The Dream Songs are called “Dream” Songs because B. tapped his dreams all the time for material. In the old filmed readings available on YouTube, he mentions this often. For example, in a reading of DS 7, he remarks that the actor Paul Muni doesn’t actually appear in the movie Prisoners of Shark Island, but, he says, this doesn’t matter because it’s only a dream. So there’s often a dream-like, surreal weirdness about The Dream Songs, which recalls stuff as disparate at Tyrone Slothrop’s journey down the toilet bowl in Gravity’s Rainbow, which has to figure as one of the most surreal scenes in all of literature, to Salvador Dali’s melting watches in The Persistence of Memory, one example of what he often called his “hand painted dream photographs,” to ex-Senator Michelle Bachman claiming just recently—apparently in all seriousness—that President Obama is bringing on the rapturous biblical end of days. (Hard to say which of these twists our perceptions of reality the hardest, but my vote goes to the ex-Senator from Minnesota, who strikes me as every inch as loony as Daffy Duck.)
DS 116 has all the earmarks of a reported dream. The overtones of paranoia—Henry is “followed”—the references to Indian stereotypes, which fall into The Dream Songs out of nowhere, and that reference to a “worst enemy”, a being shivering with power and held together with wires. A surreal nightmare image if I’ve ever read one. If Indians in dreams mean something to a non-native American, it probably has something to do with associations with the primal, something like that. And it is complicated by the history of wars and genocide that wrested this continent away from its original inhabitants, aided by disease which tipped the scales early. This has buried something deep in the non-native American psyche. It’s a complex mixture of fear, fascination, hatred, and respect, and a dream image would carry expression of all of that.
I had a quite surreal waking experience once that taught me something about that complex assemblage of emotions we carry with respect to Indian peoples. I had been backpacking by myself for a few days in the Red River Gorge area of Eastern Kentucky, which is loved locally for its scenery, wildflowers, fantastic cliffs and rock formations, and this area rivals Utah for rock arches and natural bridges. It’s also a top destination for rock climbers from all over the world. It gets rugged and remote in a hurry too. Like in the Smoky Mountains, hike thirty minutes away from the traffic jams and you might not see a soul for the next week. I had been wandering mainly alone for a few days, just the occasional encounters with backpacker types who are always pleasant and friendly. On the way out I hadn’t seen anyone for two days. Then I saw something that for a few seconds was so strange and out of place that my first thought was that I had to be seeing a ghost. Walking quietly through the woods—off the trail—was a young, fit guy outfitted in full historically accurate Shawnee dress—deerskin leggings, moccasins, silver ring in his nose, a feather and quill roach on his half-shaved head, face paint, and a red blanket tucked in complex folds around his waist and over his shoulders. Something much like this. The only detail missing was that he didn’t have the Shawnee treatment of the ears—nearly all Shawnee men cut their ears and worked the outer fleshy rim out into long loops. But, this guy had the look down cold otherwise. I don’t even know if he was of Indian ancestry or not. He was also carrying a musket and had a couple other weapons, club-type things, tucked in his belt. It was an astonishing enough sight on its own, but I experienced this uncanny time-warp sensation where I understood exactly what a white guy alone in these same woods two centuries earlier would have felt encountering a Shawnee or Cherokee or Lenni Lenape (aka Delaware) man in the same circumstances. As long as they weren’t actively at war, it was probably okay, but you needed to be on your guard, and there was now work to do to establish an interpersonal trust, and there was more than a little trepidation and fear involved with both parties. This was not a calm and peaceful time and place; it was rife with tension, for obvious reasons, and it would have been a dangerous moment for both of these people. I felt all of that in a split second.
Well I stood there for a sec, with my mouth open, totally dumbfounded, trying to figure out just what the hell I was looking at, then the guy broke the spell. He said, “How’s it going?” and walked over to the trail, smiling, and shook my hand. Normal dude, playing dress up in an Indian costume, out in the woods, but seriously into it. Turns out there was one of those historical reenactment events going on—Civil War buffs do it all the time—where they were refighting some frontier engagement from the French and Indian War or War of 1812 or the American Revolution—they all caused trouble out here in the forests. Pretty soon, here came more of them, frontiersmen and Indians, all dressed, laughing, taking photos, telling stories about their girlfriends and wives and kids, their insufferable bosses where they work. Most of them were a bit older and softer and more overweight than the real historical frontiersmen, who would have been hard, tough and wiry, in their twenties, thirties tops. Still, everything fell back into place, into modern history-nerd order.
It was a moment no one would ever forget. It brought me the same strange emotional complexity B.’s dream brought, but the thing about a dream is that, as soon as you wake up, no matter how scary or weird it was, even if it had you screaming out loud in your sleep, you say to yourself, it’s only a dream. It settles down. It was just a dream. We know what to expect from our dreams, which is that the rules that govern them aren’t the rules that operate when we’re awake. But we can still learn a lot from our dreams if we let them teach us. I do from mine. That’s what prompts us to talk about The Dream Songs like we do, as if they have something to teach us as well. But this experience out in the woods came fully awake, and because it caught me utterly off guard, and was so anomalous anyway, it triggered a flash of feelings and understandings that are normally only available in the weirdness of the dream world. But they were real in a way dreams aren’t, so I feel now that I understand in a very intimate, actual way something that few people could share. I know what it’s like to meet an Indian alone in the woods, in a time and place when their culture and very presence are under assault, and they’re fighting back with everything they’ve got, as of course they must, and it’s all nervous and anxious and more than a little bit dangerous. That’s the broad political context, though. On the footpath, it’s just him and me, and if we choose, we can keep all that at bay, and rest for a bit and talk and share some food and help each other get where we’re going.