“The Toni Morrison Dreams,” by Elizabeth Alexander, was first published in issue 75 of Hanging Loose; next it appeared as part of Alexander’s third collection, Antebellum Dream Book, published by Graywolf Press in 2001. “Antebellum” refers to the period before the American Civil War (1861–1865), and its use here suggests that this collection of dream poems though set in the second half of the twentieth century are of a time before race relations have evolved into a harmonious state of equality. A dream book is a collection of narratives that have dream-like qualities, which means that they mix rational and irrational elements sometimes presenting improbable events as ordinary or based on fact. To say these are dreams is to sanction this departure from verisimilitude, to allow for surprise and illogic which are the stuff of dreams. So the title alone suggests that the collection is a series of dream-like scenarios or scenes somehow connected to an American period of racial injustice.
The poems in Antebellum Dream Book are divided into three parts and “The Toni Morrison Dreams” appears in the second part. The poems include personal vignettes about childbirth, urban life, and historical events such as the mid-twentieth-century race riots and the Civil Rights movement. The poem analyzed in this entry focuses on the hierarchy implicit in a literary conference where aspiring or beginning writers flock to hear the celebrity author Toni Morrison read her own work and comment on theirs.
“The Toni Morrison Dreams” is a four-part poem sequence, which includes at least two explicitly different settings (a classroom workshop and an auditorium) and describes scenarios that are reminiscent of experiences one might have while attending a university-sponsored literary conference. The trick to appreciating the poem sequence lies in seeing how its details reveal much larger subjects, in this case pertaining to professional hierarchy and competition in the arts.
In section one, the scene takes place before the literary program is to begin. The speaker realizes that the presenter, the African American novelist Toni Morrison, “despises / conference coffee.” So the speaker offers to “fetch” Morrison a coffee from Starbucks. The verb, fetch, reveals that the speaker assumes a much lower status than Morrison has. The speaker is happy to serve as an errand runner for the important author, eager to leave the meeting in order to get a coffee to please Morrison. Thus the speaker seeks to be singled out from the audience as the one who performs this service for Morrison. Getting “better” coffee for the presenter also suggests Morrison’s elitist attitude; she “despises” the coffee everyone else in the room is probably drinking.
In the second stanza, the speaker notes that Morrison is “delighted” and says this coffee allows her to “start her day properly.” Like a patted puppy that has performed a trick, the speaker feels special in the light of Morrison’s appreciation of her service. But the elitism continues as Morrison takes out her French cigarettes, Gauloises. Morrison is discerning enough not to smoke ordinary American brands. The speaker watches Morrison like a fan would a movie star. Morrison shakes her “gorgeous, pewter dreads” and “sips the java” the speaker has brought her.
Then Morrison begins reading her own words: “Nuns go by as quiet as lust.” This sentence is paradoxical or self-contradictory because the quiet walk of celibate nuns is compared to lust. While the sentence taken here out of context does not have much meaning, the speaker is affected by it. She comments, perhaps on Morrison’s sentence: “Everything in silver-gray and black.” This line perhaps suggests that the scene Morrison describes is rendered in these two colors. The comment may also be a description of Morrison herself, with her pewter hair and dark skin, drinking coffee, or perhaps the line describes how Morrison blanks out everything else in the room. Indeed the comment may extend to literally “everything,” to the world at large and to the way in which a hierarchy of color tends to recur, between whites and blacks, between important African Americans and unimportant ones.
In the second section, the speaker is a participant in a class conducted by Toni Morrison. The first stanza begins, “She asks us,” and it goes without saying that the “she” refers to Toni Morrison, the star of this conference. The writing strategy Morrison suggests first is for the participants to adapt John Millington Synge’s play Playboy of the Western World, which was written in 1907, to a contemporary stage. The next strategy is to “translate ‘The Birds.’”
Readers may ask why Alexander alludes to these particular works. Synge’s play is in part about how a person is evaluated by others who do not really know him. In this case, the main character, Christy Mahon, believes he has killed his cruel father and this presumed act wins Christy the praise of people in another town to which he flees. But when the father shows up with a wounded head and fights with his son, the townspeople form the opposite opinion of Christy. Thus, a person can be lauded or attacked depending on how he is viewed by others in the society who do not even know him. To adapt Synge’s play to a “contemporary stage” invites class members to find a current and equivalent act that illustrates an attack on authority or the father figure that can incorporate some of the elements in Synge’s play and make them relevant to the present time. The class members are also asked to translate Aristophanes’ play The Birds, a fifth century b.c. comedy about two...