Around Lake Erie and Across the Hudson
Dreamed 1997? by Rachel Hadas
in memory of Charles Barber
A rotten week, affections
grating against the grain.
I wake up, eyes beclouded
by the gift of dream.
First an anxious journey,
but then, ah! calm perspective.
You at the wheel, your sister
You have a brand new haircut.
sister, friend, and brother
catching up: what's new?
And underneath the chitchat lie
two things we three know.
One, that we are joyful,
tinges both past and future
The shining lake; our chatter--
the rising sun behind the train
"Around Lake Erie and Across the Hudson" recalls and examines one of those dreams that seem to happen just before one wakes up and begins the day. This day was a day I went to work, commuting as usual from Manhattan to my teaching job at Rutgers in Newark, riding west across the Hudson as the sun rose. It seemed important to get the real journey across the river, as well as the dream journey around Lake Erie, into the poem.
The dawn dream had a vividness, clarity, and above all a joy I wanted to capture. The spare format of quatrains helped me pare away irrelevancies and highlight details such as the haircut, the sweater, and the precise seating arrangements in the car, even if I wasn't sure what these details meant.
I did know why Lake Erie was in my dream. The "you" of this poem, Charlie Barber, is a beloved friend who had died some years previously, but who in this remarkably happy and hopeful dream returns. (Even as I dreamed it, I understood that such a return was an impossibility, and that understanding too goes into the poem.) Charlie came from Cleveland, where his parents and sister still live. I've kept in touch with his family; but I've never been closer to Cleveland than the airport. Certainly I've never driven around Lake Erie, and I somehow doubt that the lake is as huge, sparkling, and blue as the white-capped, ocean-like expanse in my dream.
Why do we dream of our dear dead as and when we do? More than four years after Charlie's death, my grieving for him had lost its rawness. Was this dream a reminder of what I'd lost, or a reassurance as to how much I'd kept by way of memory and sheer feeling? Coming at the start of a long day, it did indeed make me want to give thanks as I rode west into New Jersey and the sun rose behind me: thanks for morning light, for consciousness, for life itself, of which mourning our dead is a part. Crossing the river came, as I worked on the poem, to seem less like a "true" detail than like part of the dream itself. Wasn't the Hudson really a version of the mythological river that separates steep from waking, or the dead from the living? Both dreams and poems lend themselves to such deeper meanings, for both are worlds unto themselves, with their own mysterious laws.
This account is from Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams (ed. by Roderick Townsley, 1998, Univ. Of Pittsburgh Press). An excellent collection of Rachel's poetry including "Around Lake Erie" is Indelible (2001, Wesleyan Univ. Press). I highly recommend it; it's available through her website above.
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