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Barn Burning

Dreamed repeatedly, 1928 or 29 to early 1930s, by Denise Levertov

I began writing at a very early age, but the two childhood dreams I remember were beyond my powers to articulate. One of them was a kind of nightmare; and after it had recurred a couple of times I found I could summon it at will--which I did, in much the same spirit, I suppose, as that in which people watch horror movies.

Retrospectively, I see it as a mythic vision of Eden and the Fall: the scene is a barn, wooden and pleasantly--not scarily--dark, in which the golden hay and straw are illumined by a glow as of candlelight. And all around the room of the barn are seated various animals--cows, sheep, horses, dogs, and cats. They all sit somewhat the way dogs do, with their front legs straight and their back ones curved to one side, and they look comfortable, relaxed. There's an atmosphere of great peace and well-being and camaraderie. But suddenly--without a minute's transition--all is changed: all blackens, crinkles, and corrugates like burnt paper. There is a sense of horror.

I was not more than six when I first dreamed this, and it frightens me still; can it (I think to myself) have been a prophetic dream about the nuclear holocaust we live in fear of? Then I console myself a bit with the knowledge that it didn't have to be so; I'd already long since been terrified several times by the sight of the newspaper my mother, with astounding rashness, would wrap around the metal-mesh fireguard to make the new-lit coals draw, catching on fire, the charred tatters of it flying up the chimney like flimsy bats.

Someone had accidentally dropped a sheet of newspaper over my face when I was in the cradle and apparently I went into convulsions from the fright of it. I seem to remember it, in fact, though I was only a few months old; and this connected itself to the way a page of the Times would burst into a sheet of flame and so quickly blacken. In my dream there were no flames, only the switch from the soft glow in which all the friendly beasts (and I among them) basked and were at peace, to the horror of irreversible destruction, of ruin.

--Denise Levertov


This account is from Levertov's essay titled "Interweavings: Reflections on the Role of Dream in the Making of Poems," in Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams (ed. Roderick Townley, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998). I recommend the whole essay--she discusses issues facing any dreamer trying to convey a dream's mood, experience or message to others (regardless of medium).

--Chris Wayan

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