The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams comes from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfill that desire.
When I spent the night with Abigail, back in the ‘60s, we slept in her double bed under a pile of quilts—summer nights were chilly in Vermont. Her bedroom under the eaves had slanting ceilings, just like mine. I don’t think she ever got see my room when we were children because her mother wouldn’t allow her to spend the night at my house. Her mother and my parents were close, dear friends, and she must have known that they would protect Abigail as one of their own. But sadly her mom held fast to the fear that some harm would come to her youngest daughter if she left her side.
After supper, we ran upstairs to her room, and we became free travelers. Nestled together with our cold noses almost touching, we whispered late into the night. Just as we drifted into sleep, Abigail instructed me in dream-making. “If we concentrate hard enough, and only let ourselves think of the dream we want, we can go anywhere we want in our dreams and be with whoever we want. Let’s only talk about the dreams we want.” With that, Abigail, who is a great mimic, spoke in a perfect Liverpoolian accent, “We can have Beatle dreams! I want to be in London with George. Where do you want to go, Kiki?”
“I want to be in London, too, with Paul. Abby, would you like to go on a double date?” My proposal set off bed-shaking giggles, and we planned the flowers George and Paul would bring us and our outfits—long purple velvet dresses, pointy-toed lace-up boots, peacock feather boas, and wide-brimmed hats or Mondrian inspired mini-dresses and stack heeled shoes. We’d walk along Thames and see all the sights and go to the most expensive, luxurious, yummy restaurants in whole world.
Sometimes Abigail told me that she met her father in her dreams, and she wanted to dream him with her again. On those nights I tried to help her bring into him being. I saw him emerge in light from the wooded hilltop, and walk toward us along the brook where iridescent dragonflies skimmed the water’s surface. He wore a black sports coat and baggy trousers and a fedora. When he reached us, he knelt on one knee before Abigail, and pulled an imaginary creature from his pocket—it wasn’t a mouse or a bird or any animal for which we have a name. “Remember?” he said. The little creature stood on its hind legs on his palm, and Abby nodded and stroked its head.
Other times, Abigail would cry bitterly, “I don’t have a father! I don’t have a father!” I was only six when Abigail and I began our friendship. I was too young to know that our parents, each of them, produced literally hundreds of poems about the suicides of Abigail’s father and my grandfather. I can’t remember not knowing that her father had hung himself, but somehow, I’ve since learned, that fact was kept secret from Abigail for years. I do remember when I tried to voice my intuition that my grandfather had also killed himself. When my mother described her father’s gentleness, his soft, healing hands—he was a doctor—she also sadly told me about her father’s death of “a creeping paralysis” (probably multiple sclerosis). When my father told me about his mother, her New England reserve and her properness, he also told me about her death: she’d fallen ill on a ship to Europe with my mother. So, sad, they never got to travel together. They immediately returned the U.S., and she died soon afterwards of pancreatic cancer. My father told exciting stories about his adventures with his father—they took a road trip out West and hit a deer in Wyoming; they sold watch straps on the train in order to fund going to see the Yankees; his father designed watches and branded them, Pierre Grange, which means Stone Barn in French—but how did he die? One day in the living room of our house in Vermont, I mustered the courage to ask, “Daddy, how did your father die?”
“We’ll talk about it another time,” he said, and I saw his body awkwardly scrunch up with grief or perhaps he was embarrassed by his evasive answer. I couldn’t bear my father’s pain, which I felt acutely, so I didn’t ask again. I knew my grandfather killed himself. I sensed that fact, as all children intuitively apprehend everything about their parents; for survival’s sake, they’re biologically programmed to know, to adjust, and to compensate. The way I compensated was to participate in the denial narrative, even after I figured out the story, through the poetry, I guess. Eventually, my father was able to discuss the suicide with me. But by then I’d already learned to distrust my perceptions. That distrust led me to allow other people to name reality. When I told my story, I hoped someone else would refine the raw materials of my speech and tell me the true, the good, the wise, and the real.
You may say, “But you’ve been writing poetry since you were a child, how can you say your work doesn’t name reality?” For much of my life, my poetics could be summed up in Antonio Machado’s lines, “En mi soledad / he visto cosas muy claras / que no son verdad” (In my solitude / I’ve seen things very clearly / that aren’t true.”) Until recent years, I didn’t internalize his other lines: “La verdad es que lo es, / y sigue siendo verdad / aunque se piense al revés” :
The truth is what it is,
and still stays true
even if you think the reverse.
I wish when I asked my father how his father had died, he’d had sat down with me on the couch, and taken my hand in his, just as he did so many times when he read to me—“I take your hand, companion of the hills” he wrote in one my birthday poems. I wish he’d told me the truth in his even, steady voice, as he did in his later poem, “In Our Life Watch,” which tells the story my magical grandfather, a merchant of diamonds and watches, who made and lost many fortunes in what one newspaper article called his “Horatio Alger-like career.” Here are the last lines:
He steps over the low railing, leaps,
And floats in blind sorrow into May sun.
Dad’s fallen again, but we can’t wake early
and look up a small jewelry shop
to peddle our wares and hearts,
our soft Swiss straps or cold diamond,
since death at last has cleaned us out.
How utterly simple, beautiful, and heartbreaking! I’m not saying that my poetry or anybody’s doesn’t name truth; it’s a striving toward it. Poetry – all writing, all art – is a process of discovery for both the artist and the reader. Shouldn’t this poem be enough? Shouldn’t all the poems be enough? My answer is no, I’m sorry to say. There’s a difference between art and life, between the artist and the person. There’s a difference between readers and a person’s family. Art isn’t the only place where one can be honest and insightful, one’s best self. Art might be mere practice for an ordinary person to sit face to face with a child and tell the truth that “is what it is / and still stays true / even if you think [or say] the reverse” or stay silent.
In our conversations, Abigail and I have discovered that we were practicing truth-seeking in our dreams. Sometimes it’s terrible to know what one shouldn’t know. I was told in a dream that my uncle had killed himself. I visited a friend in the hospital, though I didn’t “know” he was ill, and my bed was two-thousand miles away. Not all dreams know and tell the unknowable and untellable. Yet the dreams (if that’s right word) that do invariably find a way to prove indisputably that they have uncannily told the dreamer the truth.
A couple of weeks ago Abigail posted a piece on her blog, House of Stone, about learning Hebrew. She wrote: “ I have learned to read ‘my father is coming,’ which is ironic, as my father has been dead since I was five years old, and yet I still believe at some point he will return.” He did return, many times. Now my dear friend has lost her mother, who happens to be one of the great poets of the world. Abigail, I’m closing my eyes and concentrating very hard before I sleep, just as I know you are. She is the dream returning, giving you the faith to tell the truth you know.