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Three Dreams

dreamed July 4 (1975? mid-1970s) by Robley Wilson

The poem below is a small corner of my own dreamworld, a good bit of its magic eroded by the morning after. The residue of the dream--one dream, which I divided into three for reasons of bookkeeping--is the best of the poem, especially the last line of it.

Dream and poem grew out of a student picnic, held beside a river--the Cedar, in Iowa--in front of a house that at one time had belonged to a university colleague. What I most remember of that picnic, more than twenty years after the fact, is the discomfort of feeling out of place among men and women half my age. (That's always good for a poem, that out-of-placeness, even without sleep or hypnagogy.)

The dream simply made the picnic, its guests and its setting, into a chronology of illusions. The opening turns the water's real pollution into something ominously defeating. The poem's second section becomes, at that remove, more problematic (the bottles are the beer the picnickers drank, but what prompted the dead kittens? I wonder) and is nearly a tract on saving the environment. Section 3 resolves despair by producing--what? An angel, a muse, a faceless "you" surely inspired by a married student at the real event. Today I recall that it was a Fourth of July picnic; there were fireworks that must in my dream have murdered fish and kittens.

As for the two children, they may have been actual, or they may have been versions of my own two sons; they may even have been foreshadows of the two daughters I inherited years later when I remarried. In any case, they seem in the poem to stand for love and nurture and rebirth, and they lead to the poem's statement of what might be called "mystical optimism."

I am walking along a sandy shore
by myself, looking into the lake;
in its brown depths I begin to see
fish, all sizes. I feel pleasure
at first, and then dismay, for all
of them float motionless, rigid,
all dead just under the surface.

A place to recover. But my ease
in the cool shade of the birches,
my joy in the small white flowers
underfoot--these vanish in a moment:
the ground is all at once bare, cans
and green bottles litter the woods.
I find myself at the brink of a pit.

Now I am looking down on the colors
of a different death--browns, yellows,
grays and blacks, whites and oranges.
This is a grave of kittens; they are
stacked like firewood, they have not
begun to decay, they are the pets
of a hundred children who mourn them.

Then you appear, magically, a child
holding each of your hands; a smile
begins when you see me. I meet you,
I say: Come witness these horrible,
horrible things. I show you the fish.
As we watch, they flex, turn upright
and swim away in the dark water.

I take you to the kittens' graveyard,
and of course you and your children
kneel at the edge to pick up, one
by one, the tiny, squirming animals;
I hear them mewing, hear the laughter
of your children. You say to me:
You must expect things to be changed.

What I've said about the poem's imagery is only an accounting, not an interpretation (which, in any case, would be beyond my powers). In its early drafts the poem was more than twice as long; probably it is still longer than it needs to be. That last line--I can hear those dreamwords in my head even now.

--Robley Wilson--


Three Dreams can be found in his 1987 collection Kingdoms of the Ordinary, Robley Wilson, University of Pittsburgh Press. His commentary is from Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams (ed. Roderick Townley, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998).

--Chris Wayan--

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