I watch you turn and walk—calm,
headstrong—into another woman’s arms
No slinking, sly weeping for your sins;
remorse—however insincere—might
lubricate a bitter pill, but I cannot swallow
I bore your child—our child—
that was supposed to be my curse;
I have never known a pain this impossible to bear
Awake, my fingertips reach out in faith,
find your body—broad and blissful.

The example of John Berryman to the contrary notwithstanding, the words “dreams” and “nightmares” are not words you want in your title.

“Next Line, Please” players turned out “house dreams,” “divorce dreams,” dreams based on Alice in Wonderland, an acrostic, a haibun, a cento composed of lines culled from John Ashbery, Kat Leonard-Peck’s use of “word-ladders” in a remarkable hymn to mycology and mushrooms, and a well-crafted stanza of ottava rima, the stanza of Lord Byron’s Don Juan, by the poet and author James McManus, who has made a mark as a championship poker-player. While Jim’s satirical prowess wins my praise, this column has steered clear of the political and topical because there is plenty of that to be found on the web and because politics dominates any discourse.

My thanks to all.


For next week, pick the short poem you like the most—and the short poem you like the least—in this year’s Best American Poetry or in the anthology of your choice. Then write a poem better than the best poem, or worse than the worst poem. For the sake of these tired eyes, please keep your entry to 14 lines or less—but do feel free to enter as often as you’d like.

Deadline: Saturday evening, October 9, midnight any time zone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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