As everybody knows, one never sees the sun in one’s dreams, even though one is often aware of a light far more luminous. Objects and bodies have a radiance all their own.
— Gerard de Nerval
(trans. by Richard Sieburth)
1. Differences Between Dream Songs and Dream Machines
The link between poetry and dream is ancient, with the Surrealists only giving a Freudian veneer to an impulse that predates it by millennia: namely, the poet’s desire to seep the intensity and weirdness of dream experience into our quotidian, conscious experience. It’s an impulse that animates the poets of pagan rituals to certain scribes of the Hebrew testament to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” to the Rimbaud of Illuminations to Lyn Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes. But such poetry is never simply about telling the narrative of a dream, an approach that tends to bore the person who has not had the dream. Rather, the poet tries to achieve the near impossible of inscribing the affect of the dream, its sublimity or terror or eroticism or expansiveness, within the poem itself. Dream thought is radically different than conscious thought, but it is exactly this difference that certain poets attempt to bridge.
The title of Sade Murphy’s collection of poems, Dream Machine, emphasizes this element of active creation. The title seems two-fold. The book could be called a “dream machine” in the sense that it offers us a series of dreams within its pages (the book as dream machine). But the title could also be taken more literally: the brain is a “dream machine,” generating those odd, otherworldly landscapes when neural activity reaches a certain state. But whether the “machine” is book or brain, or both, the dreams are being constructed, produced. This isn’t a book searching for lost dreams. This book generates dreams.
That the title is essential to Murphy’s book is emphasized in the opening pages, where the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of both dream and machine are given. The combination of these words seems crucial for understanding the work as a whole. If the title of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs implicitly foregrounds the singer, the human voice, the title of Murphy’s book emphasizes something pre-singer and post-singer: neural activity on one side, and book-as-machine on the other. (I don’t mean to imply “song” is better or worse than “machine.” Berryman has long been one of my favorite poets. I simply mean the two words offer two approaches to “dream.”)
There is an “I” in Dream Machine, but this “I” is almost always grounded in a larger scenario or landscape. There’s no figure like Berryman’s Henry, who has a consistent set of neuroses, strivings, fears, and a consistent past that has given rise to those things. But in another sense, the poet is the landscape. Murphy quotes Angela Welling: “Everything in the dream is the dreamer.”
2. Psychedelic Apocalypses
The dreams created by this particular machine often echo, to me at least, the dreams generated by the machines of Jodorowsky’s films (The Holy Mountain, El Topo) as well as the chilling psychedelic fantasias in the second half of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Like those artists, Murphy has a talent for mixing the colorful and vivid with the menacing, the apocalyptic (in all senses of that word). In poem number 79, she writes, “I was never more happy to be a multicolor horse of the apocalypse riding a rainbow into hell.” But poem number 68 maybe gives the reader the best glimpse of this sensibility:
The night I sucked smoke out of the skull you stole the best of my dreams. You woke up and stretched yourself across my back breathing our dream into my ear. A farm and horseback and kidnapping. Adventure and confusion and necrophilia. Horse riding and samba rabbit skins. A catharsis of feathers, camouflaged lavalieres, percolating rocco kids in full French & Indian War regalia.
The image of sucking smoke conjures up the idea of getting high, with “the skull” giving it a Gothic turn. The “you” in the poem seems to be both nemesis (someone who steals the “best” of the poet’s dreams) and spiritual doppelganger (the dream is also “our dream”). Both “you” and the poet go on a series of adventures that seem like scenes from eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. The farm and kidnapping imply adventure books; the necrophilia implies the Gothic. In the last line, history and literature collapse into the same substance with a Kara Walker-like intensity (“camouflaged lavalieres, percolating rocco kids in full French & Indian War regalia”). “Percolating rocco kids” is an especially startling line: it lucidly evokes the actual texture of dreams, the “percolating” fluidity of dream life.
It’s not hard to imagine why artists and writers like Jodorowsky and Pynchon would create surrealism so laced with toxins and apocalypse. The late 60s/early 70s was a time of many little wars shadowed by the terrible promise of one big final war. It’s also not hard to imagine why this sort of dire surrealism should be making a return in recent years, circulating as we do in a world of environmental catastrophe and economic inequalities so extreme they appear to be ushering in a new feudal era. As the world gets fucked-up, so do its dreams. In poem number 7, Murphy writes, “I choke down the rum and the silicone pork. The fork punctures a boil on my gums and influenza gushes into my cavities. Suitors bring me quail eggs and sea turtles for stew, mashed peas for the bouillabaisse. But my appetite grows dusty and I long for singing wheat grass and frog legs.” Choking, puncturing, boils, influenza, sea turtle stew: the dreams from this machine are terrifying and visceral and sometimes “in bad taste.” Good taste and pleasant dreams, Murphy seems to suggest, are luxuries few of us can afford.
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.
— William Blake
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
There are several mysterious, amorphous figures in Murphy’s book. There is the “you” already mentioned. There is a “nightmare man” who appears occasionally. But the most recurring figure is “Him.” As with “you,” it is unclear who this figure is: the male gaze? A male doppelganger of the poet? God? The dream machine personified? In poem ii, Murphy highlights this ambiguity: “Was some voice calling my name? Was it reckless Dream? Was it God? Was awe filled awful?…Was where? Was I?”
Murphy is an African-American poet, and there are times in the book when “Him” seems to be the white male God of mainstream American Christianity. At no point does Murphy say “Him” is a white male God, and that seems fitting, since these are dreams, and identities blur in dreams. But some of the lines about “Him” have a theological quality. In poem 38, for example, Murphy writes, “Where my name ends Him name begins. The stranger and the vessel.” And the fact that “Him” is always capitalized implies that this figure has, at least at times, this mystic element.
While reading certain passages about “Him,” I kept thinking back to the famous passage in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, where Shug Avery tells Celie that she should liberate herself from the idea of God as being a white male, and start to imagine God not as a Him or Her, but as a pantheistic It.
Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up the flowers, wind, water, a big rock.
The passage suggests that an all-out attack against an anthropomorphic conception of God leads eventually to pantheism. (Shug Avery and Spinoza are on the same page on this.) Not all attempts to undermine the equation of God = White = Male have gone the pantheistic route though. For example, Cornel West locates his work and activism firmly within the black Christian church tradition, though he clearly doesn’t view God as a white male. Of course, the image of God as being white male is still dominant in our culture, and underpins the distribution of power and visibility within American society. What would happen if American Christians, both black and white, went to church every Sunday to worship a God who was seen as black and female? But the spiritual imagination tends not to work that way. Rather, deities usually wear the face of power even in religious traditions that preach it should be the reverse.
In Murphy’s collection, the figure of “Him” is frequently oppressive and soul crushing. “Him is a transparent cyanide knot,” Murphy writes in poem 21. “I feed Him tuna on sunlit foil thrush. Him makes me feel amputated blue. I binge on mausoleum screams. I lose myself in swarms of guttural color. Him won’t think to find me in a clean rote Amen.” The last “Amen” implies this is not a prayer to a white male God, but a prayer of escape from this God – as if the poet were praying to some Godhead beyond “Him” and the trouble he brings.
There is a long tradition of imagining God as a lover (the Canticle of Canticles, St. Teresa’s writings), and Murphy takes this theme up in what might be the most provocative and disturbing poem in the book. Here is number 38 in its entirety:
Where my name ends Him name begins. The stranger and the vessel. To Him sex is not a question. Sex is an answer Him give. It is a wordless understanding. A laced-up innocence. Him make me sweat. Him and I are the seduction. Him another word for hero. Him has amber eyes of a feral beast. Mocking me, clothed in a pressed, collared shirt. Him has me tied to a stake. Him is the flame consuming my entire body.
I’ve already mentioned the biblical-tinged opening lines, which color the rest of the passage. Yet if “Him” is God or God-like at first, the metaphors about “Him” swiftly change. “Him” is “another word for hero” who at one moment seems like the Beast from La Belle et la Bête (with the “amber eyes of a feral beast”) and who the next is an executioner tying the poet to the stake. Then there is a final metamorphosis, with “Him” turning into “the flame consuming” the poet’s body. In a few sentences, “Him” moves from being God to being the Beast to being an executioner to being a flame. Hero and murderer, God and beast, divine and feral. And, lastly, elemental.
That this dream is in fact Murphy’s implies that – appearances to the contrary – she is actually the one in charge here. “Everything in the dream is the dreamer,” as Angela Welling reminds us, and in poems like 38 Murphy appears to be attempting to not just trace the psychic scars left by “Him” in his varying forms, but also to dethrone “Him,” to make him an actor following the scripts of her dream life. If history has foisted upon the poet an image of the divine as a white male, and if culture has always watched the poet with its male gaze, the poet through these dream machines appears able to torque that history and subvert that culture. If all deities reside in the human breast, as Blake says, then Murphy scrapes away at the outer power of “Him” and makes him servant in her dreams. In 21, Murphy writes, “I clad Him chest in fish-scale pants,” almost as if he is now her plaything, or her pet.
Even in those poems where he is cruel, “Him” doesn’t have the sublime quality of God in the Book of Job, who proclaims himself to be beyond all human understanding. Rather, “Him” is childish, moody, and hurtful. “Him thrashed apart my garden,” the poet tells us in 40. “Him tore my onions out of the ground.” Chaos is his element. “Him snuck in and turned my entire house upside down,” Murphy writes in poem 36. “The floor plan was flattened, mashed up.” Whoever “Him” is – God or male gaze or some element more obscure – there seems little awe-inspiring about him. If many of these poems have a strong element of the Romantic Sublime, and they do, this sublimity stems from the worlds being described, not “Him.” “Stars shot across the sky,” Murphy tells us midway through the collection. “Flakes of ash escaped the fire landing on garments. Fireflies flashed like traffic light key lime pie…The constellations prize their disdain bestowing enough light to be a marvel but taking their sweet unsynchronized time. Feel nothing but the stoked blaze on skin.” Murphy seems close to Shug Avery in the way she moves from “Him” to It.
4. The Economy of Dream Life
On the opening page of the book, Murphy writes, “The ghost of a dream expands, consumes more space than necessary.” Unlike the proportions of our conscious world, dreams exist in excess of what they are (moments in our sleep) and due to that excess appear charged with significance. This is a central reason why people have interpreted dreams for millennia. And one of the strengths in this sharp, visceral collection is its ability to create that sense of significance. Though these dream machines are ultimately impossible to interpret, like dreams themselves, the poems are haunted with a sense of oblique meaning, and because of this they soon become our dreams too. In fact, these dream machines generate more dreams, further dreams. Murphy’s Dream Machine is a fierce reminder that there is nothing escapist about dreams: instead, they are a currency in our waking world, with their own explosive economies.