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...
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Dreamlike Style, Strategic Placement of Words and Lines, and Allusion in "The Toni Morrison Dreams"
In “The Toni Morrison Dreams,” a serial poem with a subtle and edgy quality, Alexander uses language to create allusions to race. Alexander also strategically places words and lines in the poem for maximum impact. The author conveys a strange, dreamlike tone in the words and events that are chosen in this poem.
The four parts of this serial poem revolve around the interaction between the narrator and the African American writer Toni Morrison. There is a workshop and a reading. Two other portions of the poem seem to serve as segues, much like a dream might proceed. The procession of the poem seems oddly spontaneous—giving it a dreamlike, unpredictable quality. For example, the poem seems to start out in the moments prior to a reading or workshop by Toni Morrison. It feels as if this is indeed the beginning of a day. Toni Morrison can now “start her day properly,” having received the kind of coffee she likes best.
It then makes sense that the workshop scene would follow in part two of this serial poem. But part three comes out of nowhere, much like a dream might proceed. The reader cannot be sure what prompts Toni Morrison to remark on and love the narrator’s baby. If Toni Morrison does not love the narrator’s work in the workshop, but loves the baby, did the narrator bring her baby to the workshop? Or did the narrator and Morrison meet at another time? Or is the third part of this serial poem unrelated to the events in the rest of the poem? It is also possible that Alexander intended to parallel the mothering and birthing of a baby with the creation of artistic work, both of which are creative acts. In this interpretation, Toni Morrison could be telling the narrator to continue creating new writing, which would be in keeping with this type of symbolism common in dreams.
Part four of the poem refers to a Toni Morrison reading. The reader cannot be sure whether all the events of the poem took place together, or if they are simply dream segments that share only the common theme of Toni Morrison’s presence. In its entirety, the procession of the poem is quite dreamlike, since dreams often disregard linear time and move and shift with no particular order. Part four sounds and feels surreal. The reader cannot be sure whether Morrison’s reading actually consisted of the words presented on the page, or whether these are words that were part of a reading—words that stayed in the narrator’s mind. If the reading is dreamlike, which the reader can assume, given the name of this poem and the premise of Alexander’s collection (The Antebellum Dream Book), then this random presentation of words very much resembles the spontaneity of a dream.
What is interesting about part four of this poem is that the reading seems to come full circle. Morrison starts out by writing “love” four times. At this point, the reader cannot be sure whether Morrison is writing, or reading out loud from her writing. Even though the stanza uses the term “she wrote,” Morrison could still be reading from writing that she wrote at one point. The second stanza is even more of a mystery. The words in this stanza are still enclosed in quotation marks, but now the reader is not told whether Morrison is writing or speaking the words. The first word in this stanza, “amanuensis,” actually refers to a person who is skilled at transcribing speech. Perhaps Alexander is subtly trying to capture the transition of the creation of writing, from when it is written on the page, to when it is spoken out loud at a reading. The third stanza loses the quotes, but uses an assortment of capitalized words that appear to denote places or people. The fourth stanza loses all punctuation, but the word “circles” is used, perhaps alluding to the fact that the reading ends where it began.
The last line of part four is “love” and it is spoken, rather than...
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