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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Dream diary: "Birthday"

Last night several of my children were spending the night, and my daughter was cold in her room; I turned up the heat and about six in the morning had the most intricate writer's nightmare. I dreamed that I was young and in a class with John Gardner. (Why? The only person I know who has talked at length about what John Gardner meant to him as a teacher is Jeffrey Ford, so I don't know a lot about Gardner as a teacher other than what Jeff has said. And certainly not whether Gardner had an affinity to cats...)

We were to discuss a story called "Birthday." It seems we were at Brown, in a classroom in a nineteenth-century house. Gardner was seated behind a bullet-gray metal desk; he became threatening to the class as time passed, and kept opening the top right drawer in a way that made people uneasy. They seemed to feel that he might soon brandish a weapon. But I was sitting beside and oddly near the desk and kept craning to see what was inside. Neatly arranged boxes full of brightly colored pushpins, round-headed short pins, and other small shapes filled the drawer. It looked rather like some Modernist mosaic, but more complicated.

People began to get up and leave. Soon police surrounded the building. I was trying to comfort Gardner, who at some point (understandably so) transformed himself into a cat (a pleasant-looking Tenniel gray tiger) and curled up in what must have been the desire to protect himself from the world. I held him in my arms close to my face, and though he scratched at me several times in agitation, he did not attempt to flee away from me and hide. A single remaining classmate tried to call for help.

Noises came from below; perhaps some sort of rescue was beginning, but it made me strangely uneasy. I got up and began climbing upward through the house and took refuge on what I believe was the third floor, the cat still in my arms close to my face. I opened a closet and crept inside to lie down, my head and torso and the cat inside its shelter.

Robots were combing the house, spraying pesticide. The remaining classmate tried to call her mother on her cell phone, but could not get through. (Perhaps because there were no cell phones when Gardner was alive?) After a while, she lay down on the floor of the room and did not stir. The house was full of the stink of pesticide.

I told the cat a secret, that today was really and truly my birthday. Gardner-cat seemed quite interested and stirred and nosed at me, but of course he was a cat now, and not a talking Cheshire cat, so I was glad that he understood but knew that he could not tell me what moved in his mind.

A lady robot, also gun-metal gray but with shocking-pink eyes chartreuse neon hair, entered the room and began spraying the corners of the room. She rolled to the closet and began spraying the cat in my arms and me. Being a writer and a dreamer to boot, I was able to change my point of view to a more limited omniscient view and see the death of cat-Gardner and girl from above. A few classmates filtered into the building later on and announced (though ineffectually) their displeasure at what had happened. The room stank of cat piss. The girl and cat were still dead, but it was a sunny day without robots, though yellow tape and policemen were still outside.


  1. Here are some amusing or interestingfacebook comments to this post, mostly from poets and writers...

  2. I wonder now and then whether early reading of Lewis Carroll affected my recollection and understanding of my own dreams--the dreams sequences are so plausible.

    If I were in your family, your Christmas present would be a robot--eyes and hair of the proper colors--with a flit gun. (The difficulty would lie in finding a flit gun small enough to be carried by an affordable robot.) You could exorcise your anxieties by sending the robot on errands not involving cats and girls.

    1. Hah, that's great! Maybe they'll see your suggestion...

      I am sure that Carroll warped the tender, receptive mind of this child! I don't usually write down my dreams, but this one was wonderfully literary-weird.

  3. I start to read your account of the dream (I did go back and finish it) and am immediately diverted. I swap places with you and give John Gardner his full name, John Eliot Gardner. Even fuller: Sir John Eliot Gardner, though I'm not in favour of such airy-fairy awards. Renowned English conductor inclining towards the baroque and author of a huge biography, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, which sits on my bedside table, has done so for a couple of years, with a bookmark that is accusingly close to page one.

    As always when I daydream about famous competent people I spend time framing questions I would put, that would not irritate them by revealing my amateurism in their field. Fatally I find myself consulting Wiki for a detail I didn't subsequently use here and find that rumours about JEG's bullying manner when rehearsing orchestras are prevalent, and that he doesn't like Wagner (not surprising in a committed baroquist). So he is now somewhat diminished.

    And that's the problem with other people's dreams. Yours is fantastically detailed and tells me as much about you - eg, (a pleasant-looking Tenniel gray tiger) - as anything. But we cannot enter these territories; their twists and turns, often inexplicable, are the direct result of the life you have led. You've created not a jewel but a hologram of a jewel; like all holograms it is untouchable.

    Techie note: Since changing my PC I have been having problems with my emails which I wot not of, until recently. I hope this has not been seen as negligence in replying to a widish slew of people.

    1. Oh, that's fascinating: you conjured a different John Gardner! And looked at the dream through that lens... Mine is, to give the full name, John Champlin Gardner Jr., American author of many novels (Grendel, October Light, Nickel Mountain, etc.), a biography of Chaucer, poems, children's books, and criticism (The Art of Fiction, On Moral Fiction, The Poetry of Chaucer, etc.)

      I don't normally share dreams, as other people's dreams tend to be boring. But this one was so ridiculously literary...

      No worries... One never knows when not hearing from someone. Could mean anything. But I did hear from you....

    2. p. s. Shall surface elsewhere soon. Due to issues (you know), I am behind and must do a very fast read of the forthcoming novel on top of Everything Advent and all the other demands of motherhood, etc.

    3. And of course there was John W. Gardner, Secretary of HEW under Johnson, founder of Common Cause. He seems to have been so thoroughly forgotten that one who has forgotten the middle initial must take some care in wording the Google query--"John Gardner Government" works.

    4. Perhaps some obscure poet will write an epic poem about him and save him from the dark in the land of the forgotten.... Paglia says those are the only governmental figures who are remembered... the ones who appear in art.

    5. I reckon I'm obscure enough to resurrect John W. Gardner. Those distant times deserve a distant format: ladies and gents I offer you the Shakespearean format sonnet. In fact it's all I've got.

      As to governmental figures, Cromwell is far from forgotten. True he appears in contemplative mood in a rather magnificent bronze outside the House of Commons. I think we should enquire of Charles 1's opinion as to which of the two is better remembered. Perhaps Prince Andrew could tell us.

    6. Hah. I think Cromwell has appeared in a positive plethora of novels, has he not? As well as in oils and statuary... We're not likely to forget him any time soon, despite the fact that a zillion youtube videos questioning college students tell us that history isn't being taught anymore.

      Let's see a Gardner sonnet!

  4. Thomas Cromwell is in at least one of Hilary Mantel's novels, I know, and one may see Holbein's portrait of him at the Frick. But I presume that Mr. Robinson refers to Oliver, and beyond the statue, I can't think of anything beyond Marvell's ode.

    I don't know about Paglia's theory. Will the student who has forgotten the Hundred Years War remember reading Henry V?

    1. I'm always dubious about sweeping claims relating to the arts, but I get a kick out of that one anyway! Must be my allergy to politicians!

  5. I'm dubious about Paglia too. And yes, I was thinking about the Lord Protector not Tom the manipulator. And no, Richard III is not a good source if one's motives are purely historical.

    Meanwhile, since Marly commands, I must obey.

    It's certainly not poetry, perhaps not even verse, but - what the heck - it only took an hour and I have time to waste.

    John William Gardner,
    HEW secretary under Johnson,
    looks back - and sees only distance

    The Holy Writ approves of charity,
    I'm told, outweighing even faith and hope.
    Thus am I bathed in luminosity,
    Since giving is my most familiar trope.

    I've given learning so that man may fly,
    And better health to ease him on his way.
    And Common Cause to censure poverty,
    Hated wars that shortened many a day.

    But now in my enfeebled ninth decade
    With death a growing zephyr on my cheek
    I search in vain for proof of things I've made,
    Of things to see and touch - the future's bleak

    From groups, committees, meetings without end,
    My gifts were distant, only self-pretend.

    I trust you'll get better prezzies this Christmas

    1. Amazing to me that I have someone in my life who regards my wish as command!

      Thank you for my present... Nicely laid out in the form. I like the way your JWG has not read the Holy Writ he invokes and so does not understand charity except in the most limited way--no sense of the love between God and human beings that leads to love of others. And while he arrows toward what seems self-understanding, the book he invokes would have told him that all gifts come from God and that it is not what they are but what a person does with them that matters. But of course he has not read and does not know.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.