Jackie Wang’s Dream Poetics

Jackie Wang’s Dream Poetics

Her poetry and essays explore the personal, aesthetic, and political possibilities of dreaming.


A few years ago, while doing some freelance summer copywriting for the catalog of a high end brand of crystals, I found myself sifting through poems about dreams. To frame the glittering artwork within the catalog (and thus, ultimately, to further enhance the crystals for sale), I was instructed to pull quotes from Surrealist texts. Fragments of dream imagery from the work of Breton and Césaire were reduced to graphic design elements that were placed stylishly around brand copy and images of expensive things.

Having a dream is already, from a certain vantage point, a lonely experience: an immersion in one’s own psyche, a solitary and even jarring experience that is difficult to recall, let alone communicate. To inherit the dream as a luxury object in this corporate context made the act seem even more unreal and alien—a flimsy, if glamorous, escape from reality.

For abolitionist scholar and poet Jackie Wang, however, dreaming is a point of entry to the world. What, her work has been asking for some time, does it mean to dream in the company of others? In the mid-2010s, she shared her dreams on Twitter upon waking each morning. A 2016 chapbook called Tiny Spelunker of the Oneiro-Womb collected some 80 pages of those texts, which included scenes of fake nails, building a miniature model city, and sitting on the toilet at an art museum. Wang’s best-known work is 2018’s Carceral Capitalism, a collection of essays analyzing the contemporary prison-industrial complex through topics including debt, algorithmic policing, and the politics of innocence.

Wang closes that book by introducing the notion of the abolitionist imagination: “a mode of thinking that does not capitulate to the realism of the present,” a poetics that makes use of the excesses of revolutionary desire. She illustrates this concept through a textual assemblage or “conversation” in which her own poetry is interspersed with quotations from the likes of Rosa Luxemburg, Mahmoud Darwish, Jean Genet, and George Jackson. This imagination seems particularly vivid at night, as illustrated by an imprisoned Luxemburg’s description of lying awake in her cell after lights-out, and by the image of some momentarily liberated inmates from Attica prison circa 1971 seeing the stars for the first time in decades. And so the dream, too, comes into focus. We learn that Assata Shakur’s grandmother shared a prophetic dream of the revolutionary’s release from prison—a prophecy that, it is implied, came true once Assata willed it into action. “Can the reenchantment of the world be an instrument that we use to shatter the realism of the prison?” asks Wang. If so, the dream and its revolutionary aesthetics will be central to this process. After all, “the profession of the poet,” she writes, “is dreaming.”

In her first full-length poetry collection, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void, Wang takes up this charge literally. The collection is once again built from Wang’s dreams, though they here take forms both more detailed and more sculpted than the 280-characters-or-less vignettes that made up Tiny Spelunker. The concept of dreaming-with—the possibility of a social composition that cuts across, or maybe knits together, dreaming and waking life—is elaborated upon in a dream world of apocalyptic storms, poetry readings, and conversations with friends. While its scenery is littered with late-capitalist detritus, and its narrative voice pulses with desire for revolutionary consciousness, its subjects are more immediate and intimate: friend, family, lover, stranger, companion species. Writers, artists, and philosophers populate this milieu as well, interjecting themselves into epigraphs and as dream characters (Kant appears twice as Wang’s guest at a literary-social event). Ink illustrations by Kalan Sherrard animate the text, and one of the first of these maps out Wang’s social constellation in a series of labeled blob-shapes: friends and family referred to by first name alongside Rimbaud, Breton, Bjork, Emily Dickinson, and Agnès Varda. Call them all, as Wang does another lost wanderer she encounters in the book’s first poem, fellow travelers. In the poem “Without Tongue,” she addresses someone who appears in a dream after the two speak on the phone, Wang marveling at her interlocutor’s voice. (The two kiss in the dream, a disclosure withheld during a text message exchange upon waking.) Another phone call takes place in a different layer of dream; it’s not entirely clear what layer of consciousness is being described when the poem concludes with a few lines broken out in awe: “I can’t believe it. We are inhabiting the same dream.” For Wang, such encounters serve as openings. The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void builds on Wang’s previous work to offer an argument for how dreaming—or, more precisely, the practice of communicating about dreaming—is not merely personal or aesthetic but political.

When Wang writes of Shakur’s grandmother’s prophetic dreams in Carceral Capitalism, she underscores that while those dreams “came when they were needed…it was ultimately the responsibility of the recipients of the visions to make them real, not only by believing in the veracity of the prophecies, but by acting so as to give them flesh.” In “The Coral Tree,” a wonderfully lucid poem-essay near Sunflower’s close, Wang reflects on the process of recording dreams. “I don’t believe the imagination can fix everything (I am a rigorous materialist!),” she writes, “but it can do some of the work: the work of creating openings where there were previously none.” What is particularly interesting is how dreams, for her, find form in language: “…interpretation is always strategic,” she continues. “Some interpretations are more politically and personally enabling than others. I think of this when I write my dreams down in the morning.” How, then, do the poet’s dreams not only imagine revolution but incite it?

It is difficult at first to make sweeping statements about the forms chosen by Wang, but her style and structure seem to me the most prudent way to answer this question. If there is a formula to what she does throughout the course of this book, it is taking us out of our world and then placing us back in it, changed. Most of the pieces are written in a lyrical prose style. The frankness and brevity of her sentences—a quality that I also admire in her academic writing, and one that certainly does not foreclose beauty—means her vivid images never seem anxious to be understood. One could call her style an oneiric realism—her observations are plain, but their content is less controlled than the prose that delivers it. With this dream logic suffusing the text, where reality begins and ends in these poems becomes irrelevant. At times, a scene feels as if it might be from waking life, until an event occurs that signals otherwise: the resurrection of a bleeding angel during a reading, encountering a “rare Ancient Greek soda covered with pink flowers” on a shelf at a deli.

That is to say, Wang makes immediate, and maybe even inhabitable, an everyday that is just outside our own. This can have an unsettling effect. Sometimes it’s in an uncanny detail plainly stated, the effect of encountering a dream that hasn’t been introduced as such. Sometimes, too, it has to do with shifts in address, from the third-person form to searing disclosures made to an anonymous “you.” Disclosure itself plays a murky role in the text. It doesn’t read like a dream journal, and certainly not like a diary; Wang is always present, but she is not revealed, and her use of direct address often keeps the reader at arm’s length.

More broadly, however, Wang extends this treatment to recurring swaths of dystopian imagery. So many of the dreams take place in iterations of a post-apocalyptic imaginary, amid a global-warming hellscape or in the path of an oncoming tsunami or on the streets of smart cities whose skies are crowded with satellites. In “The Sewer Rat Counter-Haunts the Prison by Nesting in Society’s Collapsing Aorta,” Wang sleeps between the walls of the prison where her brother is incarcerated, beyond which it rains nonstop: “The city becomes another disc in the spine of a generalized carceral logic.” In its literal sense, apocalypse means not crisis or destruction but something revealed. The monsters that haunt the city she dreams are the same machines that have come to define contemporary American urban space: “Giant multi-story metallic blue GOOGLE BUSES hog the roads. / Though it is always raining on the destroyed city, the men of technoscience remain safe and unperturbed in their mobile metallic citadels. / Did the GOOGLE MEN make it rain on all the plebs?/ Did they finally figure out how to control the weather?” There is another layer of the uncanny, then, in the resemblance to our own world that lives in these images. The concept of “sharing the same dream” twists in new directions.

At a certain point, once we have been fully immersed in Wang’s apocalyptic dream worlds, the form of the text begins to break apart and tendril out. While many of the poems throughout unfold, and even conclude, with questions—“When someone flees is it even clear to them that they are fleeing?”—Wang’s queries begin to push their way through the dream’s membrane, seeking not just the next point in a sequence of events but something more like belief or meaning. We are back, at least most of the time, in the reality of our world, which is the most difficult place to be.

Perhaps establishing or admitting the presence of dreams within this world, as Wang has done through her formal experiments, is a way to bear such difficulty. “You can’t imagine how much attention I give the worm on the sidewalk of LA / or the tree of coral inside my dream / Because I don’t know how to be in the world / I don’t know how to write toward you,” she writes in “Creatures Abandoned by Time.” In “The Vernacular of Our Bodies,” the twin practices of dreaming and writing may offer an answer, as the poem’s speaker talks to someone lost but emerging from their own dreams: “But still I persist with our language, and on some nights you understand. You turn to face me. You are with me inside it.”

Establishing the interdependence of waking and dreaming worlds provides material for the growth of new forms of art and life. Near the book’s conclusion, the titular sunflowers enter, which “turn toward / the sun even in the / absence of sun, do you remember the imperiled sunflower at the end of the world.” The sunflower is accompanied by other plants: that coral tree, a willow, a neighbor’s shrub, a bouquet, “the wizened / world at the center of a black mass / of trees, shivering into dust.” There are also bodies of water and suns, the stuff that nourishes flora but that threatens to drown or dehydrate, too. The world, still apocalyptic, emerges here between dreams at once imperiled and beautiful; somewhere along this final arc, during which time poems have begun to break across the page, their syntax breathing and bending, attachment to being in it is reaffirmed. The book concludes with a titular poem whose final image is of its narrator placing seedlings outside her window and waiting for them to grow.

There is something that remains inexpressible to me about Wang’s relationship to form. This quality pushes against what we usually seem to want out of our political art; if only the scope of what she is doing could be easily captured, designed, or prescribed. The act of writing the dream is itself one of interpretation, but here those interpretations are loose and wild; Wang doesn’t give us a stable blueprint. This book’s revolutionary consciousness is lodged in the act of trying to write and live with something unknowable. Form becomes more like a wild garden to tend, something we can retreat into as a world unto itself but that is nonetheless subject to the weather.

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