My Dream by Henry James


In my dream by Henry James there is a sentence:
“Stay and comfort your sea companion
for a while,” spoken by an aging man
to a young one as they dawdle on the terrace
of a beachfront hotel.  The young man doesn’t know
how to feel—which is often the problem
in James, which may have been the problem
with James, living, as he said, in the work
(“this is the only thing”), shaping his late
concerti of almost inaudible ephemerae
on the emotional scale.  By 1980,
when this dream came to me, the line spoken
takes on sexual overtones, especially since
as the aging man says it he earnestly presses
the young man’s forearm, and in James
no exchange between people is simple,
but the young man turns without answering
to gaze over the balustrade at the ocean,
over the pastel textures of beach umbrellas
and scalloped dresses whose hems brush the sand,
without guessing the aging man’s loneliness
and desire for him.  He sees only monotony
as he watches waves coming in, and this odd
old man who shared his parents’ table on the ship
seems the merest disturbance of the air,
a mayfly at such distance he does not quite hear.
Why should I talk to anyone? glides over his mind
like a cloud above a pond
that mirrors what passes over and does not remember.
But I remember this cloud and this pond
from a mid-week picnic with my mother
when I was still too little for school
and we were alone together
darkened by shadows of pines
when with both hands she turned my face
toward the cloud captured in the water
and everything I felt in the world was love for her.


“Describe a dream, lose a reader,” a beloved mentor used to tell his workshop of aspiring poets.   I must have taken that dictum as a challenge, since my second book, Restoration, mostly comprised dream poems.  But the most brilliant contemporary dream poem I know is Michael Ryan’s “My Dream by Henry James,” from God Hunger.   Far from losing us, and worlds away from the self-indulgence that my mentor rightly tagged as an irresistible temptation attending the dream poem as a genre, Ryan’s poem holds the reader close.  It ratchets her attention to a pitch so breathtaking that she has no choice but to see the poem through to its end.   How does the poet do this?

One important way is through a series of expertly plotted poetic turns.  This poem’s brilliance, as well as its searing empathy-become-memory, is rendered in a series of hypotactic turns that make its single verse paragraph a sinuous switch of language.   This switch – and its constituent micro-switches – is neither sensationalist nor satisfied to stop at a simple mimesis of the visual or verbal non-sequiturs that constitute the surface life of dreams.  The switching is instead part and parcel of a deep integrity that informs Ryan’s approach, since a braiding of conscious and unconscious material is necessary for the assimilation of dreams into our waking lives, as Freud knew.  Ryan’s trajectory is associative, but it is also the product of shrewd, albeit subterranean, reason;  here crystallized emotion “switches”  and cedes to more distanced analysis and back again, making space for both to breathe.  The speaker has learned from the dream, and we will too – though this is a poem, after all, and we might not all learn the same thing.  But this poem is not content to bask in a dream’s cleverness or weirdness; Ryan is too relentless for that.  His poem is instead both an expository and an archaeological site.

We’ve come at times to see the very notion of the poetic turn as emblematic of the lyric poem itself, particularly in cases like the sonnet’s volta.   It is ironic, then, that this turning  is precisely what enables Ryan to do the work demanded of a fiction writer the likes of James employing his infamous “right reflector”: that is, to enter into characters’ consciousness with such articulated, stereoscopic imagination that the boundaries of the self no longer apply.  Hence a dream no longer “belongs” to the ego of its dreamer but is instead authored by the dead Henry James who “produces” its synecdochal sentence.  (Note too that the dream “came” to the speaker as if activated by an agency outside the self.)  The plaintive beauty of that sentence – “Stay and comfort your sea companion for a while” – is made ominous by the enjambment ending line 3, when we learn that it is “spoken by an aging man / to a young one.”  While the sentence’s addressee would not be particularly notable if the young man really were a man who is young, we learn several lines later that the person in question is instead probably a boy, since he’s travelling on the ship with his parents and refers to their dining table as “his parents’ table” (not something an adult would likely do).

Ryan tells us frankly that the line “takes on sexual overtones,” thus inviting the specter of pedophilia into the poem.   But the aging man, much as Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, is treated not with contempt but with compassion; we’re told that the young man cannot see “the aging man’s loneliness and desire for him.”   Still, this younger person seems to know instinctively how to protect himself, and he does so through the work of metaphor:  “…this odd/ old man who shared his parents’ table on the ship / seems the merest disturbance of the air, / a mayfly at such distance he does not quite hear.”   Transforming the stranger into a mayfly protects him both from the perilous beauty of the man’s sentence and from its implications as a sexual proposition.  The deceptively easeful “turning” of metaphor allows him to “not quite hear” what the older man is saying – to turn away, in other words, from the sentence’s urgency and potential violence.

At this very moment of turning away, the poem’s larger turning pattern redoubles, creating turns at their  most immediate, most beautifully complex, and most deeply linked to metaphor.  (We might remember that figurative language itself, or trope, constitutes turning.)   As we see in the passage below, Ryan’s next metaphor begins as a description of the boy’s almost fugal inertia, but it soon becomes electric enough to awaken the speaker’s own eidetic memory:

Why should I talk to anyone? glides over his mind
like a cloud above a pond
that mirrors what passes over and does not remember.
But I remember this cloud and this pond
from a mid-week picnic with my mother
when I was still too little for school….

The pond “does not remember” the passing cloud:  true enough, since ponds have no memory at all unless they are personified.  And the metaphor presents first as incidental to the young man’s disaffected, humorously adolescent, yet ultimately self-preserving rhetorical question.   After the initial “But,” however, not-remembering turns to sudden and visceral memory; “not talk[ing] to anyone” is transformed into the unspeaking gesture of the speaker’s mother as she turns her son’s face toward the cloud captured in the water.  The metaphor-in-dream – whether in the dream itself or in the conscious narration of it – becomes the vehicle for anamnesis and for the potentially overwhelming emotion that is sometimes attendant on a memory of this sort, especially if it had been previously inaccessible.

Crucially, then, the final turn in the poem is the mother’s, and she performs it literally:  “…with both hands she turned my face / toward the cloud captured in the water / and everything I felt in the world was love for her.”  Far from the turning-away that metaphor enables the young man in the dream to do, we see here a forcible turning-toward: this is nothing if not mandatory visual attention.  Indeed, the old man’s sentence and the mother’s silent turning of her son’s gaze are different but related versions of imperative.  Is the mother’s turning — wresting, really — imperious or loving?  Is the love here sinister, echoing the exchange between the old and young men, or is it pure? (Is “pure” motherly love even possible?)  Did the image in the water awaken the birth of the child’s aesthetic sense, or did his mother’s forcefulness inaugurate his sexual drive?  Might all of these unanswerable questions coexist in the poem as they do in dream?   Are dream and memory as distinct from one another as the poem’s final scene – with its inaugural, turning “But” – first leads us to believe?

It is Ryan’s masterful turning that allows us to ask these questions and to be both disquieted and moved by the possible proliferation of their answers.   His journey through turning has allowed the mystery of this final personalized turn – one that would have had less power if it had not been authored, in part, by “Henry James.”   For a reader, the poem shows the trespass of dream into waking and reading life, the permeability of those boundaries, and the importance of such image and narrative in a culture that would rather read dreams as non-signifying neural confabulations than as pieces of the arcane puzzle of being human.   As Ryan shows us, this latter terrain may be the distinct territory and the birthright of the lyric poem.



Christina Pugh’s third book of poems, Grains of the Voice (forthcoming in 2013 from Northwestern University Press), draws on the work of Roland Barthes and the sonnet tradition in order to explore contemporary facets of song, speech, and sound.  She is also the author of Restoration (Northwestern University Press, 2008), and Rotary (Word Press, 2004; winner of the Word Press First Book Prize), in addition to the chapbook Gardening at Dusk (Wells College Press, 2002).  Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and other journals; and she is the recipient of the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, an individual artist fellowship in poetry from the Illinois Arts Council, and the Grolier Poetry Prize, among other honors.   Her criticism has appeared in Poetry, Literary Imagination, The Emily Dickinson Journal, and other publications.  She is an associate professor in the Program for Writers (the doctoral program in creative writing) at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“My Dream by Henry James” from New and Selected Poems by Michael Ryan.  Copyright © 2004 by Michael Ryan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  All rights reserved.