Four Questions Regarding the Dreams of Animals
It is true, for the spaces of night surround them with shape and purpose, like a warm hollow below the shoulders, or between the curve of thigh and belly.
The land itself can lie like this. Hence our understanding of giants.
The wind and the grass cry out to the arms of their sleep as the shore cries out, and buries its face in the bruised sea.
We all have heard barns and fences splintering against the dark with a weight that is more than wood.
The stars, too, bear witness. We can read their tails and claws as we would read the signs of our own dreams; a knot of sheets, scratches defining the edges of the body, the position of the legs upon waking.
The cage and the forest are as helpless in the night as a pair of open hands holding rain.
2. Do they dream of the past or of the future?
Think of the way a woman who wanders the roads could step into an empty farmhouse one afternoon and find a basket of eggs, some unopened letters, the pillowcases embroidered with initials that once were hers.
Think of her happiness as she sleeps in the daylilies; the air is always heaviest at the start of dusk.
Cows, for example, find each part of themselves traveling at a different rate of speed. Their bells call back to their burdened hearts the way a sparrow taunts an old hawk.
As far as the badger and the owl are concerned, the past is a silver trout circling in the ice. Each night he swims through their waking and makes his way back to the moon.
Clouds file through the dark like prisoners through an endless yard. Deer are made visible by their hunger.
I could also mention the hopes of common spiders: green thread sailing from an infinite spool, a web, a thin nest, a child dragging a white rope slowly through the sand.
3. Do they dream of this world or of another?
The prairie lies open like a vacant eye, blind to everything but the wind. From the tall grass the sky is an industrious map that bursts with rivers and cities. A black hawk waltzes against his clumsy wings, the buzzards grow bored with the dead.
A screendoor flapping idly on an August afternoon or a woman fanning herself in church; this is how the tails of snakes and cats keep time even in sleep.
There are sudden flashes of light to account for. Alligators, tormented by knots and vines, take these as a sign of grace. Eagles find solace in the far glow of towns, in the small yellow bulb a child keeps by his bed. The lightning that scars the horizon of the meadow is carried in the desperate gaze of foxes.
Have other skies fallen into this sky? All the evidence seems to say so.
Conspiracy of air, conspiracy of ice, the silver trout is thirsty for morning, the prairie dog shivers with sweat. Skeletons of gulls lie scattered on the dunes, their beaks still parted by whispering. These are the languages that fall beyond our hearing.
Imagine the way rain falls around a house at night, invisible to its sleepers. They do not dream of us.
4. How can we learn more?
This is all we will ever know.
Susan Stewart, “Four Questions Regarding the Dreams of Animals” from Yellow Stars and Ice. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted with the permission of Princeton University Press.
Source: Yellow Stars and Ice (Princeton University Press, 1981)
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Poet Susan Stewart b. 1952
POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic
Poetic Terms Prose Poem