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The Incest Dream

dreamed 1979 or 80 by Maxine Kumin

While my brother was dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), I had a succession of vivid premonitory dreams about him, the early ones rich with denial, the later ones horrific in their acceptance... But I was in no way prepared for the content of the dream that followed what I intuited was to be our final outing as a family:

Brother, the story's still unfinished; you
struggle up as best you can,
three-legged now as in the riddle of the Sphinx,
the whole left side of you dumb
to the brain's fiercest commands.
Talking is problematical; vowels distort
rising against the numbness in your throat.

Still, we've been out to dinner,
assorted husbands, wives,
and driving back through rain the sidewise swipe
of memory delivers a lightstruck
picture of us, ages four and six
propped in matching sailor suits
against a railing on the Boardwalk,
both wearing the family lower lip,
the family shock of hair,
two savages spruced up for Grandma's Sunday
in the roller chair.

Listen! I love you!
I've always loved you!
And so we totter and embrace
surrounded in an all-night garage
by theatergoers barking for their cars,
the obedient machines spiraling down
level by level as we block
the exit saying our good-byes,
you tangled in your cane, my black
umbrella flapping like a torn bat.

At 3 a.m. I'm driven to such extremes
that when the sorrowing hangman
brings me your severed penis still
tumescent from the scaffold
yet dried and pressed as faithfully
as a wildflower
I put it away on my closet shelf
and lie back down in my lucky shame.

My immediate association, odd though it seems, is to John Crowe Ransom's "Piazza Piece":

But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
In this perfect Petrarchan sonnet, youth and age, the life force and death are represented as the "lady young in beauty" and the "gentleman in a dustcoat." The latter emblem emerges in my dream as the actual killer, the hangman. I can't defend against the image of the tumescent penis, except to say that folklore holds that the hanged victim experiences an erection upon strangulation. (My brother was at that time having difficulty in speaking and swallowing. It was plain to see what was coming next.) In the dream I am awarded this token of the life force. I put it away as one would any other treasure "and lie back down in my lucky shame"--ashamed to be still alive, lucky with the treasure of my own existence even as his is taken from him.

--Maxine Kumin--


"The Incest Dream" and a dozen other poems incorporating dreams can be found in Kumin's Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief. She won a Pulitzer for Up Country. All her work is concrete, personal and forceful; she's been flamed by some critics for her sometimes savage opinions. I admire her.

Her commentary is from in Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams (ed. Roderick Townley, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998).

--Chris Wayan--

LISTS AND LINKS: siblings - love - illness - death - grief - incest - sexual symbols - more Maxine Kumin - dream poetry

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