“A Dream of a Brother” consists of twenty lines divided into five unrhymed quatrains written on an iambic pentameter base. That this is a dream poem, or a dreamed meditation, is made immediately clear both by the title and in the first line: “I fall asleep, and dream. . . .” This fact is important structurally and thematically. Bly has said that he began the original version of what finally became this poem by imagining his own childhood as having been made up of two individual personalities, “one of whom had betrayed the other.” It is, therefore, not surprising that the poem begins with another instance of betrayal by alluding to the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers. In the first stanza the speaker dreams that he shows his father a “coat stained with goat’s blood,” a clear reference to the biblical story. In the second stanza, he says, “I sent my brother away.” Having banished his brother, as Joseph’s brothers did him, the speaker enfolds the biblical allusions into a quintessentially American context: “I heard he wastaken in by traveling Sioux.”
There is a strong break after the third stanza. This is not surprising, since the two rather distinct sections of this poem come from two totally different sections in an earlier, much longer, poem entitled “The Shadow Goes Away,” published in Sleepers Joining Hands (1973). Although in the two final stanzas Bly merges the times and places he has alluded to in the opening stanzas, these stanzas are much more personal and immediate, much more literal and specific than the first three.
The fourth stanza begins by referring to a rural high school (like the one Bly himself attended) and ends, apparently years later, in a large city (Bly lived in New York for a time). The betrayed and abandoned “brother,” described as having been taken “to the other side of the river,” is not missed until readers are suddenly told, “I noticed he was gone.” Since the dream imagery is still in place at the end of the poem, one wonders whether this “brother” is exclusively the literal brother he seemed to be earlier or if he may now be primarily a substitute brother. He may be a “double,” or an imaginary brother, buried within the speaker’s own psyche and rediscovered only later in life.
In the fifth and final stanza the speaker, depressed, thinking of death, sits on the ground and weeps. “Impulses to die shoot up in the dark” near him. These impulses, like rays of light in the dark room of a dream, seem to suggest something positive, even if it is still somewhat vague or dreamlike. The poem ends with a single-line sentence that attempts to catapult the reader—as it apparently has the speaker—into a moment of insight or illumination: “In the dark the marmoset opens his eyes.”
Forms and Devices
“A Dream of a Brother” had a complicated composition and publication history. In an introductory note in his Selected Poems (1986), Bly reports that he rewrote the poems from Sleepers Joining Hands, “some in minor detail, others in a larger way.” “A Dream of a Brother” is one of these largely rewritten poems. Indeed, it has been culled from two separate, rather disparate, parts of the much longer and thematically quite different poem, “The Shadow Goes Away”—which itself was only the first section of a very long free-verse poem, “Sleepers Joining Hands,” the title poem in Bly’s book of the same name.
In addition to the fact that “A Dream of a Brother” is only one fourth as long as “The Shadow Goes Away,” it is also a much more formal poem, although Bly eschews the use of a strict metrical pattern and other more formal poetic devices, perhaps for the obvious reason that such devices would seem to be inappropriate in a dream poem. Instead of such devices Bly relies on the more informal devices of juxtaposition, allusion, and imagery to organize and control his poem. The poem is also organized through the use of comparisons and contrasts. Some of these, such as the comparison between Joseph and his brothers and the speaker and his brother, are explicit, while others, such as the comparison between a literal brother and an imaginary one, are merely implied.
The poem is further built around three dominant dichotomies, each of which makes use of its own set of allusions, even though the imagery overlaps from one allusion to the next and from one stanza to another. These comparisons and contrasts, dichotomies, doubled-up allusions, and complex images bind the poem together structurally; they also come together thematically in the vivid and somewhat enigmatic reference in the final line of the poem. Allusion, startling juxtaposition, and “deep images” (Bly’s own term) are devices that Bly uses in many of his poems. The deep image—which sometimes occurs as a non sequitur, at the end of a poem, or even as a kind of afterthought to the rest of the poem—is intended to connect the physical world with the spiritual world. Bly uses it to shock the reader into recognition or illumination. In the case of “A Dream of a Brother” the introduction of the marmoset (a small monkey) at the very end of the poem is important to Bly’s theme; it also binds the other elements of the poem together.
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