Cartography 4: Four Of Hearts
On dying, on sleeping, on dreams
Cartography is a 52 week essay series mapping the interior life.
How shall he who is not happy, who has been made so unclear,
who is no longer privileged to be at ease, who, in this brush stands
reluctant, imageless, unpleasured, caught in a sort of hell, how
shall be convert this underbrush, how turn this unbidden place
how trace and arch again
the necessary goddess?
Charles Olson, “In Cold Hell, In Thicket”
At age 4, I am standing in front of the forest. I walk in what seems like a long ways, and my family sets up at a picnic table by the water’s edge, a flowing creek babbling by full of the late October rains. I’m wearing a jacket. I’m warm. It’s dry today. The day is overcast, but my father is cooking hamburgers on the fire pit. Other people bring side dishes, potato salad with mayonnaise and potato chips with ridges. My mother unveils the centerpiece: a birthday cake, shaped like the Ninja Turtle Raphael, with drifting eyeballs and frosting so thick it makes little mountains and valleys and parks on the cake. The interior is chocolate, homemade, with another layer of red velvet, also homemade. I can feel the cool breeze cut through the forest of South Mountain state park, cut through my jacket, and I blow out my candles. This is a perfect moment, and a perfect day.
I have no idea if this memory is real or not. I’ve confirmed details with my parents, the cake and the place, but the intensity, the vividity of the moment is as real to me as if it was 3 days old and not 30 years. As such, I’m inclined to distrust it. I know from experience that memory is a fog, a mist twisting into shapes and images that one teases out detail by detail, not a clear print of a film that rolls behind our eyelids at night.
But I can smell the petrichor of the earth. I can feel the pine needles and tree roots beneath my shoes. I can see the stream and the deep darkness of the forest past our encampment, shafts of light cutting through when the clouds occasionally break apart.
I can hear the water calling to me while I taste the cake and potatoes.
For fear I want
to make myself again
under the thumb
for old love, old time
and pain, bent
into a nail that will
not come out.
Robert Creeley, “For Fear”
I dreamt as a child.
I would have vivid dreams, so real and bright they would shock me and I would be convinced for years afterwards that I had lived them. I asked my parents at age 8 about the apartment complex where my grandmother lived that had a dolphin in the swimming pool. Obviously no such place existed. I insisted for days before giving up, and even now I can remember playing with it, feeling its sleek skin and the rush of the water around me when it would sprint off. I can smell the chemicals of the pool deep in my nostrils, and I can remember the feeling of my sunburnt skin being kissed by the cool water when I would submerge. The games would last for hours, and I would spend the afternoon exhausted, sleeping away the day in recovery after swimming for hours. But the simple fact remains: I didn’t learn to swim until I was 10.
Dreams, sleep, the forest, the water: all the same to me in the halls of memory. The process never changes. You enter into the darkness. You lose your sense of self and the locus of perception. You are undone. Some process takes your constituent parts and reshapes them into an experience. And then the darkness spits you out, you walk to the edge of the woods, you wake up in terror and sweat.
You are crystalline. The lattice work of your components has been reshaped but only into a different form: a square stretched into a rectangle, the trapezoid compressed to rhombus. You will hold the memory of this shape in your bones, at least for a few moments.
The form of poetry was an unexpected revelation to me. I was aware of rhyme, the sing song patter and rhythm of the limerick and Dr. Seuss like all children. I could match the basics and engage on a level that led me to passable work.
But the sonnet and its restrictions were a shadowed path.
Teachers taught me artifice; not the construction of the artificial, but the shaping of raw material and language into meter, rhythm, schema and construction. Where do you turn the poem, how do you divide your fourteen lines? Iambic? Trochaic? Will you finish with a couplet and an Alexandrine? Each draft, each study, each class brought forth new connections in the construction of living dreams. That was what I had come to know poetry as: not the memory of a moment or a feeling, but a projection of a reality from the imagined darkness within the crafter. Inspiration was insipid; you could craft a poem just as well out of a household object or a mundane daily experience. The shape had to be met, but you could reconstruct and reconstitute the experience of the sonnet in a dozen different ways. All that mattered was internal consistency.
What mattered was the worker, the shaper. The dream projected was the same as my experience of the dream: you meet the experience. It passes into the darkness and the fear of self where it is disassembled. You rebuild it to your whims or specifications. It emerges again, the same and decidedly different.
My night terrors, my dreams, were the architects of my childhood in any number of ways. They kept me awake each night, terrified to close my eyes and feel the overwhelming terror engulf me. I would keep my lamp on, listen to my tapes, read, do anything to stave them off and I would deal with the consequences the next day. The world around me at the dead of night was quiet, but full of the dual fear of what would happen if my parents caught me again or if I succumbed to my body.
Each night, when I would sleep, I would be plunged into vivid experiences and shapes. The darkness had teeth, rending me apart to remake me. There was no sleep paralysis, only the encumbered prison of sleep itself.
And in those dreams, which I have blocked out, I only remember the feeling of losing myself. I didn’t have a restful sleep until I was 15.
Each night, I would lay in bed and watch the moon move across the floor of my bedroom. I would listen to hear my parents go to their bedroom, and feel the stillness across the house as everything settled. I would turn on the lamp in my room and tuck a blanket against the door to prevent any light breaking out. And I would read. Books I had read before, collections of comic strips, stolen lingerie catalogs. I would immerse myself in the dreams and constructions of others because of the deep fear I held in myself at becoming undone the second sleep overtook me. That taste of alkaline fear has never left me; that surge like a battery on my throat and my heightened ears listening for my father to wake up and make his way down the hall to force me into the darkness again. Like a molten ball of metal in my gut.
Why, love, does it
make such a difference
not to be heard
in spite of self
or what we may feel,
one for the other, but as a hammer
to drive again
into old hurt?
Robert Creeley, “For Fear”
At age 23, I have left a punk show at a friend’s house and taken a drive instead. I have driven north out of Asheville on Marshall Highway, past the edges of the small mountain town towards an even smaller mountain town called Alexander, and before the city limits, I have parked my car alongside the road and walked down to the water’s edge, where I can climb out onto an outcropped boulder. It’s November, it’s frigid. It’s even colder by the water, where the French Broad is rushing by packed with some melting ice and slush. Even in the darkness of the night, I can use the moon and see across to the other side. I am as broke as I have ever been, stealing food from the supermarket just to eat and surviving off the most minimal allowances. I am planning to move to Philadelphia in March, but at this moment, I am sitting on this riverbank and desperate to throw myself into the dark freezing water and let it remake my body on the rocks downstream. The pull of the current, my current lattice shape, they want to work together to make me into something new.
I have started dreaming again, after years of nothing. It’s a recurring dream, and I’ll have it for the next 15 years at least. I’m dreaming of a house that has been willed to me, a Victorian mansion in the mountains with a stone village behind it and grounds stretching out for acres and acres. But when I go to take possession of the dream house, it's occupied: by parties, by groups, by people I do not know and have nothing to do with. My goal now becomes their eviction, while a storm is gathering in the East.
I sit on the edge of the river and I think about my dreams and I think about my fear. I think about killing myself. I think about taking control of my lattice, my memory, my work and my art and reintegrating myself. I think about if this is even real or a dream or something I’ve written.
After several hours, I will get up and leave and nearly slip on the rock when I do. But I don’t die here. I am remade just by sitting in the darkness, in the cold, in hell, by myself.
What does not change / is the will to change.
Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers”