One of my first celebrity crushes was Britney Spears. I think I saw the music video for “Lucky” and felt I had a personal duty to understand the dark inner life that could make a cute blond famous girl “cry cry cry in the lonely night.” I would think about her before bed, before I was old enough to know what fantasies were, before this hint of an obsession would develop into a pattern of sexual attraction as an adult. To my ten-year-old self, these reveries under the covers were just a variation on the bedtime story — and just happened to be way more fun than the the ones my mother told me to put me to sleep. And the stories from this period reside in a sort of interim period in the progression of fairytale to erotica. They weren’t explicitly sexual, and so they felt safe. At the same time, they were a deviation from innocence, and so they felt delicious.
In a sense, humans have a really primal instinct to lose themselves in fantasy before sleep : we sing, we tell stories, we fantasize, we touch ourselves, we fuck, and then eventually we lose consciousness and dream. And it’s a ritual we can’t really tease apart — is the fantasy necessary for sleep, or is sleep necessary in the aftermath of fantasy? How do our highly controlled waking-dreams relate to our completely out-of-control sleeping fantasies? And how are both worlds inevitably shaped by our parents?
“My father always makes me turn away / while he snaps the owl’s neck.” writes Van Landingham in “Elegy in Which I Refuse to Turn Away.” The speaker insists on watching the gruesome task, of renouncing her childhood and claiming her “Miranda rights,” evoking a coming-of-age that is both judicial and mythical — you can’t help but read Miranda and Prosperous into the father-daughter dynamic here. The rebellion is another kind of submission — determined by doing the exact opposite of what you’re told. It’s reactionary, so it isn’t pure self-possession. True freedom can only be achieved in the dream state :
Anything I say can and will be used against me
in the middle of the night. Boat I dream fills with talons.
I have the right to use them as I want.
The dream acts as a kind of buffer, a temporary space where the brain can work out horror and transgression without incurring consequences in the waking world. On the other hand, the dream world is made up of nothing but consequences from things said and done while awake. Unconscious dreams are generated by their opposite, consciousness — chaos parented by order. Objects in the dream shed their context and meaning and end up in a fabricated situation with no inherent value. “I have the right to use them as I want,” but what kind of a right is that? Who would define freedom as having a boatful of owl talons at their disposal?
Sleep is a constraint: it marks the end of the day, a punctuation mark. In “Elegy,” the time for sleep and waking is inverted : “I can sleep all day. Things happen & my father dies.” Grief lays the day on its head, and the mundane takes refuge in the imaginary :
In another life, I am promised
to a lawyer. I have a wedding chest heavy with linens.
When I wake in a small boat filling with ocean,
my father sews the wedding dress into my skin.
One is not sure where to locate the dream at this point, and we are only at line 4. Is this a story about Zhuanzi and the butterfly? A man dreams he is a butterfly, then wakes to find he is a man again, is he a man dreaming of a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of a man? When the waking world requires imposed logic in order to navigate it — “Hospice recommended we starve him. I did” — dreams are a welcome refuge where the logic, albeit absurd, is self-determined. When you awake to a nightmare (your father is dying, your father is sewing a wedding dress into your skin), the following dream state is a place where the nightmare is contained, possessed by the dreamer.
The implicit knowledge of dream logic, “He is saving it. I know this. / From something worse,” provides a sense of security which surrounds the unknown. Even though we are not allowed the details (what something worse?) we feel like there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for what is happening. “And somehow that made sense in the dream,” we often say when recounting a completely illogical detail from the night before: My mother couldn’t call me because my hair had grown too long. Britney Spears is wearing my favorite shoes because her plane landed early. Of course. Seems reasonable. Then we wake up thinking “wait a minute…” Still, we want desperately to believe in this logic, so much so that we try to explain it to our friends, convince them of our new reason. So are dreams just artifice, giving us a dose of the feeling we so desperately want to have while waking? Giving us just enough so that we can survive brutal, cold, illogical reality? Or are they the contagion? Are they a delusion waiting to take over our waking life? Is the dream the poison or the antidote?
What if our dreams are inoculating us, providing us with just enough poison to immunize us against life :
Against enemies, digital
sex, fog banks, proclamations of love over
Antidote inhabits a world where opposing images are “given against” each other, and each comes away with imprints of the other : in the poem “Antidote”, sex is “sweat-stained,” it is a gun being cleaned, it is pulling your lovers hair, proclamations of loving pinning you to the ground. But it is also “digital sex,” and “proclamations of love over the phone.” It is distance and clinical realism. I have read that certain stroke patients, when holding an object in one hand, are only able to describe it, and while holding it in their other hand, are only able to name it. The logical and the poetic spheres of the brain are at odds. So do our dream state and our waking state oppose one another. Antidote, written in the aftermath of trauma, written as an elegy, a valediction, a dowry of grief, drives into this uneven opposition. Bodies and things are pushed against each other and against one another until it is unclear what the difference is between a lover and a birdcage.
And what is the difference between two things? Between childhood and adulthood, for example? Is it the interim, the adolescence, that allows these things to be opposites? We don’t ever really cross the threshold to adulthood, do we? We just wake up one day and realize it’s already happened. Many oppositions we impose upon the world don’t hold up under the eye of logic. Dreaming should be the opposite of wakefulness, but what do you make of a day-dream? What of a lucid dream? Fairy tales, the fantasies we are born into, are infamously transgressive : the collection of Grimm tales are violent and sexual, the greek myths even more profane. And sexual fantasies, which should mark evolution into adulthood and all its complexity are, in fact, utterly mundane and childishly simplistic. The same few tropes are repeated ad nauseam in porn, and yet it still gets us off. Maybe we don’t live in a cleanly cleaved world, but a world of shadows, imprints, reverberations between two elusive poles. In Antidote, Van Landingham uses surrealism to confront the instability of the logic we apply to life, and to speak about the interim phases, the just-before-sleep and upon-waking phases, about hospice hovering between life and death, about adolescence and healing, those so-called anomalies that make up, in fact, the majority of the human experience.
Visit Corey Van Landingham’s site and buy this amazing collection of poetry — Winner of the 2012 Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. She also happens to be an alumni of my alma mater, Lewis & Clark College.