Poetry and the Root of Dreams
Written by Michael Fallon
…We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
is rounded with a sleep.
I dreamt that I was lying in tall brown grass in the middle of a field reading a book, and in the book I was reading, I was having a conversation with the color black. Curious, I turned the book over in my hand and saw, A History of the Color Black was the title in bold black letters across the front. In the background behind the letters was a gray and white cloud, floating in an indigo blue, the color the sky is just after sunset. And I knew in the dream that I was reading a book I would write in the future. The voice from the book then said out loud, “Black has to do with the roots of things.” Suddenly, I saw a cutaway view of the field, all the exposed roots of trees, shrubs, and grasses, animals sleeping in their burrows and then down into the dark earth.
Later I found myself in a forest standing in a clearing under the stars with the trunks of huge leafless oaks and poplars towering around me. Then in the sky above the forest, just overhead, huge tree shapes passed slowly and silently as if floating in the air, entire trees composed of branches, crown, and roots. Their black shapes were strangely beautiful and suggested spiders, scorpions and other creatures or shapes like abstract sculpture as they passed one by one in silhouette under the stars.
Though poems originate in every aspect of experience and thought, dreams are one of the main taproots of poetry. My first book of poetry was titled, A History of the Color Black, as in the dream and many of the poems I have written since that dream in the spring of 1973 have been influenced by it thematically if not in terms of images, subject matter, or mood. I have had powerful and provocative dreams all my life and many of my poems are directly influenced by dreams in that they are partial recountings or reworkings of dream sequences or “narratives.” In the years afterward, I felt compelled to express and explore the meaning of what I call the “Black” dream as fully as I could in prose and poetry. It had a huge impact on my life and continues to reverberate like the background radiation from a psychic big bang.
As Shakespeare said, our lives are the stuff of dreams “and our little life is rounded in sleep.” Each of our days is surrounded with sleep, and our lives themselves are surrounded by the sleep before birth and after death. Shakespeare uses a metaphor here to suggest our nightly journeys in sleep are similar to the journey of the soul before birth or after death—whether we dream of nothing or of limbo, purgatory, heaven, or hell—the sleep metaphor suggests that preexistence and death are states from which the dreamer might awaken and give an account, as someone might who has been saved from drowning or after flat-lining on the operating table. It is a very old metaphor and many have believed that in the nightly journeys of the soul, the dreamer can transcend the boundaries of birth and death.
So the ancients thought a great deal about dreams and their significance. In Hindu mythology, the entire universe is the dream of the god Vishnu and will cease to exist when he awakens. In prehistory, the songs, dances, and poems of the shaman were often inspired by dreams and dream visions, by deaths and rebirths, and journeys and quests in the spirit world. American Indians often went on a quest in search of an adult name and were helped by a spirit guide who appeared in a dream in the form of an animal. Dreams are common in the bible as in the case of the Pharo’s dream of seven fat cows and seven lean ones which Joseph interpreted as a prophesy of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. We also find literary history rich with the inspiration and influence of dreams as in for instance: Virgil, Piers Plowman, Chaucer, and Dante, in Dequincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Coleridge’s Kublai Khan, and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jykl and Mr. Hyde, and of course in Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and short stories, some inspired apparently by his own nightmares. The whole movement of Surrealism in visual art and in poetry was inspired by the strange imagery and illogic of dreams, but even the periodic table and Einstein’s theory of relativity had their origins in dreams.
Before modern times, some writers were as skeptical of dreams as we are today and dismissed them as meaningless, or attributed them to indigestion, aches and pains, anxieties, or fears-- or as Jacob Marley said in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to “a spot of mustard or a bit of cheese.” But many were very interested in the nature of dreams and in their interpretation. Macrobius, a 5th century Latin writer, classified dreams in five catagories, the 3 most important being somnium—enigmatic dreams, visio—dreams that are prophetic visions, and oraculum—dreams in which some figure of authority, such as an angel or an ancestor, appears and passes on some wisdom or spiritual message. The ancients even had a catalogue of dream symbols they used to interpret dreams. Freud asserted that dreams can be understood as wish fulfillments, and Jung argued that dreams have a great variety of interpretations but some could be understood by the archetypal symbols within them. I find Freud’s idea of wish fulfillment useful at times and I like his ideas concerning displacement and condensation. Displacement being the notion that dreams use symbols which conceal their meaning and refer indirectly to situations or issues in the life of the dreamer. Condensation is the idea that dreams are extremely compressed in that it takes a lot of words to interpret a dream in writing. I also think that wish fulfillment and archetypes are useful concepts for understanding dreams, but I find it is best to mix and match methods of interpretation and that none of these ideas is useful all the time.
These various methods of interpreting dreams can be helpful in attempting to turn dreams into poems because understanding dreams--often opaque and fragmentary-- is useful in portraying the dramas within them or projecting them into more complete narratives. But it is not necessary to have an exhaustive understanding of all the meanings in a dream in order for it to inspire the composition of a poem, an intuitive and emotional grasp of it is enough.
Powerfully visionary and disturbing dreams have not gone away with the shaman, the dream visions of the Middle Ages, the Gothic novel, or Surrealism. People still have compelling dreams as they always did but tend to repress or ignore them because they don’t know what to make of them. Some of us are afraid they are a sign of mental instability and keep our dreams to ourselves selves rather than be thought of as crackpots, and it is true that powerful dreams are often psychic storms and can undermine our certainties, our sense of self, and of reality. We used to go to the priests, then the analysts, and then the psychiatrists, for interpretation. Now we mostly leave them to the neurologists who often reduce them to randomly firing neurons somewhere in the convolutions of the cerebral cortex. But the language of dreams and its meaning continues to fascinate artists, story tellers, and poets because it is the language of the imagination, a vocabulary of deep and powerful meaning.
I think of the History of the Color Black dream as fitting into all three of Macrobius’ categories. It fits the somnium category because the imagery in it is enigmatic; it fits as visio because it did predict the future—even though it was a self fulfilling prophesy-- as I was inspired by the dream to write my first book-- and finally it fits in the oraculum category because of the authoritive voice that spoke to me in the dream. Obviously, Freud’s wish fulfillment notion makes sense as I did wish to be a poet and write a book, and there is no doubt the dream was extremely compressed—but when I get to asking what the dream displaces and what the archetypal symbols in it mean, it becomes far more difficult to understand, which is why forty years later I am still wrestling with the imagery and meaning of the “Black” dream.
Some poems which are rooted in dreams are partial recountings of a broad vision-- like the History of the Color Black dream—which inspired them, sometimes including an attempt to interpret , contextualize or come to terms with the meaning of the dream. While other dream inspired poems have greater focus and less scope and can be recounted as narratives, or refashioned into the trajectory of a poem. I have included examples of both types of poems to examine and discuss.
Shadow and the Reed (3) is a very early poem and one of the opening poems in A History of the Color Black and it describes and summarizes the setting and situation in the “ Black” dream. I read somewhere that a reed or stick held upright between the middle fingers could be used to tell time, like a portable sundial as the reed casts a shadow across the palm. In the poem the reed shadow widens and deepens as the earth opens up beneath
Shadow and the Reed
When I was younger it was a thread
Like the shadow of a reed
The evening thickened it
An ever widening thread
And below the soil
Where the sun and wind could not reach
A stream cast its banks away
Clumps of earth fell off
Into a night
Wider than the senses
When I was younger
I rested in the bristling grass
The wind gave me shadows
On my palms
In the Dream I am Blind Among Hedges (29) another poem from “Black,” recounts a dream of grief after my father’s death:
In the Dream I am Blind Among Hedges
I wander by a woods lonely there
Are no stars
Then with a parting of leaves
A pair of hands softly, suddenly
And it seems to me we are the graceful white
Necks, heads of swans intertwined
On a black lake
But whose hands?
The poem is a very accurate, condensed summary of the dream—I was in a maze of hedgerows and though I am blind in the poem, I can see myself in the setting while still being aware of the unseeing blackness inside my head as I feel my way along. Then a pair of hands suddenly reached though the leaves and held my hands. I was very comforted by their touch which was powerfully real, and the image of two white swans gliding on a black lake intertwining their necks in a kind of graceful dance suddenly appeared in my blind head. I woke up bolt upright in bed, asking out loud “Whose hands? Whose hands?”
On our first real date, I read the poem to my future wife as we sat in the grass having a picnic. She had no idea of the context of the poem, and did not know much about me. But after hearing the poem, she said on a sudden impulse, “Those are my hands.”
A Clearing (39), another poem from the “Black” manuscript, was written about ten years after the dream that created the context for its inspiration. A friend of mine and I were staying up at a mountain lake in late winter or early spring and we went for a walk one night to look at the stars:
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.
What I have shown is a sampling of poems I have written over the years which have been influenced by dreams, but there are many, many more of my poems which have been directly or indirectly inspired by them. I am not sure I would be a poet at all if I did not have such a compelling dream life and the ability to recall and reach some understanding of the most powerful dreams. Coming to terms with dreams is also important --with both nightmares and ecstatic visions-- because they are not merely commentary on our waking lives, they are part of the living stream of our being. They may be entertaining, troubling, illuminating, inspiring, and even frightening, but they contain truths and insights which we must reckon with if we want to live more fully. As we pursue Socrates’ dictum, “Know Thyself,” a part of us is always descending the stairs with a lantern while another is glimpsed on the landing just below before dissolving into the dark.
Photographs: Ivy Tree, page 1; Leaning Oak, page 7; and Serpent Head,page 13, by Michael Fallon
Fallon, Michael. A History of the Color Black. Dolphin-Moon Press, Baltimore, MD: 1991.
Fallon, Michael. A Strange Bed. Attic. Fall 2007: 30.
Fallon, Michael. Since You Have No Body. Plan B Press, Alexandria, VA: 2011.
Fallon, Michael. The Great Before and After. BrickHouse Books, Baltimore, MD: 2011.