Saturday, December 19, 2015

The dream report as prose poem

I am rereading a marvelous small collection of dream reports by the distinguished Belgian-French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, perhaps best-known in the anglophone world for her Memoirs of Hadrian. The reports in Dreams and Destinies (in French Les Songes et les sorts), first published in 1938, are drawn from five years of her early life, when, as she later confessed, she was in the grip of "a violent and passionate love affair." She declares in her preface that "we have all of us never dreamed so abundantly as during our periods of longing, or of pain, which is but a wounded longing."
     What is extraordinary about these selections from a journal of dreams is that each entry is a prose poem, of such wonderful texture that it will draw in almost any intelligent reader. I believe Yourcenar when she tells us that she has not added to the story given her in any of these dreams. What she has done - what she could hardly fail to do, given her quality as a writer - is to deliver these little stories with such superlative, sensory detail, that she brings us inside the scenes, into beauty and mystery and sometimes terror. Nowhere does she pause to offer context, and she spurns analysis altogether, quite properly realizing that, as a creative writer, her task is to describe the world her dreams are making for her, not shred it with the cold instruments of interpretation or smother it with theory.
     The accumulation of telling details, related in exact language, makes her dreamscapes as solid, as dense and palpable, to us as they clearly were for her when she was inside them. There are transitions of the kind we manage only in altered states of consciousness. She can drop from a window into a boat that appears on a Venetian canal far below, without bruises or broken bones, and glide off without oars or sails or a motor across a thrilling black sea to an island castle.
     "The Island of the Dragons", the piece from which I plucked those elements, is a fine example of her technique. We are brought immediately into a scene in which she is living with a young man and a young woman in "the most confined of Venetian lodgings".

Our room is located under the roofs, on the top floor of a complicated house that dominates from on high a rose and russet confusion of terraces, masts, campaniles, lean homeless cats and swallows' nests. Our single room is furnished with only a scattering of woolen carpets woven in Central Asia and dyed in beautiful hieratic colors, carpets of typically rough, tight nap, irritating to the touch and still permeated with the sweat of pack mules...The young man and young girl spend the day arguing or making love on the carpets...

We are there. We feel the itch of those coarse but possibly magic carpets, we smell the animal sweat, lacing the smell of lovemaking on those Venetian afternoons where the dreamer's principal task is "to continually readjust the Venetian blind that rattles and allows dust and irritating rays of sunlight to enter the room."
    This is oneiric realism of the highest order and it primes us to accept all that follows. Lovers, suitcases, "a uniformly red Dalmatian trunk", and the dreamer all decamp through a window.

The air sustains us softly and yields underfoot like the tightrope that acrobats tread.

They descend safely to a barge that brings them through fog and ocean to an island with a sinsiter castle. The couple are drawn to a sealed door that opens only for them, while the dreamer fears that they are entering a place of monsters. She is left alone on the wave-tossed shore, contemplating the sunken barge that can never take her home, with just "a uniformly red Dalmatian trunk" that transforms into a straw basket containing a baby.
    Paraphrase cannot do justice the the hypnotic spell of the writing, which grows with the precision of detail. We know the word "crenellated", as used in describing the niches in battlements, but how many know the noun "crenel" or how to use it? Yourcenar's details are never boring. Sometimes you feel she has brought you into the most fascinating of curiosity shops:

a uniformly red Dalmatian trunk holds a series of boxes made from old books emptied of their contents, like those sold in Paris by deluxe confectioners and dealers in knicknacks, inside which all the species of seeds - sunflower, cumin and anise - and all of the different sorts of bird feathers have been carefully classified.

In a note published poshumously,Yourcenar noted that "the experience of the dreamer is not without analogy to that of the poet...The sleeper assembles images the way the poet assembles words: he makes use of them more or less felicitously to speak about himself to himself." This is wonderfully exemplified in her selections from her intimate journal.
     Whatever else we may do with our dreams, I recommend following her lead as a writing exercise when a certain dream has potency and sensory, senuous richness. Let the dream tell its own story, without additions or any kind of analysis. Practice oneiric realism. Apply your powers of expression to describing, as freshly and precisely as you can, what is going on in the scenes. Bring out the colors. Find the exact word for an architrave, the smell of an old carpet, a type of suitcase.
    Recognize that, as a dreamer, you are already a poet. All you need do is find fresh words worthy of the images that have already been assembled for you. I will add something that Yourcenar did not say (but no doubt knew): on many occasions, dreams give us the words as well as the images. I have brought through many pages from my dreams that have flown into my books, the ones I have published and others that have yet to be brought into the world.

Quotations are from Dreams and Destinies by Marguerite Yourcenar, trans. Don Flanell Friedman (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Writing as a State of Conscious Dreaming. You may want to check out this most extraordinary five-day creative writing retreat that I lead in May at magical Mosswood Hollow, in the greenwoods 45 minutes from Seattle.

Art: The Poet Reclining by Marc Chagall (1915)

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