Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Dream
My daughters have been obsessed lately with the soundtrack to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
And though I’ve grown tired of it looping endlessly on repeat, the English teacher in me loves to sing along whenever the narrator croons to young Joseph: If you can interpret you will go far. If you can interpret you’ll be a star.
So when both my daughters woke up the other morning and reported having vivid and mysterious dreams, I couldn’t help but imagine that I was about to take my first steps towards stardom.
After all, as a devoted reader of contemporary poetry I’m used to trying to make sense of what often seems like an incoherent hot mess of images.
Tell me of your dreams, I said to my six-year-old as I poured her a bowl of cheerios, and I will tell you what they show. Though I cannot guarantee to get it right, I’ll have a go.
Well, my six-year-old said, I dreamed that we were playing in the front yard when the ice-cream truck came by, and even though you never-ever-never let us get anything from the ice-cream truck you decided that just this once you would buy us each an ice cream cone.
And as she looked up at me, waiting to hear just what exactly her dream could possibly be prophesying, I started thinking about the difference between accessibility and heavy-handedness.
Dreams, like poetry, return us to our unconscious and offer us, as Jung wrote, a “feeling-toned complex of ideas.” And if we can learn to tolerate their ambiguity, unpack their elusive metaphors, we begin to discover – to paraphrase Frost – what we didn’t know we knew.
But my six-year-old’s dream felt a bit too much like playing catch with my younger daughter – where you have to land the ball perfectly in her outstretched arms while she closes her eyes.
I wanted the chance to interpret a dream that framed its meaning without boxing it in, a dream that simultaneously invited and resisted interpretation.
And so I turned to my four-year-old, hoping that her night visions might offer me a little more challenge.
I dreamt about pigeons, she said.
What about them, I asked.
Just pigeons, she said.
Now, I’ve spent years studying the modernists’ treatises on imagism. And I know a thing or two about pigeons, having watched Animal Planet’s six-part-documentary on Mike Tyson.
But nothing about this dream seemed shaped by the poetic imagination; nothing offered me insights into my four-year-old’s aesthetic sensibilities.
What were the pigeons doing? I pressed. Were they eating breadcrumbs at a park? Pooping on a statue of a famous writer? Carrying an olive branch back to a boat full of paired animals?
But my four-year-old just stood there silently with her arms crossed – like a pint-sized pharaoh – and I knew that she’d uttered her final word on the subject, knew that she subscribed to la mort de l’auteur and that only a great prophet trained in the New Criticism could find meaning in those plump, domesticated birds.
And lo and behold, that very night, I dreamt I was playing catch with my daughters when none other than Joseph showed up, driving an ice-cream truck.
Joseph, I called out. The pigeons – what do they mean?
Dreams and poems, Joseph responded, they don’t mean anything, at least not in the way that you’re thinking about meaning. It’s all about learning to say yes to the sub-rational.
And I started thinking about the creative process and what it means to say yes – how hard it is as we grow older to dwell in possibility, as Emily Dickinson writes, and approach this world with relentless wonder.
And suddenly I didn’t care that every item on the truck was overpriced, or that dinner was just about ready and Choco Tacos would surely ruin everyone’s appetite, because I was seeing the world through my daughters’ eyes, this world where ice-cream just magically shows up in front of your house like manna from heaven, and I found myself overwhelmed with love and joy and rapture and thought, yes, yes, just this once, yes.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, is just out from Able Muse Press. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and is the Poetry Editor at Solstice Literary Magazine. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman