My book, Caravaggio’s Dagger, is structured as six Taxonomies, of which the first,“The Pyre of the Accidental Butterfly,” deals with instances of war and social disruption. “Too Often Not A Dream” is the 11th and culminating poem of that Taxonomy.
The poem can be listened to here.
It was written between 4 June 2004 – 15 July 2005, in Vancouver, British Columbia, and was first published in Contemporary Verse 2 (Winnipeg, Manitoba), 31/1, 40 (2008).
Caravaggio’s Dagger, which considers the concept of, and actions that relate to, a pursuit of right action, was completed in Vancouver, in July, 2005. It will be published by Toronto’s Iguana Books in September, 2013. The book is structured as six Taxonomies, of which the first,“The Pyre of the Accidental Butterfly,” deals with instances of war and social disruption. “Too Often Not A Dream” is the 11th and culminating poem of that Taxonomy.
At the time nearing the conclusion of the poem’s composition, I was reading Will Ferguson, Lorna Crozier, and Dickens, and studying The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, and Julius Caesar. I was also studying Shostakovich’s Six Songs to Lyrics by English Poets, with its remarkable rendering of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66 in Pasternak’s translation.
[C]aptive good attending captain ill.
Dickens is an influence on my book, and I noted that in his Martin Chuzzlewit, he pretty much skewers the Americans with great accuracy—so accurate that the depiction could be contemporary—and in the course of this provides these comments, when Martin is at the Norrises in New York:
Mr. Norris the son … dusted his fingers … just as though he had that moment touched a negro, and some of the black had come off upon his hands. (p. 287)
[The Misses Norris] sang in all languages—except their own. German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swiss; but nothing native; nothing so low as native. For, in this respect, languages are like many other travellers: ordinary and commonplace enough at home, but specially genteel abroad. (p. 288)
It was also at this time that I began to study Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, which was significantly to influence the last Taxonomy of my book.
I lived in Vancouver at the time, where even simple undertakings reveal interesting hues. For example, one day in early June I needed a haircut. So late one afternoon I went in search of Rod, my Armenian Lebanese barber who grew up in Arab Malta, only to discover that Chris, his Greek-Canadian colleague had probably driven him so crazy (booze, drugs, insufferable loudness) that he had left the shop on Denman; so I went alternatively to my other Greek-Canadian barber, Bill, on Burrard, who being occupied with a client, suggested Lanita, his barber wife (they’ve just had a daughter, Maria Isabella, late in life), at the next chair, whose mother is an Italian South African and whose father is a Paraguayan of German descent. We talked of how she tutored Stroessner’s grandchildren in English in Asunción, how Menem offered her a job in Buenos Aires which didn’t work out when Rodriguez launched the revolution and the family fled to Vancouver, how she wouldn’t mind teaching Spanish in Canada, and how she would like to read the novels of Bastos once her postpartum depression is entirely gone. Apparently Orthodox Easter went very well, too, with the full panoply of candle-carrying congregations.
That particular June of 2005 I was interested in the position of executive director of Nelson, B.C.’s Capitol Theatre; and. I had a lesser interest in the position of executive director of the Nelson Museum. I really adored the Capitol.
The interaction with the Museum, however, was somewhat odd. The morning of the evaluation of candidates began with a tour, hard hats mandatory, by the contractor for the renovation of the old, and quite ruined, City Hall, for it was there where the Museum was to gain its new residence. This was interesting not only in itself, but also because the trio of candidates met one another on the sidewalk, and because the information was gleaned that the second phase of the construction project was as yet unfunded.
The second obligatory tour was of the current museum, a cramped, uninteresting place, headed by an executive director of 22 years’ tenure, who was clearly bailing out because her sinecure would be changed forever, and real interaction with an unknown public and unknown finances were not her desire in old age. However, she’d arranged a successor sinecure in already having been appointed to the new position of archivist.
The evening social—a small affair, really—was rather dismal, with the usual necessity to work the room and seem sincere. One of the Board, a cartoon Scot well into his apparently usual cups, barricaded me and lobbed quibbles, inanities, and yet another set of interview questions. Not an inspirational advertisement for a Board of Governors who had liked to interview, two consultants at the ready, in a literal circle, without table, without notes, and largely without purpose; light sliding off the Selkirk Mountains.
I didn’t get either job, but the trip to Nelson incorporated some interesting diversions. After the interviews, on the return to Vancouver, the car blew a coolant line ascending the 8% grade from Trail to Rossland, and this necessitated our returning to Castlegar for repairs. We first went to the Toyota dealership but it recommended to us the local Canadian Tire, which, although it was unable to repair the car until at least Tuesday, was very helpful and quick. In the end we were obliged to rent a car to return to Vancouver, and made it to Grand Forks before calling the road quits.
Several days after returning, this time with our car, from Castlegar, I had a rather lousy nightmare: G. and I are on an acreage, and someone has stolen more firewood from the trunk of the car. The thief is identified but begins to shoot a pistol at me; I am worried at death tearing through me. I get to the front of the large house, find one of the picnic tables has disappeared, and then spot animal movement in the barn. First I think it is a cougar; eventually it comes towards my hiding place at the other picnic table, and mutates into a Bengal tiger, and then mutates into three large monkeys with beige bodies and flowing white fur. When they spot me they begin to howl, and so do I. G. wakens me. I lie awake awhile uncertain about my self-esteem and unconvinced about my accomplishments.
Later that week, I read again, after a three weeks’ interval, Lorna Crozier’s Whetstone, having found its text both unsettled and unsettling. The first half or so of the work seems almost as if the individual poems were deliberately incomplete, or, more to the point, unfinished because they may have become incompletable; and, even where that may be the case, not driven far and close enough to some conclusiveness, even if not necessitating conclusion. And then things start to knead with greater force, as if upon used clay that needs working over and over to use again; and a tightness and an opaque clearness come about, only to fall away when something too much again supervenes, as in a blizzard that whitens and then obliterates the road of travel. A number of themes and backgrounds strike me particularly, though—a dead father, the aging of relationships, the moving into later life, Saskatchewan—perhaps in part because the poetess and I are the same age, so perhaps some preoccupations are not unsurprisingly similar, however much evasion may be preferable. “Divining” has that painful perfection of recognition; as its lines settle on that
We live with who we are and not
what we once wanted.
The original source of the poem, though, was a dream of a year earlier. I had dreamt a very great lot for some ten days; and one night I had vast dreams of catastrophe: the palace destroyed by rockets; the city in confusion and mobilization; vast elevators with people in wheelchairs; supernatural evil overlooking a wasteland; supernatural murders at my house.
I had been reading fairly extensively in Euripides and Shakespeare, including all the sonnets, and it was two days before the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
The catalyst for the final version of my poem, however, is probably Akira Kurosawa’s film, Dreams, created when he was 80. It is said to be based on actual dreams of the film-maker. It was the first time that I had seen this work. I watched it several times. And in July, I had begun a review of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, and by mid-month I was well through Die Walküre.
“Too Often Not A Dream” was the last poem to be completed for Caravaggio’s Dagger, which I completed the same morning.
That evening, I watched Olivier’s excellent film of Henry V. To my astonishment, the horn fanfare that concludes the “Blizzard” segment of Kurosawa’s Dreams is prominent throughout Henry V, usually symbolizing the opposing camps readying for battle. This is, of course, music by William Walton (who also appropriated, but from Canteloube, in the French scenes). This correlation mystified me until the morning, when I thought it may be plausible that when the men caught in the blizzard return to camp and look at the clearing sky and the mountains that not only have they overcome a grave obstacle, but also the next segment, “The Tunnel” begins in the mountains and deals with the stupidities and pointlessness of war. In the afternoon, I concluded listening again to Die Walküre.