As the Dead Prey upon Us

by Charles Olson

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

Although “As the Dead Prey Upon Us” is, on the surface, an elegy in which a son mourns the memory of his deceased mother, it is essentially a poem about the mythological imagination that comes awake in dreams and springs forth in fits of inspiration. The poet who recalls his dream is involved in the act of composing language derived from the mythological depths of his unconscious. Olson spent much of his life defending myth as primal vision, but modern culture has rejected the function of myth and looks now to empirical analysis as the means for grasping the truth of events. Olson’s speaker longs to decode the narrative of his dream but gropes blindly among its shimmering clues. His struggle to understand his dream is a portrait of the artist attempting to express his imagination: both face the unconscious with perplexed ignorance of its language.

The difference between what one sees with the “five hindrances” and what one dreams is that in waking, things are separate, scattered, inert, but in dreams, one thing becomes another, each connected by invisible threads that together make up the “nets of being” that is the central image of the poem. The speaker demands that this “sleep” state of mind, the dreaming function, awake and become an active part of his intelligence. His demand is to himself, and by addressing the “souls” directly he attempts to close the gap between the two faculties of his awareness. Happiness is that state in which the dream has entered consciousness and enjoys complete understanding. Hell is the limbo of unlived ideas, the ghosts that long to become part of the living self.

Olson’s deep interest in Mayan hieroglyphs—the stylized characters and symbols that adorn their stone pillars, or stelae, and ziggurat-like temples—may also figure in this poem. His interest in Mayan language and art arose from his conviction that their art combined both sides of human intelligence, the mythological and the factual. The great bas-reliefs found at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Palenque depict a human figure surrounded by natural objects, including plants, animals, numbers, and astronomical computations. Such was the richness of the intellectual life of a people who had not divided their mental functions into fantasy and reality, as Western culture had done. The totality of mind included both figurative, imaginative products and sensory experiences, the one nurturing the meaning of the other.

“As the Dead Prey Upon Us” attempts to restore a way of thinking in which the dream communicates to reason, uttering an insightful message about the self through its mythic figures and its magic landscape. That is what the detective persona in the poem attempts to penetrate, as if he were an archaeologist at the site of his own intellect, with its buried treasures and its mystical inscriptions. Olson describes the fullness of Mayan intellectual life in his essay “Human Universe,” in which he talks eloquently about the dual role of mind in expressing mythological or dreamlike narratives as well as mathematical and scientific facts about nature. Both are valid acts of thought—each approaches the world from its own perspective—but in the end together they define a “heaven” of continuous vitality underlying nature.

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