And we came upon them on
the starlit road, by the lake
in a canyon of oaks
The two torsos, twin oaks
sawed off at the waist
A web of nerves
still listening for water
as if the air were rock or shale
Now a jumble of knotted heads
and limbs unearthed, a mass burial
a fountain of nightmare
The Gordian knot’s unfolding
twisting out of rootflame
And we bore silent witness there
in the mind’s forest
to the living shapes that moved within us
We were startled to come across two huge trees in a clearing in the woods which had been sawed off and planted upside down into the earth, with their gigantic networks of roots writhing up about twelve feet into the air. The root shapes looked very strange in the dark woods by flashlight—like tentacles, like snakes, like flames. We stood there in a slow motion kind of shock, a fascination tinged with a bit of fear. The roots suggested all kinds of strange shapes as I describe them in the poem which is a condensed recounting with relevant details—a bearing witness to what we saw and its impact upon us. But it was the “Black” dream ten years earlier which drew my riveted attention to the roots as well as focused and intensified the experience.
Tumulty and The Soul (34-35) is from The Great Before and After, a book in which Tumulty, a kind of comic everyman, tries to understand the origins of himself and of the universe:
Tumulty and the Soul
It appeared to him as a child version of himself,
Whose naked form
Rose silently from Tumulty’s body and
With eyes closed, arms outstretched,
Glided somnambulently down the stairs,
Out the front door,
And into the street,
In which flowed a head-high river
Of shining moonlit water, where
The brown leaves of oaks, yellow of poplar,
The red leaves of maples tossed slowly
In the soundless current.
Tumulty followed, and suddenly dismayed,
Tried desperately to wake the sleeping child.
But the luminous face remained indifferent,
And the naked form stepped on relentlessly,
Out through the tracts of identical suburban housing, vanishing
At last, in a shaft of descending moonlight.
The next morning,
He found the same expression in the mirror,
Nothing missing in the eyes,
But then imagined, maybe it was true,
There was a gulf within him
As if he were suspended
Over a fearful emptiness.
But wasn’t, he considered, the soul
A mere wishful dream?
A vague longing for which the world held no answer? Something
To make sense out of meaningless suffering?
He dreamt he saw his soul’s retreating figure,
Or heard a faint trickling echo
In the caverns of his sleep,
As if a vast underground stream
Far beneath him.
He longed to enter that cold, swift torrent
And rush blindly along in the dark,
It might take him
Maybe somewhere, at the bottom of the rain
Was a pool of perfect stillness
Where the face of the soul reposed
Upon the clear waters
deep into the world.
I was going through a very discouraging time when I had the dream that inspired this poem because I couldn’t publish any of the poems in the series. I felt as if I were losing my dream of being a poet, which was like losing my soul.
The poem recounts the dream scenario as the child apparition rose from my body, walked down the stairs and out of the house into a head high river of water and floating leaves. I followed after him, pleaded for him not to go and tried to wake him, but he wouldn’t wake up and finally drifted out of my reach and away down the river. I understood what the dream was about and projected what might have happened if it kept going. I included the aftermath of the dream as well and its impact on the Tumulty character, which in this case, was very close to the dream’s impact on me.
Freud is right, dreams seem to be kind of compressed and curled up and can be expanded and unspooled so to speak, so I imagined what might be the rest of the dream, trying to be consistent with the beginning. The echoes in the poem are there because it seems to me that sometimes in life, that the imagination echoes eternity, our daily quotidian existence seems to reverberate in some huge space within us.
A Strange Bed (29) is from a manuscript titled, House of Forgotten Names. The poem recounts
the initial dream situation:
A Strange Bed
Like something half imagined,
the guardrail dissolves in fog.
The same vague firs advance and retreat,
their wet trunks smoking.
The road appears, a wavy yellow line,
vanishes behind me.
Only the meditating engine. Then
the fog, the clouds, the road and mountains
like shadows floating on a wall.
In this dream I have repeatedly,
the dream I am having now,
always a neon sign says Motel;
the lobby is arranged with the same heavy chairs, dim lamps.
The man behind the counter, whose face escapes me,
gives me a key,
And the night comes on.
I dream within the dream,
I am a husband bound
to a white house, a tall garden and a wife.
I see the yellow sun, the blue days repeating themselves.
I dream further of a flat plain of ocean
with its one white sail.
But then again, the clouds, the fog,
the shifting road.
How do I know
I am moving?
How do I know there is anywhere to go
when I myself am made of cloud?
and I will set out again
only to wake in a strange bed
years from here.
The ocean is the Pacific; the mountains are a combination of the Rockies and a Western coastal range, as you might find in California. They are very high and snowcapped. It is foggy as clouds engulf the road and pass overhead. It is dangerous, slow going and sometimes hard to see as I drive on a road just under the mountain crests. It is beautiful, and I am elated , but I don’t know where I am going. I am just following the road wherever it might go. The poem unspooled as I imagined where the road might lead, knowing that it was more than a road. It was my life.
Subliminal Express (30) is a poem from an interrelated sequence of elegiac poems titled, Since You Have No Body. The sound of trains entering and leaving the maw of an underground tunnel on their way to or from Pennsylvania Station can be heard in the urban neighborhood where I live and dream--all day and night if one pays attention and the traffic doesn’t drown them out. They have become part of the continual background noise I live with. But in the late night stillness, the metal on metal sound of passing trains becomes louder and more distinct as they tunnel beneath the streets, shaking the concrete and even the houses in the neighborhood with a low rumbling that is just audible.
Baltimore. Pennsylvania Station. A numbered
Moon above the high desk where the clerk sits
Bored in his blue-gray uniform, and you've all
Shown up very late at the platform underground,
To file on board, sprawl on the leather seats and argue
War, God, and politics. Out in the streaming dark
I somehow hover, the faces clacking by in their lighted
Windows, now faster than I can recognize or count
As the train tunnels on beneath the city of my dream.
No one notices the slow quake, the rumbling
As it breaks, shatters every one and thing.
In the dream the dead are boarding the train as they do each night underneath the station, and on that particular night, all my newly dead friends were aboard having their usual types of conversations. I see them from inside the train, facing each other on the broad leather seats, before the train leaves the station. Finally, I float in the air outside the train windows as the faces of the newly dead clack past, gathering speed. I can’t be inside when the train leaves because I’m not dead. As the train passes beneath the city each night, the world of the living shakes with subliminal grief.