I started writing this text in February, and I finish it in April. Two months separate the beginning and last paragraph, during which so much has changed. I decided to leave the February words untouched.
I think I was subconsciously following the prompt of “What Sparks Poetry” this weekend (such a good little poetry machine!) since I spent a lot of it thinking about Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti. I had the pretty Dante Gabriel Rossetti-covered edition banging around that I just spent half an hour searching for but, appropriately, it’s nowhere to be found.
I’ve been obsessed with dream people and dream places ever since my bracing spell of pavor nocturnus as a kid, when the only way to not be afraid was to embrace the creepy until I didn’t care anymore. Often I dream of vast abandoned spaces, dusty hangars full of antiquated or speculative technology I must bring to life, slanted vertiginous ballrooms in crooked palaces, all dark wood and draperies—I wrote about one particular tower before, “The palace is full of the things I have abandoned/In all my past lives.” There’s a room in this tower—this one narrow, crooked tower I keep dreaming of—that’s particularly tall and eerie, starting in the back of the middle and open all the way to the top, with murky daylight falling on the ancient piles of books below.
I long to participate in a brain imaging study where this particular dream would be recorded and mapped and I’d be able to walk through it in VR and see with waking eyes all the baroque wonders of the ruined place. I had the fortune of having one of my only lucid dreams in this palace, where I came to standing in front of the worn structure, and realized I could fix it with just a wave of my hand—just like that, I turned it into a modernist Disney castle, and for good measure added a double rainbow up top. But the Howl’s Moving Castle version is the one that keeps coming back, even after I prematurely bragged to friends that my lucid dream breakthrough cured me of the place.
In the latest dream just a couple of days ago, I brought a friend there who is a sister to me, and at the time was ill to the stomach. I tried to show her the weirdest room—we were at the threshold when I was startled awake by my alarm. I think I wanted to take her there to show her the location of some ancient secret the meaning of which I didn’t know myself. I had visited this place like an astral Tatyana entering in dreams the lair of some supernatural Onegin. But the trip is that I am the Onegin, the mind that made this place of the flotsam and jetsam of architectural details my eyes have scanned over the years, buoyed by some collective subimagination of space, a Piranesi’s Carceri D’Invenzione of the mind. Where does this well of detail and taut awareness of space come from—and whose are these strange things, the drapes and the books, if not mine?
The tables are laden with beautiful ripe fruit that tastes like nothing, like rainwater or eyelashes, and makes me fall into a deeper sleep. A swoon. These spells happen in pockets in between the most rational days laden with very rational fears. Is the closed loop of my mind’s processor connected at the wavelength of sleep to some other collective source of information, a network or sole awareness that chooses when the dream will recur, imposes its favorite motifs on dream narratives: flight. Falling. Teeth. Am I trying to access some vital information that will heal me and mine in a forbidden zone that could just as well be the end of me?
Goblin Market launches right into the most delicious shopping list of fruits—viva the power of the list poem!—with goblins hawking
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
not exactly easy to come by in the same season in the London of the 1800s. And the enchanters themselves are quite the menagerie, singing in one siren angel voice:
One had a cat’s face,
One whisk’d a tail,
One tramp’d at a rat’s pace,
One crawl’d like a snail,
One like a wombat prowl’d obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.
She heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.
I can’t underestimate how much this kind of spelled repetition, the shifting meter and rhyme patterns following their own emotional logic and the music inside the words, influenced the way I write in English—Rossetti’s “irregular measures” that John Ruskin amusingly declared a “calamity of modern poetry.” But they also found a kindred bell in the ear as I simultaneously read the anonymous Croatian poets of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, poems of chant and repetition, epic simile and Slavic antithesis. For example, this gem:
Ive jaše kroz orašje.
Ive-li je, sunce-li je?
Konjik-li je, vila-li je?
Uzda-li je, zvizda-li je?
Sedlo-li je, srebro-li je?
VERY roughly translated (and failing to convey the satisfying sibilance of “Ive jaše kroz orašje”!)
John rides through the walnut grove.
Is it John, or is it the sun?
Is it a horse, or is it a fairy?
Is it a bridle, or is it a star?
Is it a saddle, or is it silver?
This brilliantly simple paean to fine John echoed in unison with later deployments of folklike incantation by poets like Jure Kaštelan, and in a mashup with this Rossetti portrait:
Laura stretch’d her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.
When I first picked up Goblin Market in the 90s, it fit right in with my slightly haunted goth-teen reading selection: the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne and Huysmans and Borges and Tim Powers and Clive Barker, Kenzaburo Oe and Buzzati and Alarcon and Kobo Abe and Remizov and Andreyev and Sheridan Le Fanu and Mishima and Tsvetaeva’s Unearthly Evening and Bruno Schulz’s The Cinnamon Shops. A collection of folk and modern cosmologies curated by Vasko Popa. Milorad Pavić. Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Sappho.” Le Guin and Ecco. Hawthorne and Bierce. Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. It was a funny choice for wartime to adore À rebours and Goblin Market, or? Seems like a very normal teen move to mentally conquer by aestheticizing the shadow that fell over us like a flower. That’s what I mean.
Meanwhile, in the poem… Laura buys queer fairy fruits for a precious lock of hair and a tear rarer than pearl, binding herself in body to the enchanted realm. She sucks up the message of the unknown orchard and stumbles home high and impervious to sister Lizzie’s cautionary tales. She pines even as they sleep entwined. I will not stop on the many interpretations of the poem’s allegorical load: the moral metaphor of the fruit of knowledge bearing sex and sin, as when Eve poured the foaming pitcher of cider and Bacchus laughed…the journey of addiction and redemption…and scores of readings blooming round academia. “Feminist, Marxist, Freudian, Queer Theory and New Historicist critiques which variously interpreted the poem as a warning about the dangers of a free-market economy, a protest against hazardous practices in 19th-century food-adulteration, a Christian tale of sacrifice and salvation, a parable of lesbian empowerment, a fable about anorexia, an expression of incestuous yearning and a tribute to the delicious oral and aural pleasures of poetry itself.” Two meanings stick with me all these years later, I follow two trains of association back to that first teen reading: Knowledge and Antidote.
The sadness that shadows extreme joys, the rush of discovery hushed by the weight of its implication, the crash after the long night out, a glimpse of heaven, the other world, and the price to pay. Laura is one of the many spelled by fairies and taken into mounds or sleeps that last a lifetime, all those heartbroken, of a pair with Keats’ knight in “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” Tennyson’s “Mariana” and “The Lady of Shalott” or, yes, poor scorned Tatyana 1.0.
These antiquated, tragic romantics blend in teen memory with Suzanne Vega’s song “Bad Wisdom”…the American girl making first contact with the Green Man in Margery Lawrence’s short story “Robin’s Rath” (1926)…the giant Magritte apple 🍏 on the cover of Wharton’s ghost stories where in “Bewitched” (1925) a dead girl calls to her lover from some barn…Leonid Andreyev’s strangely foundational “He. An Unknown’s Story” (1913) that I loved so much I used the pseudonym Ana Norden—and Andreyev’s Panpsychism, which I instinctively understood as that deep feeling of presence I encountered in nature, the meaning I found in the repetition of trees and the spans between them in the family orchard, met in Slavic fairytales and, later, reading about Shinto beliefs. Me at 10, walking around the orchard pretending it’s a theater, declaiming for an unknown audience hidden in the grass. Even earlier: calling out to dad hidden up my favorite apple tree in the snow. First thoughts on patterns: branches on white snowcrust, frost crystals like an alphabet I could maybe make out if I squinted. Beautiful, eery, heady knowledge everywhere I looked.
The stories whispered: Something is given that can only be accepted once. Something was glimpsed that can only be seen once for the first time. A soul was woken or sold. The moment of the acquisition of knowledge is when life and death begin, together, like sisters. In acknowledgement that we are animals who live, then die.
While with sunk eyes and faded mouth
She dream’d of melons, as a traveller sees
False waves in desert drouth
With shade of leaf-crown’d trees,
And burns the thirstier in the sandful breeze.
She becomes depressed. Anhedonic. She suffers from the sickness of the soul. Melancholia. Acedia. All the old words.
Here repetition is the melancholy vibrato at the end of the violin phrase:
She thought of Jeanie in her grave,
Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died
In her gay prime,
In earliest winter time
With the first glazing rime,
With the first snow-fall of crisp winter time.
Lizzie goes to her sister’s rescue. In place of vital energy, she offers goblins a penny to take their fruit to go, but they refuse: no takeout from a dream. Goblins call her “proud, / Cross-grain’d, uncivil;” in a disturbing tale of violation, they rough Lizzie up all to force her to taste the fruit. She resists and flies home covered in fruit juice, inviting stricken Laura to kiss it off her as an antidote. Second time around it’s gross, it burns, but it works. Laura is healed and the enchantment fades into a memory told at the hearth. And sisters are forever.
In the tale Bratac Jaglenac i Sestrica Rutvica (Brother Jaglenac and Sister Rutvica) by Ivana Brlić Mažuranić, two hapless orphans are trapped on an enchanted mountain where fairies connive to off them and rob them of a precious belt and cross. They are the last guardians of these artifacts of a lost kingdom. Their innocence and faith in each other save them; a hero-prince shows up as well, mostly to learn from the kids. At one point, Jaglenac makes it into a field of red and black berries, both poisonous, but with poisons that counter each other’s effects. He eats some of the black ones and sickens—and when an evil fairy offers him the red, he accepts them like a good boy. Jaglenac is healed. At another point, the hero tries to school Rutvica:
“Don’t be silly, crazy girl, my sword would rust if I were guided by a candle and lamp.”
“Your sword won’t rust, you’ll reap fields and meadows,” she replies.
This is as far as I got, in February. What do I say in April about a strange sickness? The wish to heal my friend with knowledge from a dream? Dreams this month have taken me into the sky, where I hover six feet above my friends; into a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-esque backyard, where angles tower and abysses yawn that I escape by stupid luck, running for the EXIT. I dream of a vengeful beetle, come to ravage my body for belittling a blue butterfly. Every day I hear of those who died. I think forward, wondering if there will be time “Days, weeks, months, years/Afterwards” to tell the story of what happened. I imagine a time of swords reaping meadows. Allegory drains away but the chant remains as I pray and pray for an antidote.
** Quotes are from this source. **
Sometimes I ride in on my horse
Like a shepherdess
To another shepherdess
At the edge of the woods
To avoid loneliness
Since you visited me
A couple of times
I haven’t known peace
Waterfalls at night
I lived in the development
Over your grove
And you came out
Funny little you
And touched my heart’s lips
You showed me rabbits
Bluebells in a sudden clearing
We flew up and saw
The tops of trees
Passing under us
Between the crowns and clouds
We made a promise
Never to make promises
But I made one anyway
Put a double rainbow
Over the ruined castle
With a touch of your finger
You set it on fire
The rainbow is burning