Critical Essay on “The Toni Morrison Dreams”
The title of Alexander’s Antebellum Dream Book (2001) suggests the tenuous and sometimes illogical thread that strings together the images in these individual dreamlike poems. Like a book in which a person records her dreams, logging the fanciful plots as they surface in memory upon waking, this collection presents separate poems that more or less exploit the liberty of dreams in order to step beyond the ordinary into fresh combinations. These combinations are often dream-like images or juxtaposed scenes that are not restricted by verisimilitude, logical sequence, or cause-and-effect relationships. The poet, like a dreamer, allows free association and seemingly random images to float into the text and on that sea of receptivity and fancy, the reader moves from one topic to another, observing how wish fulfillment, animated fears, and psychic disclosures take shape and become in some cases weird elements of plot. “The Toni Morrison Dreams” comprises four vignettes, all pertaining to an appearance Toni Morrison makes at a conference held at Temple University in Philadelphia. In these little scenes or dreams, the narrator gets as close as she can to the famous African American novelist and Nobel Prize winner.
In the first vignette, the scene takes place in the morning right before a writing workshop conducted by Morrison is to begin. In this dream, Toni Morrison expresses her hatred for “conference coffee,” and the narrator offers “to fetch her a Starbucks.” To be able to “fetch” anything for a writer of Morrison’s stature and importance is an honor to this narrator, and the use of this particular verb emphasizes both the narrator’s unabashed pride and her lowly status by contrast. She seems thrilled to be helpful and proud that Morrison is “delighted, can start her day properly.” Then the narrator notices that Morrison takes out a pack of French cigarettes, Gauloises. Morrison is discriminating about her coffee, about her cigarettes. She is particular, has class, and, the narrator notes, is beautiful. The narrator sums up the portrait by describing how Morrison “shakes her gorgeous, pewter dreads, / sips the java that I brought her / and reads her own words.” Morrison reads her own words: “Nuns go by as quiet as lust,” and the narrator concludes that “Everything [is] silver-gray and black.” Morrison’s words about nuns, presumably in black with white wimples, Morrison’s black skin and pewter dreadlocks, the whole scene becomes the hue of Morrison and her words.
Thus Alexander economically and concisely establishes the celebrity status of Toni Morrison and the rapt adoration of the aspiring writer who attends the conference and the morning workshop Morrison directs. Mostly, the relationship between the two women is established in the offer to get Morrison coffee and in the way Morrison’s presence and words transform a world of color into the monochromic hues of “silver-gray and black.”
The second section is called Workshop. Morrison is identified as “She.” It goes without saying that the narrator refers to Morrison. Who else would she be speaking about? Morrison is the only “star” present, and “she” is in charge. She tells the writing workshop participants to “adapt / Synge’s Playboy of the Western World / for the contemporary stage.” Morrison assumes the writers know this 1907 Irish play well enough that they can create changes in it that would suit a late-twentieth-century production. She also asks them to translate “‘The Birds’” by Aristophanes, a task that would require them to know Greek. Neither of these academic assignments are likely to be assigned in a creative writing workshop, however. But their effect on participants might be understandably intimidating.
Next Morrison asks the participants “to think about clocks, / see the numbers as glyphs, / consider...
(The entire section is 1607 words.)