Hidden Just Beyond View: Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason

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In Francisco Goya’s painting El sueño de la razon produce monstruos, a figure is bent over a desk, head nestled into arms, likely sleeping. Behind the figure are creatures, wide awake, strangely sketched hybrids of owls, cats, and bats, blurring into a distant dark. The title of the painting is commonly translated as “the sleep of reason produces monsters,” but sueño can mean either “sleep” or “dream” when translated to the English.

Jenny George has determined in her debut poetry collection, which borrows part of the Goya painting’s name, that it must be a dream. The cover art for The Dream of Reason portrays another figure in repose, but unlike the painting, this figure’s face is exposed and wears an expression of rapture. In the background there are no creatures, only the ocean in a violent thrashing. George’s poems, too, are a patient and curious face staring straight into the violence of the speaker’s surroundings—what she finds there and what is hidden just beyond view.

At first glance, these poems seem pastoral, concerned with the changing of seasons and the sprawl of the rural landscape. Behind this scenery, however, is a profound darkness where “the trees are full of staring crows” and bats crawl like goblins across questions of death and human capacity for violence. The introductory poem “Origins of Violence” gives us a clear map of the road ahead—the road is a hole and it only goes “down and down”:

People will do anything.
They will cut the hands off children.
Children will do anything—

In the hole is everything.

As we turn to section one, we begin to explore the hole’s many passageways, getting lost and finding our way back around, the beginning also an ending. “Threshold Gods” builds and complicates a guide to reading the rest of the poems in the collection. This poem tells us that we learn about things best at their thresholds—images of evening, waist-deep in water, the end of summer, a screen door, and translucent skin all ask us to examine the moment when something changes, to “navigate by adjustment, by the beauty / of adjustment.” This poem sets up an array of binaries that drive the books curiosities—loss and wonder, life and death, organic and artificial, human and animal.

The first section goes on to catalogue a sort of domestic underbelly; the speaker looks out from the windows of various rooms, across a farm, and into the lakes and orchards to find a hybrid, crawling atmosphere, night and day. These creatures are not met with fear, but instead an intense glimmer of curiosity. As the speaker proclaims in “Threshold Gods,” “I want to ask about death. / But first I want to ask about flying.” We wonder how loss relates to wonder, bewilderment to love. The intensity of imagery often leads to small moments of revelation, doing so by pulling the organic and artificial, or the human and the animal, together in unexpected combinations.

In “Everything Is Restored,” a young boy’s innocence is examined through water creatures. His legs are seen “swimming in the slow /element” and he is then described as “a small seal,” his dreams “silvery minnows.” But this oceanic imagery is not simply masterful descriptive craft, it plays at ideas of innocence and growth, what lurks beneath the surface of a glittering childhood:

Harm will come. It’s the kind of knowledge
that ruptures and won’t
repair—an ocean that keeps
on breaking.

At the end of this poem, the mother attempts to fold up this “breaking” and shut it in a cupboard, an action that every parent wishes would do the trick forever. But as a reader of this collection, we know this is not the case. We know from “Origins of Violence” that human capability for violence enacted upon and by children is not only possible but inevitable. The poems that follow “Everything Is Restored” continue to emphasize this as the speaker reanimates a dead child, fills the afterlife with uneasy nature, uneasy time, uneasy conclusions.

But within the inevitable horrors are moments of light, momentary conclusions that there is reason to live: “Aimed /at death, we live. We keep on / doing this. Night unfolds helplessly / into day.” These nights and days might seem endless and pointed at an inevitable death, but, these poems ask, how will we choose to live within them? In answer we find “the crack of light / coming in through the bars” and finally these ecstatic and heartbreaking lines in “Spring”:

It’s relentless, the way it keeps trying
to return.
Joy
Joy
Joy

At this moment in the collection, each time I read it, I can’t help but be filled with this feeling that it’s all worth something, despite it all, or because of it all. Sitting on a bench in a garden where I experienced this poem for the first time, I paused here and spent some time with the earth around me.

Then, I opened the book to finish the first section and was met with more death, a description in the tradition of Elizabeth Bishop, a surveyed listing of the trials of the dead. This is the crux of the collection and of George’s genius—if a poem or a collection of poems can feel such intensity of joy and ecstasy, it must also feel the bottomed-out center of pain. George plays these two elements in perfect measure from poem to poem and knows just when a line or a piece will have the highest margin of impact.

 

The second section pulls the relationship between human and animal into sharp focus, guiding us through the layers of connection between the child, the animal, the earth, and back again in perpetual combination. We begin to question the violence human and animal are capable of, the violence human (child) and animal can ultimately bare. We become intimately acquainted with the pig; we are reminded of how the pig is just like us and then how it is irrevocably different.

We begin with a hyper-zoomed lens in the poem “Sleeping Pig,” where the sleeping animal is described in equal parts tenderness and grotesqueness—“white flannel” strains around a “neckhole,” the body does not inhale and exhale but “swells and deflates” like a balloon, “The flickering candle / of a dream moves his warty eyelids.” We see this creature at once as beastly and filled with humanity. We land upon “All sleeping things are children” and know that this “flickering candle of a dream” is no different from the one that moves a child’s eyelid, any human or animal’s eyelid, in sleep. Essentially, George asks us to see similarity and stark difference at once, to pull our animal siblings in close.

“Notes on Pigs” furthers our study of similarity and difference. These poems do not ask us to conclude that pigs and humans are the same, in fact “A pig who cares about her looks is absurd,” but “neither a pig nor a person is invincible,” and finally, “When a pig dies, it is either mourned by other pigs or not.” In this final line, if we replace each instance of “pig” with “person,” it would still be true. Ultimately, despite difference, we are mostly the same. We live and die and then we are mourned or we are not mourned. George pushes us into a stark and sometimes uncomfortable intimacy with the pig. Then when the pig is killed, murdered, we feel it to our core:

The fears become large; they rise
from their objects and enter space
like a kind of halo.
And at the center, a monument
of pure stillness, an uncrossable field…

I may be projecting my veganism onto this section of the collection, but to deny its eco-poetic value would be a disservice. I cannot imagine even the fiercest carnivore desiring a cut of pork after feeling the fear of the pig, experiencing their death as it should be experienced, with the linguistic gesture and dignity of a human death. The moment is emphasized by these lines being moved off the left margin. Before and after the moment of this death, everything runs as planned, another pig died before, and another after, and again and again and again. But this threshold between life and death, the moment of killing, deserves a silence, the smallest interruption. George interrupts us, clears her throat, makes us listen.

The speaker contemplates another threshold in “One-Way Gate”:

It could have been any gate, any moment when things go
one way and not the other—an act of tenderness
or a small, cruel thing done with a pocketknife.
A child being born. Or the way we move
From sleeping to dreams, as a river flows uneasy under ice.

Behind each moment, each decision, each threshold, is the potential for violence and cruelty, but also the potential for love and tenderness. “A child being born” fills the mother with excruciating pain, the child cast out suddenly from fluid into air. But this moment is also the most tender moment of life for the mother and the child. The poem ends with the speaker talking to the herd: “Hey, good girl. Go on. Get on, girl.” We understand—she chose tenderness.

Human, animal, or earth, these poems ask us to care for them equally and to see the vast interconnectedness between them: “I find a calf dead in the barn / —heavy as a sleeping boy— / and I bury him under the field…” In this short stanza, the animal becomes a child and both the child and animal become the earth. As a reader, we get to know the animal, the animal’s proximity to man, both man and animal’s proximity to earth, the animal’s senses and emotions, the human as mother, the animal as mother, the animal as an inextricable part of us and us of them, and then we land on “Vaudeville” which I will quote here in its entirety:

The pigs hang in rows like pink overcoats.
Their slaughter is fresh, a rosy blush—
as if chorus girls have only just
stepped out of them,
leaving the empty garments
swaying on their hooks.

We see them now in the context of the human self, their death inextricable from human death, but in the poem, they are merely objects, garments, lifeless things. In some ways, this section of the collection enacts a documentation, commemoration, and mourning that these animals don’t usually receive and that they deserve.

 

In the third section, we enter a new world of reflection and intelligence where the ideas of death and violence are further complicated, the body and language called into question: “Each day the same / scandal—this body. / These teeth and hands.” And then, “Before language, there was just / the peculiar house of nerves. / Now the world is buried in me, to the hilt.” These poems wonder how the soul inhabits the body, the body the soul. Here, it seems, the body is something to be escaped from, the body the machine which allows the capability of violence and the reality of cruelty. “Sword Swallower” ends, “I take my violence out over the field.” The speaker escapes from the body into language, or maybe inhabits the body better because of an ability to use language. For the first time, this violence is possessed by the speaker. But it is possessed with seeming confidence and skill.

Before long, there is a “Reprieve”: “I’ve exhausted my cruelty. / I’ve arrived at myself again. / The sun builds a slow house inside my house… .” We find, again, what we found in the first section—a sense that within the world’s cruelty and here, the cruelty of the human self, there is also light and lightness. A small joy grounds us. This even extends to the killing of animals which we came to see in the second section as pure cruelty. In the title poem “The Dream of Reason,” an animal killing comes with intense tenderness:

I watched him shoot the calf in the head.
He wiped the hide gently, like cleaning his glasses

[…]

It never gets easier
he said, kicking straw over the blood patch.

This gentle, human act complicates the idea of violence. Is violence an act or an intention? The doing of a thing or the way the thing is done?

We see this again in “Revelation” when the speaker describes a frog dissection in close detail. The attention that is frequently given to animal life is given, in this poem, to animal death and exploration. The poem concludes, “I’m not sorry / for the frog. I’m not sorry to know this.” Knowledge, and the role of the father in showing the speaker this new revelation, win out over the small violence of the frog’s death.

So we arrive at conclusions just to break them, the beginnings also endings, but we do know a few things—cruelty and violence are nuanced, innocence is multi-faceted, lost and gained throughout not just childhood but all of life. Across this collection, George is an expert tour guide of cruelty through a lens of tenderness and humanity, bringing us to the thresholds of what we can possibly endure, making the thresholds glimmer with morning sun, reaching towards “happiness with its horizon of pain.”


Dana Alsamsam is the author of a chapbook, (in)habit (tenderness, yea press, 2018), and her poems are published or forthcoming in Bone Bouquet, Gigantic Sequins, Poetry East, Tinderbox Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fugue, The Boiler Journal, BOOTH, and others. She is a Lambda Writer’s Retreat Fellow in the 2018 Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. A Chicago native, Dana is currently an MFA candidate and a teacher at Emerson College. More from this author →