the dream and the dream you spoke by Maureen Alsop
the dream and the dream you spoke
Maureen Alsop's latest collection of poems, the dream and the dream you spoke, rides the razor's edge between the surreal and the real. It opens by questioning our assumptions about the physical components of the world around us and continues to do so throughout the subsequent twenty-nine pages. The narrator of "Accidental Sea" unsettles us as early as page one:
The sea was not an accident
but a silk red dahlia hidden
in the curio-cabinet, a dusty
boutonniere which lurked under a shrunken
ship inside a bottle.
When T. said he loved me
every teacup in the house grew
stained and suffered a chip, the asphalt
rippled like some kind of water. It lashed
at the hedges.
The sophisticated use of enjambment serves many technical functions in these poems, not the least of which is illustrated in the second stanza quoted above. The line ending, "every teacup in the house grew," leaves us feeling like Alice in Wonderland, only to reassure us in the next line that the teacups grew, not larger like our bewildered childhood heroine, but merely and mundanely "stained." The fact that we are told that the "sea was not an accident" in a poem titled "Accidental Sea" makes us feel off-kilter from the beginning, and forces us to question what we think we know about our world.
This balance between the ordinary and the magical is, in fact, a central tension in the collection. Alsop takes us through unremarkable settings from Watervliet, New York, to her childhood home near Lake Superior. It is her stunning use of language that transforms the mundane into the magical. Note, for example, the setting of "Fever at Watervliet:"
The strawberry sun vacillated between the noon
smoke of paper mill towers and the blanched
horizon of a midnight farm. Joshua,
grey, variant grey, your eyes-one
plumbago & peacock plume the other
Unusual and richly alliterative word pairings, such as "strawberry sun" and "peacock plume," in addition to such exotic word choices as "plumbago" and "saguaro," essentially serve as the looking glass through which a farmer with mismatched eyes living in a mill town becomes a mystical figure surrounded by a luscious, succulent landscape.
Similarly, in "Lake Superior," the narrator conveys a visionary experience of her own death, brought on by a visitation of "some small slipping / bird" in a, once again, unremarkable place:
. . . I recognized
a deep gorge and a swirl of green
among familiar rocks. Later
that night, my death
filled me. It was unbearably large
like a silk blouse torn
sheer into space. In sleep
I ripened as a bruise
among the lifting rushes of water
or drowned between blades of grass
on the upper hills, not
alive, but animated, like the last
whisper of sand over granite
The setting once so familiar to the narrator morphs into a site of transforming vision. The final metaphor here strong-arms the reader into Alsop's Wonderland, where sand blowing over rock is naturally assumed to be "not / alive, but animated." In the same way that we are told "the sea was not an accident" in the poem titled "The Accidental Sea," we are here told that the sand has life, but it is not alive: the imagery and language are so hypnotic, and the lines so lullingly musical, that we believe it.
Such slights-of-hand on the part of the poet give her readers the sense that a conjuring is taking place, that they are in a world where things may or may not be as they seem. The tool traditionally used to navigate such a world, in life or language, is the interpretation of signs. However, Alsop challenges us in this arena, as well. Where the bird in "Lake Superior" opens the narrator's mind to a vision, "Augury Miscellany" opens with the image of a bird unable to deliver its message: "The long winter sun chokes / the throat of a pigeon / that stoops in the monastery courtyard." Augury is the art of reading signs that birds bring from the gods, but despite the poem's title, no meaning will be augured from this bird: the reader, like the narrator, is on her own. Later in the poem, we see that even language has lost its ability to convey meaning and can no longer be relied upon: "She said the house // was dead, but she may have meant / her daughter."
Such esoterica as augury and monasteries are, however, punctuated by the ordinary: the woman "drinks coffee from a dinted / thermos" and "gnats / flick at the eyes." In this, as in the other poems in the collection, we are left with the understanding that Wonderland is not somewhere beyond our ordinary reality: it is our ordinary reality, simply seen through a different lens.
In the title poem, Alsop blurs life-as-reality with text-as-reality by sharpening her lens’s focus on Octavio Paz's long prose poem, "The Poet's Work." "The dream, and the dream you spoke" is not a translation of Paz's poem, nor even an interpretation of it. Alsop takes a different, extremely innovative approach to engaging with this Spanish text, enacting a dialogue between the speaker and the speaker's internalization of Paz's words. As the poem opens, she stages the setting as if she and Paz are physically in the same room together:
I french press jasmine tea. Pour
two cups. Seat him
in the drover's chair. I,
at the hearth. It is summer,
no fire, no wind. But the scent
of rain impending. I light
four candles into a terracotta urn.
The concrete imagery underscores the physical presence of Paz while the speaker is reading his work. Several stanzas later, though, the status of his physicality is brought into question:
The desk fades, the roof wearies. Octavio
passes through me like dusk going under. I offer him
a cotton blanket and a corner to lie in.
Candles flutter. Innumerable stars break loose.
Our conversation is a long gazing
at the border as the border
itself dissolves. Language
alters the silk curtains over the windows. The room
flits-dappled & shining. His text
peppers my mind.
Paz's presence is as difficult to discern as the lights of the fluttering candles and the rioting stars: he is palpable, yet his edges cannot be felt. This presence embodies her engagement with the Spanish poem as it morphs through her mind's caché of thoughts and personal experiences, and comes to be expressed in the words of the English poem she is writing. A translation takes place in the process, but this poem is, as I said, no work of translation. Rather, it is a reflection of the metamorphosis that transpires in the very act of reading a poem, brought into focus by the language difference. As the 13-page poem progresses, the speaker asserts her own ability to make meaning of Paz's text, apart from his intended meaning:
Octavio demands now some symbol of soldiers,
but I lean into my britches, close my eyes
and wish for a metallic fire. . . or a stretched
pool of rain-water steaming into sunlight. . .
She arrives at a point in the text where she prefers other imagery, other words, to those in the original poem. The word "but" tips the scales, heavily weighted by the comma and line break before it, and she chooses to translate her experience of reading the poem-as opposed to translating the poem itself. A page later, she says, "Octavio, you can be my headlamp, and / when the headlamp goes out, well, it goes...." marking almost the last time she mentions his name. After that, Paz's voice melts into the experience of the moment, becoming at the same time mythic and ordinary:
Will I whistle you? Sink
my breastbone into you? Are you a lost Aztlan diety? Or
the swooping sound
In keeping with the rest of the poems in the collection, "The dream and the dream you spoke" transforms the way we perceive the ordinary world around us through stunningly original imagery and language. Taken singly and together, these poems ultimately reveal places as ordinary as Watervliet, New York, or experiences as common as reading a poem, to be extraordinary and enchanting.
Reviewed by Valerie Wetlaufer.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.