For today, anyway, here’s the poem, Dream Song 137, in all its glory, unavailable online:
Many’s the dawn sad Henry has seen in,
many’s the sun has lit his slouch to sleep,
many’s a song to sing or vigil keep
of thought if you’re made that way.
An incantation comes in nines: ‘tahn . . bray’:
heroes’ bodies, in circles, thin,
collapsing. I don’t understand this dream,
said Henry to himself in slippers: why,
things are going to pieces.
The furious bonzes sacked vast the Khmer temple
and thought fled: into the jungle. It was that simple.
Long after, spread the treatises.
Learned & otherelse, upon the ruins.
How is it faith ever finds matters rough?
My honey must flow off in the great rains,
as all the parts thereto do thereto belong
ha, and we are pitched toward the last love,
the last dream, the last song.
I see significant parallels between the Khmer temple of Henry’s dream and the physical body of the poet: Both have been sacked. For those familiar with Falstaff in Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, you know what “sack” means for Shakespeare’s big guy: Drink. Here is that relation between thought and body again, the overarching metaphor of this poem. If thought is an emanation of a physical brain, which of course it is, then if the brain is abused or overrun, the thoughts that might otherwise emanate from it flow off like honey in the great rains, or the rain of sack. I wonder if it was deliberate that B. chose the word “bonzes” (an Asian Buddhist monk) as those engaged in the sacking of the Khmer temple, which strikes me as close enough to “boozes” to merit a connection, because of course boozes have sacked the temple of more than one hero’s body as it finally collapsed into bed just behind the painful sunrise that came streaming in through the bedroom blinds.
“How is it faith ever finds matters rough?” Faith, in this world, isn’t always enough. Neither is beauty. Somebody, or something, might just sack your temple if you don’t take care of it, defend it. There are myths galore—Greek, Biblical, indigenous, others—of the Creator/Protector taking action to defend the faithful. In the real world: Temples get sacked. I toured Tintern Abbey in Wales last summer, a gorgeous gothic church and monastery complex, now in ruins, that got choked off, ripped off, and effectively sacked by King Henry VIII, he of the famed six wives, desperate for sons, and feuding with the Church of Rome. The faithful monks, depending on their faith, prayer and good works to protect them, succumbed anyhow to a tyrant king. So goes world history as often as not.
To be “pitched toward the last love, / the last dream, the last song”: There’s the referential mention of the Dream Songs, and maybe a recognition coming out of that dream that things cannot go on like this. But there’s a music throughout this whole poem, I think, a nice poem as a poem, with an incantatory beauty to my ears that lines it up with the holy incantations it refers to. But they’re elegiac incantations. If B., or Henry, says he didn’t get the dream at first, he does figure it out by poem’s end. The dream is symbolic of a fear: If the heroes defending the temple are circled, backed down, finally collapsing, and the temple is sacked, nothing of beauty or spiritual significance will flow from it again—including dreams and songs and Dream Songs.