09
Mar
18

Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason is Marvelous

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Jenny George's The Dream of ReasonThe surrealist’s idea of the marvelous varies from surrealist to surrealist. For some, such as Andre Breton, the marvelous is “always beautiful . . . in fact only the marvelous is beautiful,” it can be something wonderfully unexpected, and for others, like Georges Bataille, it is the sacred. My definition frequently varies in nuance but usually revolves something like: the marvelous is an unexpected accident, like Roland Barthes’ punctum, which is transformative while, and perhaps because, it confronts reality. This confrontation is momentary. The perception, or act of witness, is momentary, but the effect(s) resulting from perception may endure in society for a generation, as society digests the marvelous object until it becomes ordinary, or something like ruin a tourist might visit. Thus, it is temporary in scale for the individual and temporary in the longer context of human history. The marvelous appears frequently in Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). One could even anticipate this from the title which brings together the dream/unconscious and reason/conscious, the two realms the surrealists want to join and give equal privilege to both.

In section 4 of “Death of a Child,” we can see how the infectious moment of the marvelous moves from individual to community:

     The conductor’s baton hovers
     for a moment in the alert
     silence (a silence that leans forward
     saying Now…! Now…!) and then it drops
     into the chasm.

     Sound enters the bodies
     of all the people simultaneously
     calling them to fell together
     an unconcealed fear, a cup over-
     flowing, a sense of absolute love     (14)

The Dream of Reason is divided into three sections, plus a frontispiece poem. Section I is focused on the loss of a child, Section II main focus is on the slaughter of pigs and cows, and Section III is the speaker’s transformation into accepting grief and brutality. The book really takes off in section I’s third poem “Everything Is Restored.” The poem opens in a mundane environment of feeding a baby prunes, cleaning his mouth, and putting him to bed in his crib, and the marvelous enters as the child slips “into the silvery minnows / of dreams, disorder of shine” (10). A transformative event is about to occur, the child appears to die in his sleep, which becomes more obvious in the following poem “Death of a Child.” The child’s death is wrapped in the beauty of “silvery minnows” to which “Harm will come.” It ruptures classical concepts of beauty. It transforms the child and then the mother who in a concluding surreal moment “folds up the ocean / and shuts it in cupboard,” as if pushing the event into her subconscious, but an event that undoubtedly will transform her. It’s a marvelous movement from the one experience to the other’s experience. Many of the marvelous moments in Section I, however, are contained in each a poem’s speaker, such as section 5 of “The Gesture of Turning a Mask Around”:

     The opposite of language is not silence
     but space.

     It’s dawn; the dark unjoins
     and drifts into light.
     I enter the house and see
     with astonishment the difference
     between my rooms.    (16)

Section I focuses on the transformative event of the loss of a child through semi-surreal imagery, and section II abruptly shifts to the slaughter of cows and pigs, where brief moments of the beautiful marvelous appear that will affect not just the speaker but the community of readers.

In Section II’s poems, there is very little enjambment. The effect, at times, creates a type of slide show (where each line in the poem is like photo slide) that slows down the actual event so the reader actively participates in the experience. For instance, in the “The Traveling Line,” each line is end stopped to create a snapshot moment, but by the end of the poem, it feels like it was continuous experience. Lines 3-8 provide an example:

     The pigs are loaded onto trucks.
     The pigs are prodded through a passage.
     They roll their many eyes.
     They see the hind legs of the one ahead.
     They call to one another like birds.
     The pigs become a traveling line.              (24)

And the poem becomes a traveling of lines pierced with horribly beautiful moments, like “They call to one another like birds.” The line on its own is beautiful, a beautiful punctum in the scene of slaughter, and within a series of snapshot images that create a unified experience, like a movie. The poem recreates a moment to awake the reader to the horror we’ve become numb to, that we take as ordinary, when in in fact it is extraordinarily cruel. In Section II, many of the poems use snapshot lines to create a fluid and lived experienced.

Section III opens with the possibility of hope in the poem “New World” and its first line “There are no slaughterhouses,” but the end is filled with indifference, “In the morning, the sun may rise. / Who knows. / There is nothing to be longed for” (41). Then the poems move into the marvelous, as defined above:

     Someone strikes a match. Briefly
     the earth is illuminated.
     Then it goes out, just the drifting flare of memory.
     But our eyes hold it – for a while
     it will be all we can see,
     the dark will stream with it, the nerves
     will salvage back the light until they can’t
     and we are bodies again.                               (“The Cave” 42)

And in “Winter Variations” there is the moment “In a vast theater: one note played on a piano. / It vanishes under a drift. // Briefly the trees hold the light in their arms” (46). All of this anticipates transformation in the following poems. She inhabits the brutal and violent and the points of beauty within them, and she learns to live in it. This happens, for example, in “Revelation,” where she and her father dissect a frog whose heart is “like a gray pearl on the tip of a knife” (56), and after they clean up the speaker says, “I’m not sorry / for the frog. I’m not sorry to know this” (56), where “this” is life sputtering out of the frog before it “drifts toward stillness” (56). The marvelous moments in the previous sections have left her in the ruin of the ordinary, where “The way to keep something is to forget it” (58). The marvelous has lost its magic. All this, in a sense, recalls Goya’s Capricho aquatint image “The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters,” which is where the book finds its title. In Goya’s image, a man sleeps with his head on his artist table as evil-looking bats and owls hover over and stare at him, while a lynx stares directly at the viewer. The artist is at ease enough to sleep despite the horror around him.

Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason does end on hope, though. After a winter turning into spring that is reminiscent of The Waste Land, the speaker of the final poem, “Easter,” realizes that the first part of a human to rise from the winter thaw is not the “brain” or “heart,” but “the image.” It will most likely be a new marvelous image, as she begins another transformation, which I hope to read in her next collection of poems.//

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George, Jenny. The Dream of Reason. Copper Canyon Press, 2018.

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