"Transforming that Past":The Healing Power of Dreams in Paula Meehan's Poetry
Having grown up in a sociocultural environment in which "people's dreams were as important as the news," Paula Meehan values and draws on the intuitive insight of dreams, often referring to the inextricable connection between dreaming and the poetic imagination (Dorgan 266). In Meehan's work, then, dreams are more than a mere literary device or motif; they impart what in one poem Meehan calls "a highly polished mirror for the present times" (Painting Rain, hereafter PR, 82) and simultaneously open doors into the past and into the future that are usually closed to waking consciousness. In Meehan's work, dreams are primary agents for change, transformation, and healing.
Dream researchers have emphasized the transformative capacity of dreams at both the individual and the cultural level. As Jeannette Marie Mageo puts it, at the individual level "[d]reams engage us nightly in what might be called a phenomenological descent into the self" (23). In doing so, they offer what Ernest Hartmann calls "an explanatory metaphor for the dreamer's emotional state of mind" (4). At the cultural level, they can disrupt our cultural schemas, those "shared, patterned understandings that compose the normative world" (Mageo 24). Both self-knowledge and "an incipient critique of cultural reality" are thus facilitated by dreams (26).
Michele Stephen's model of the "imaginal mind" is particularly suited to account for the creative, transformative, and visionary potential inherent in dreams.1 Her model suggests the coexistence of two separate memory registers, the "semantic/language register of memory," which is usually available to waking consciousness, and the "emotionally-coded memory register" (97), which catalogues experience according to its emotional significance and operates outside consciousness. Stephen associates dreaming [End Page 114] with this latter memory register of the "imaginal mind." Dreaming, according to Stephen, "involves linking new sensory information to existing emotional categories or schemas" (98) and "represents a different way of apprehending and evaluating the world" (110). Freed from our semantically constructed conceptions of the world, dreams can provide us with insights occluded in everyday life by representing "the incomprehensible, the unthinkable—unthinkable, that is, in language and words" (Stephen 110). This, according to Stephen, accounts for the central role attributed to dreams in prophecy and, I would suggest, links the roles of prophet/dreamer and poet, both of whom are enabled to "transcend the semantically created world of society and culture, and thus [are provided with] the means of formulating a new vision which can be translated into language at a later date" (110).
As this essay aims to show, Meehan's poetry translates both the dream experience and its visionary potential into consciousness and language. Attuned to the intuitive insight and transformative power of dreams, her poems set out to diagnose and heal the wounds of the past, transcend the present, open new paths into the future, and ultimately restore a sense of selfhood, both at the individual and the collective level. The poet's openness to the dream experience, moreover, puts her in touch with the world of nature, spirituality, and the senses, inspiring her "imaginary reconstructions of a tribal past" (Praga 74) and turning her into what Meehan herself calls "a professional dreamer for the culture" (González-Arias 203).
The poem "St John and My Grandmother—An Ode" highlights the role her grandmother's dreams played in triggering and shaping Meehan's emergence as a poet: "Her dream tongue my first access to poetry: / by her unwritten book I've lived, I'll die" (PR 83). This statement evokes the tradition of oral storytelling, including the "dream tongue," and suggests the powerful social function inherent in this "unwritten book":
Her dreams, though I was not supposed to hear them,could rivet, terrorise, warn or shrive you.Her dreams were instruments of torturefor miscreant daughters who were out of line.(PR 82–83)
Although Meehan here alludes to the didactic and disciplinary uses to which dreams have been put, to her their most important function is not at all their potential use as "instruments of torture." Rather, like poems, dreams picture the world in metaphorical terms, "always signal portent, / every single thing [standing] for something else" (PR 82). As Meehan [End Page 115] points out, "the women in my family totally lived in a world of signs, symbols, portents—where nothing was ever what it seemed, people's dreams were as important as the news, and so talking about one thing in terms of another was a familiar way to operate in the world" (Dorgan 266). Accordingly, her grandmother is presented as the "[a]vatar of hearth mysteries" and the unacknowledged heiress to the Biblical prophets, her "dreamsongs for her daughters, / as apocalyptic as the visions of St John" (PR 83). Regardless of the uses to which her grandmother's and St John's dreams/visions have been put, Meehan insists on what she considers, with reference to St John's Book of the Apocalypse, their "true worth, hallucinatory / dreamscape of the eternal now" (82). The dream retold in her grandmother's own voice significantly "refuses a didactic read" and instead provides insight into the anxieties and fears of a mother whose seventeen-year-old daughter has emigrated, "to work in 1950s London, a scene / my grandmother can only imagine, having / never left Dublin" (83).
In the dream Mary repeats her daughter's journey, using public transport and confidently naming the precise stations of her journey. Fear of the unknown, however, is indicated by her increasing sense of isolation as she approaches London: her only companion on the tube is "the driver, a blackman" (83), whose ethnic identity and skin color translate this fear into racial terms, black men being unknown in the Dublin of that era. Like her daughter, the driver is an immigrant, but his blackness and male gender suggest the dangers a multicultural capital like London might harbor for a young Irish immigrant girl. Moreover, the dreamer's walk "all the way to Marie's" is characterized by desertion, silence, and unmistakable signs of autumn, abundant "dead leaves" that cover the street and have invaded the house. Those "blood red" leaves are harbingers of death so that the sight of "Marie chopped in a hundred pieces, hacked to death" (83) in her wardrobe does not come as a surprise; it only confirms Marie's mother's worst fears.
The difficulty of reaching Marie's bedroom, having to make her way through a "house . . . all leaves underfoot" (83), as well as Marie's failure to answer her mother's repeated calls and welcome her, further indicate the dreamer's fear of losing her daughter who has started her own life in a faraway city. The dream provides a psychologically acceptable, if horrifying, explanation for this failure in the form of Marie's violent death, but its imagery suggests that her mother experiences a less definite and yet similarly painful loss in the inaccessibility of her living daughter. Thus, the central leaf symbolism in which the theme of leaving translates into the image of autumn leaves suggests her own autumn, the desertion and silence that may be in store for her in old age (since seventeen-year-old Marie is "a [End Page 116] younger daughter" [my italics] it can be assumed that her mother is well past her childbearing years at the time of experiencing the dream). Accordingly, the dreamer herself is excluded and abandoned in the end: "And a river of blood came out of the wardrobe, / swept me in a wave right down the stairs / and out the front door onto the empty street" (83). She is transported from the very heart of her daughter's private life, the bedroom, to the outside of an "empty street," the river of blood through which she once gave birth now severing mother and daughter for a second, final time.
At one level, then, the dream metaphorically renders an individual mother's anxiety of growing old and losing her daughter. However, without wanting to push the dream's cultural implications, one might infer that Marie's being "chopped in a hundred pieces" metaphorically represents the disruption and disintegration that emigration enforced by economic necessity meant for Irish families and culture at large. The grandmother's dream, then, provides an "explanatory metaphor" (Hartmann 4) for her emotional and psychological state and simultaneously implies a cultural critique of Irish emigration during the economically strained 1950s. Its value does not necessarily inhere in its visionary accuracy but rather in its psychological truth and its powerful poetic rendering. For the dream, Meehan insists, is more than a psycho-cultural document; it is a form of poetry. Accordingly, her grandmother's dream narration is repeated "word for word" (83) and, put into stanzas, smoothly blends into the poem as a whole. Thus Meehan recovers and positions herself within an oral poetic tradition thriving on women's experiences, stories, and emotions.
Not only are dreams associated primarily with women in Meehan's poems, but they are also instrumental in retrieving lost or suppressed feminine qualities of both individual and collective psyches. This becomes obvious in "The Ghost of My Mother Comforts Me," when the speaker's dead mother appears in a dream, soothing socially inflicted wounds and bringing reassurance as well as temporary protection and peacefulness: "I will stroke your forehead till you sleep, / till you pass over into the dreamworld / where we can walk together in gardens wet with rain" (Pillow Talk 38). In "Ard Fheis" the speaker feels literally carried back to her childhood self: "my mother nursing me to sleep, / when all my world was touch, / and possibly was peace" (The Man Who was Marked by Winter, hereafter MMW, 22). In those "foetal" dreams transporting the speaker back to a pre-lingual, preconscious, pre-cultural state of being, sleep and dream are associated with the comforting, healing quality of the maternal. Typical childhood memories of maternal warmth and comfort include those of her "granny" as associated with "the smell of kitchen and sleep. / She'd rock me. She'd lull me. [End Page 117] No one was kinder" (Dharmakaya 12) or of her younger sister whose bed Meehan used to share: "I shift into her spot in the bed, an animal's lair, / lined with dreams and the smell of her hair" (16). These poems of childhood emphasize the instincts and the senses, especially smell and touch, providing shelter from cold and hostile environments:
My Sister Lets Down Her Hair
into the winter bedroom and I turnto the hollow of the bed we shareher warmth still there and her smell.(16)
The grown-up speaker poetically re-creates the sensuality of her half-asleep state by means of the poem's flowing rhythm and enjambments, its hypnotic repetitions and alliterations ("her rivery hair," "her golden hair"), as well as its intricate use of internal and end rhyme ("hair," "share," "there"). The present tense suggests that the speaker re-experiences this state in what might well be a dream or half-dream, in which she at least temporarily retrieves the warmth and light radiating from her sister and re-experiences her inevitable loss: "and I am any creature left for lonely" (16).
Even for the grown-up speaker, then, sleep and dream provide a source of comfort and consolation as in "Train to Dublin," where the speaker writes in what is in itself a mind-soothing chant:
I lay my head on Akhmatova's lap,sob like a child, thumb in my mouth.She sings me lullabies, eases me into the dark.
Mother of my spirit, my guide,sweet lady smelling of mint and apple,I lay my head on Akhmatova's lap.(33)
Here, again, poetry and dream are equated, the poet Akhmatova turning into the speaker's dream guide and spiritual healer. Moreover, the poem presents sleep as both re-creative and creative in summoning positive images like "song, a whorl // of light and your face" (23). The possibility of remaking the world from this new or temporarily retrieved vantage point of unlimited possibility and protection is mirrored in the continual association between dream and birth/childhood in Meehan's work, epitomized in images such as "my kingdom of childhood dreaming" (Return and No [End Page 118] Blame, hereafter RB, 8), "the seed that lies dreaming in the apple" (35) or "a young self / Sowing dreams in Gardiner Street" (36). In dreams we can temporarily retrieve our lost Eden, reimagine the past, and envision the future. In "Lullaby," written for Meehan's pregnant sister, mother and unborn child are united in a primeval dream of cosmic and natural unity:
My sister is sleepingher hands full of blossomsplucked for the child
who dreams in her wombrocked in tall branchesclose to the stars
where my sister is sleepingwithin her small child.
A similar union can be achieved by lovers, not only while they are united in bed, the place that combines the spheres of sleep/dream and lovemaking, but also while physically apart. In "Night Prayer" the speaker, in what seems like a lucid dream, wills herself "to fly / through the sheets of rain" (Pillow Talk, hereafter PT, 30)—the term sheet punning on its second meaning of bed sheet and thus implying the state of sleep/dream—in order to haunt her lover's house on the other side of town.2 Between them lie the sites of cultural, social, and political, in short waking, life (such as "the prison," "the fashionable streets," "the Daíl," and "the Museum"). These, however, are left behind by the speaker in her ghostly dream flight which lets her transcend physical boundaries and makes her merge with nature:
I inhabitthe rain. Lean out. I'll washover your body, cleanse you of burdensyou've carried too long, rinse you of griefand ghosts of old that batter your heart.(30)
In this poem the speaker/dreamer offers the soothing, healing reassurance earlier experienced in her own dreams, which is clearly facilitated by her pregnant condition and resulting closeness to nature: "the moon is safe above the clouds / growing as our child grows in me / safely, a secret still" (30). The reader can only speculate about the specific "burdens," "grief," and "ghosts of old" tormenting the addressed lover. However, similarly to [End Page 119] "The Ghost of My Mother Comforts Me," in which cultural schemas like the moral categories of "Fallen woman, adulteress, breaker of marriage vows" (38) are ameliorated by the mother's authoritative dream voice, "Night Prayer," too, seeks to dispel culturally induced causes for shame and moral guilt: "I wish you / a clear day to walk in, no fear, no shame / . . . / your mind free of riddles and scourging confusions" (30).
This is not to say that Meehan's poetic explorations of dreams evade conflict or suggest solutions in terms of flights of fantasy and delusion. Rather, the dreaming mode provides her poetic speakers with what Hartmann has termed "a safe place" in which fruitful negotiation with the dreamer's past and emotional state can occur. According to Hartmann, dreaming, like psychotherapy "involves making connections in a safe place" which is afforded "by the state of sleep, and especially REM sleep, during which there is profound muscular paralysis that effectively prevents the dreamer from acting out the dream," but also by other dreamlike activity involving muscle relaxation, such as "hypnagogic states, half-dozing or reverie, and daydreaming" (133). All these activities occurring in or bordering on the state of sleep further the coming to terms with painful, traumatic experiences. Accordingly, quite often the seeds of resistance and self-assertion are sown in dreams, for instance when the adolescent speaker in "The Loading of the Gun" begins her rebellion "against the paternal threats to her autonomy and aspirations" (Kirkpatrick) after a fight with her father: "In my bed that night I loaded a gun / To stalk dreams across the cold sheets" (RB 13). Similarly, in "A Stray Dream" the dreamer gains crucial insight into the problematic constellation of her current relationship. The image of a "seafront hotel out of season" where her partner is "[h]umping some dancer" as the "dawn struggled to break on the sea / And break on the quick and the slow and the dead" hints at the couple's impending break-up (PR 54). Accordingly, the final two lines of the poem suggest that the speaker will very likely start to (metaphorically) clean up, take flight, or walk away toward a new beginning from what seems to be an emotionally unstable partnership: "When I woke the next morning under the bed / Dustdevils, feathers and some child's brown shoes" (54).
Most conflicts, however, are rooted in painful past experiences that surface in dreams once the hubbub of everyday life has receded and the "anti-repressive mechanisms" (States 154) of dreams seek to express the dreamer's emotional and traumatic conflicts. As Meehan's poetic speakers stress again and again, for instance in "Fist," the need to re-experience the past and "by transforming that past / change the future of it" (Dharmakaya 13). This is most strikingly achieved in those poems using dreams or dreamlike [End Page 120] states as ways of re-entering the past. In these poems Meehan ultimately creates a space between remembering and re-imagining the past in which change and transformation become possible. As Catriona Clutter-buck puts it, Meehan's poetry "tends to negotiate the territory between, rather than opt for one or other, of the two possibilities of a changeable and a changeless given reality" (111). Even though the past cannot be altered, then, dreamlike states enable us to re-experience and re-live it from the secure vantage point (or "safe place") of the present. Moreover, drawing on our emotionally coded memory register, dreaming or half-dreaming at its best transcends past experience and brings to light hitherto unrealized perspectives, insights, and creative solutions. Thus, in "Take a Breath. Hold It. Let It Go" the speaker transforms the memory of her sister's actual fall off the fence into a triumphant circus act (cf. Dharmakaya 15). Even though this re-dreaming of the past does not undo the younger sister's fall, it makes the speaker realize that, in fact, "[t]hen or now, [she] could not save" her younger sister; instead she has to leave her to finding "her centre" and this realization may at least help to "let [. . .] go" of the sense of guilt, to loosen the "lump in [her] throat" into which the unarticulated call of her sister's name has turned over the years.
Thus, even though our dreams cannot undo or literally change the past, they can heal its wounds, change its emotional impact, our own perspective on and relationship with past events. Accordingly, for Meehan memory serves "as agent for changing the present" and one of her poems' declared aims is "to achieve change and to be free by the act of recovery" (González-Arias 202). Again, it is through dreams or dreamlike states that this liberating and healing "act of recovery" is most easily achieved. In "A Reliable Narrative," the speaker's "much feared" maternal uncle comes to haunt her in a "half dream" precisely while she is "alone on the side of a mountain in Ikaria / a sanctuary sacred to a god of healing" (PR 76, my italics). As Jeremy Taylor points out, "[d]reams always come in the service of health and wholeness, and they will always move toward integrating and transforming your denials and self-deceptions" (71). It is only after having lived once more through her profoundly unsettling memories of her uncle that the speaker, at least for the time being, feels able to let go of those memories and to "lay him [her uncle] down now in the shade of a holmoak" (PR 78).
"The Wounded Child," too, focuses on the speaker's need to retrieve and come to terms with traumatic childhood experiences. In this poem, the repressed past is pictured as a "wounded child" buried deep below the speaker's many layers of consciousness and imagined as a Russian doll's "inmost figure / from the birch's heartwood whittled / so small the face has [End Page 121] lost its human guise" (PT 59). Preparing for the journey within requires the summoning of positive energies, or, to use Hartmann's terms, the creation of a "safe place" induced by talismans or good memories as well as putting on the protective "mask" of unfamiliar "battledress" (56). Only after shedding all signs of social and cultural conformity can the speaker embark on the "descent into [her] self," her quest for wholeness (Mageo 23): "Somewhere in the girl you once were / is the wounded child. Find her. / You have to find her" (PT 57). The speaker instructs her addressee (i.e., herself) to retrieve those painful memories that she had suppressed in order to survive. These memories are associated with a fragile, undeveloped femininity, "[c]urled / to a foetal grip" (57), that was lost in the process of adapting to the demands of a masculine world, imagined fairy tale-like as "a man with big hands / and sharp teeth." The "big hands," "sharp teeth" and the world's / man's "huge weight / on her chest" (PT 57) imply the girl's literal or metaphorical rape. The speaker's quest, then, as Katarzyna Poloczek aptly puts it with reference to Dharmakaya, "engages her corporeal memory into an active transformation of the self's relation to the past," as she is setting out to "redeem her memories from oblivion, pain and the gripping, recurrent anxiety that they tend to evoke in her whenever she comes too close to the suppressed truth" (292).
Very often, the first inklings of such a "suppressed truth" occur in dreams. According to Jeremy Taylor, only when the dreamer is emotionally and intellectually mature enough to face the suppressed past experiences, will he or she consciously remember "the dreams that constellate around them" (91). Those dreams, earlier lost to a "healthy amnesia" (91), now begin to surface and signal to the dreamer's waking consciousness that it is time to confront and creatively deal with the traumatic past. Accordingly, while displacing the truth and repressing the past may have been necessary survival mechanisms for the young girl addressed in "The Wounded Child," the by now grown-up speaker needs to face and re-experience her past, in the process reclaiming the "wounded child," that buried part of her self, nursing it back into life so that it will be able to grow and breathe freely. What is "unwritten, silent, mute" must be recovered from the depths of the subconscious by being articulated, brought back into the realm of language: "Tell her truth" (PT 57).
This truth telling is achieved by means of a dreamlike prose tale included in the fourth section of the poem, in which the repressed recollection of the rape is metaphorically transfigured into the tale of a child lost in the woods and a woodcutter cutting down her place of shelter, a tree. In the course of this story the child is transformed, Daphne-like, into the tree until [End Page 122] she finally breaks out of her at once protective and restrictive shell: "A birch seedling thrives on the spot, thrives through the seasons until it is the finest sapling in the forest. The girl pushes through rings, sheds silver bark on the snow" (PT 58). Once retrieved, the painful traumatic memories can be transformed into something positive; the cut down tree is what the beautiful Russian doll has emerged from. As Jeremy Taylor elucidates, in dreams
the archetypal wounded child within . . . is always the one who carries the as-yet-unrealized creative energies and possibilities, and the decision to come to the rescue of the child-self invariably results in a release of emotional and creative energies in other areas of the dreamer's waking life. . . . Old, repressed memories and emotions must be consciously acknowledged and experienced in order to clear the way for newer creative energies and feelings to emerge.(198)
It is not surprising that Meehan should write a poem aimed at healing the figure of an abused girl, a figure that is both individual and communal at this point, in the wake of what has come to be known as the X-case, the case of a fourteen-year-old girl, pregnant after rape, and legally prevented from obtaining an abortion in England. Significantly, Meehan draws attention to the date of writing the poem, 25 February 1992, precisely the time at which the X-case gained public attention in Ireland (cf. Smyth). By doing so she deliberately emphasizes the poem's communal significance. As Meehan puts it in an interview, the "'I' in [her] poems can be shamanic and individuated at the same time" (O'Halloran and Maloy 10). This implies that the poet speaker attempts to heal the wounds of her culture, curing the "wounded" femininity not only of her individual self but of the Irish community as a whole. The world that has turned into "a man with big hands / and sharp teeth" needs to retrieve the feminine energy that has been demonized, victimized, and suppressed for too long.
Significantly, the poem links gender and ecological concerns in connecting the raped girl to a cut-down tree. The girl is described as dreaming through what seems a long period of time in which "[f]ire consumes the forest; smoke obscures the sun. Deer and wolf alike flee the hungry tongues" (PT 58). Her gradual recovery is facilitated by her healing dreams of nature, and she survives not least of all because of her ability to shape-shift—turning into a tree, emerging from a new sapling and in the end feeling "sunlight pulse through [her] leaves, / snow melt to nourish [her] roots" (PT 59). Dreaming is presented as a form of shape-shifting, potentially putting the dreamer in touch with what Meehan calls her "emotional or psychic [End Page 123] wilderness" (Praga 80) or "[t]he animal part of us" (O'Halloran and Maloy 13). This theme is explored again and again in Meehan's work, perhaps most poignantly in her unpublished children's play The Wolf of Winter in which the young protagonist is haunted by dreams of a wolf that later turns out to be her sibling, leading her away from an alienated human world back to a more fulfilling, tribal existence. Dreams, then, can be instrumental in retrieving not only repressed feminine energies but also in "collapsing the boundaries between human and animal" and thereby "acknowledging the [human] wilderness within" (Kirkpatrick). As Jeremy Taylor argues, it is precisely our habitual rejection of our own "'natural/animal urges'" that is in part responsible for "our suicidal destruction of the planet's ability to nurture and sustain" (112). Meehan's poem "The Wolf Tree" beautifully elaborates how in dreams we can potentially recover our "own original domain," the "naked" state of humanity as part of the natural world:
If you were to dream back through all the treesin all the forests the earth has grown,to the oldest, the original tree, the archeopteris, say,believed from a spore engendered,and climb up through its ferny branches –imagine the field you might survey,imagine the vista that might unfold,before the wolf tree's unleavinglike the hours of your life,finds you shivering, naked, unmasked and old:revealed out in your own original domainthe desert sand moving towards youthe pressure mounting, the original diamond pain.(PR 94–95)
This poem, emblematic of the visionary power inherent in Meehan's work, aptly illustrates Kirkpatrick's claim that Meehan "recuperates a shamanic role for the contemporary poet . . . and offers a vision of a re-enchanted world with human and non-human in intimate dialogue." As this essay aims to show, this "shamanic" poet's authority is rooted in her susceptibility to dreams, whose insights transcend the conceptual restrictions of the waking world. Through dreams the poet is not only put in touch with her own "animalistic" instincts and senses but is enabled to merge with nature, to shape-shift and open up to others, human and non-human alike. It is in this sense that the poet becomes what Meehan calls "a professional dreamer for the culture" (González-Arias 203), potentially capable of healing the wounds of the past and opening up new paths into the future. [End Page 124]
Michaela Schrage-Früh is an assistant professor at the Department of English and Linguistics at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. Her book Emerging Identities: Myth, Nation and Gender in the Poetry of Eavan Boland, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Medbh McGuckian (Trier: WVT) was published in 2004. She has published widely on Irish and British poets, including articles on Medbh McGuckian, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Paula Meehan, and Jackie Kay. She is currently working on a book entitled Dreaming Through the Ages: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Dreams in English Literature and Culture, 1600–1900.
1. For complementary accounts see Hartmann and Palombo, who draw particular attention to the vital role dreams play in the formation, consolidation, and broadening of memory. As Hartmann points out, "dreaming does not simply consolidate memory, but interweaves and increases memory connections. These new connections, or increased connections, are what make dreaming useful in problem solving, as well as in scientific and artistic creation" (4). Similarly, Palombo emphasizes "the ability of the matching process to go beyond narrow logical categories of waking thought to reach deeper levels of experience otherwise inaccessible to the dreamer" (307).
2. Lucid dreaming is an exceptional state in which the dreamer is aware of the fact that he or she is experiencing a dream. As Stephen LaBerge points out, lucid dreamers "are able to reason clearly, to remember the conditions of waking life, and to act voluntarily within the dream. . . . At the same time, they remain soundly asleep, vividly experiencing a dreamworld that can seem astonishingly real. Lucid dreamers can exert a remarkable degree of control over what happens in a dream, doing things that would seem magical, if not impossible, in the physical world" (338).