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Dream Herding

Dreamed 1978/11/8 and 11/11 by by Nancy Potter

Introduction

As a reader and writer of fiction, I have long been interested by the role of dreams in short stories. Much recent poetry provides convincing excursions to such an interior landscape; one thinks of Galway Kinnell's Book of Nightmares, John Berryman's Dream Songs. Fiction traditionally has been compromised or strengthened (depending upon the critic's perspective) by greater immediate responsibility to "the real world," notwithstanding such dream-users as Borges, Flannery O'Connor, Poe or Hawthorne.

Believing that dreams and dreaming might have larger roles in my writing, periodically I have recorded certain intense and repeated episodes, conversations, encounters, and landscapes after sleeping. Two years ago, I found the proper circumstances to focus on the effort. I had recently moved to an agreeable, but a somewhat spartan studio; I could control my schedule of sleeping, walking, reading, and thinking, and I had some trusted listeners to share my writing.

In a sense, I had prefigured a design: I was hoping to collect or "herd" a series of episodes which, without much revision, might constitute a sort of meditation or fugue. In some Middle Eastern country I had seen children working as goose herders, languidly spending their days, and I considered my enterprise ghost collecting or dream herding.

Each night at about the same time, I was lucky enough to fall asleep in the studio in the woods with a well-banked stove and to transcribe the bare essentials of the night's major dream as soon as I awakened. Then I walked for an hour, trying to settle the details of action, dialogue, and background. I shared breakfast with three generous people who were willing to listen to the episode and to offer reflections, indeed, to embroider on the dream. Finally, after breaklast, I wrote out the resulting construction.

From the point of view of a faithful reporter, the original dream may have been compromised. In defense of my routine, I can only confess that I was attempting, consciously, to create fiction inspired by dreams, and I still believe that the central episode was not distorted. Details of these dreams have remained remarkably sharp-edged in my mind. Two of the fifteen in the sequence follow with short commentaries.

FERRY: November 8, 1978

Tenth in the boarding line for the Block Island ferry, she waits, the car throbbing in neutral, hoping for room on the grubby ark.

The shipping agent pokes his head through her window. "Any excess yogurt? Contraband sonatas? Let's see your teeth. Wider. Jesus, what old gums!" She closes her lips crookedly over the whole mess.

"O.K. Now hand over the permits."

Out of the glove compartment she draws some green stamps, a Charlestown Dump sticker, and some Drop and Add forms. The agent consults his clipboard. "Who has the extra chromosome? How does the ablative absolute work? What's under the rose? Do you believe in winter?"

Several gritty puffs rise from her head. The agent sneezes and waves her aboard.

The car lurches into the dark hold, grabbed by a hook. She seems to be hanging upside down, caught by the seat belt, but she wills herself a few pounds lighter and slides out of harness.

The loudspeaker announces, "Advanced Suffering now beginning on Promenade Deck." She doesn't have the prerequisite but who cares, after snake handling and charismatic writhing. Besides, he is shoving her up the ladder, a knee to her rump, asserting, "See. I cried more than you."

She stares at the tiny vase, half empty. "They're synthetic tears."

"Your sinuses open if you cry before breakfast," he says.

On the Promenade Deck the three bored judges sit at a portable table. One of them hands her a bluebook. "First you describe Gregor. Then account for the mustard seeds. Mind your posture and small craft warnings."

"I can't," she cries. The deck tilts at an alarming angle, sliding her body like a beanbag. "Could you please stand on my feet?" she asks him. "Please."

"Stand on your own. That's what they're for," he says.

Over in a protected corner of the deck, under a lifeboat, is her mother sorting clean clothes fresh from the dryer. She holds up three socks. "See. Orphans. The extras always turn into wire hangers when you're not looking."

She wakes up, grasping the soles of her feet.

Commentary

These dreams provided such immediacy that it seemed appropriate to narrate them in the present tense. A constant character was the woman in the foreground, in whose sensibility the experience occurred. In this episode...

BUZZ OFF: November 11, 1978

It is terribly hot, even in her white moth tent of regret. She has finished cleaning all fourteen rooms of the South Winstead house. To wash the floors, she has taken off all her clothes except for a shabby slip with patched straps. Her knees are gritty and full of splinters, and she is sweating heavily. Her mouth tastes brass.

To celebrate the end of cleaning, she sits outside for a minute on the step. Suddenly an unfamiliar car pulls up. She sees him get out and walk up the path with a strange young man. She knows that he has not wanted to come alone.

"I always wanted to be Miss White Rock but wound up as Medusa."

"Be careful what you ask for. You may get stuck with it," he says.

She turns frantically to hide in the house, fumbling at the doorknob, which threatens to fall off.

"Here. Don't force it," he says, careful not to touch her hand.

The door opens quickly, but it is his house, the attic, strewn with dead wasps. Her bare feet trample dried insect bodies.

She regrets that he is so distracted. He rummages in a steamer trunk. "How about a smoke detector? A tenor banjo? A lonely bassoon?"

"No. I just want a body job, head sand blasted, heart cleaned out."

He empties a dictionary on the table. "An adverb might help."

She pushes the letters around listlessly.

"Here. Take a verb." He throws one at her. She opens her mouth to catch it but misses, and it crashes somewhere.

On top of a dusty bureau is a photograph of his parents, bundled up on a bench, squinting at some sudden December sunshine. They are on the Boardwalk, opening a picnic lunch. The sound comes on in the photograph, and she walks right in.

"We did not ask her," the mother says.

"People happen," says her father. "What can you do?"

"Clear out, ganif," the mother warns. "This is a private party."

"Please. I paid," she says.

The mother holds up an orange plastic swatter. "Buzz off ."

Her feet will not move.

She awakens, terrified.

Commentary

This is still a fresh, clear, and quite disturbing memory. It left an after-taste of great heat, speed, dissatisfaction, and inability to control the action. The two places were fused by a doorway, both houses, otherwise, sharply recalled.

As I reviewed the entire dream, I believed that the accelerated discomfort was an irrevocable progression into another life to which I had not been invited. The whole affair was both interesting and uncomfortable.

SOURCE: Dreamworks: an Interdisciplinary Quarterly (v.3, no.1, fall 1982, p.27-29. Commentaries reformated; titles Ferry and Buzz Off added for indexing.)

EDITOR'S NOTE

To me these dream tales do sound embroidered; a bit too cute, all that Alice-in-Wonderland grilling and Marx Brothers anarchy. Too much what's expected of dreams ever since the Surrealists. But remember--they didn't invent surreal dreams, just emphasized that type, because they felt surreal disjunctures expressed their sharply changing times. Future shock.

But they, like Potter, weren't faking; such dreams do happen. Compare Dream Herding with Nancy Price's Trout Beck, my own Old Hat, Elizabeth Kew's Nameless Hat, or Maude Meagher's A Word Dream. They happen (especially, perhaps, to writers, who after all love a great line, and aren't twenty great lines better than one?) They just aren't the only kind.

--Chris Wayan



LISTS AND LINKS:
Ferry: ships - tests & exams - legs & feet - dream advice ("Stand on your own.") - Hi, Mom!
Buzz Off: hot & cold - embarrassment - language - photos - There Are Doors - time travel - the past - family values - rejection & outsiders
General: dream humor - universities - frustration - out of control! - writers & writing - creative process - more from Dreamworks

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