Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason reminds us of the liminal nature of existence; the poems exist on a threshold between states of being and move quietly between worlds. George’s book takes its title from the Goya sketch “El sueno de la razon produce monstruos.” In Spanish “el sueno” means sleep, but also dream, and in Goya’s sketch, a man sits asleep at a table while we witness his dreams: fabulist animals that appear behind him. The Dream of Reason moves between life and death, sleep and wakefulness, night and day, winter and spring, but the poems do not merely capture states of transition; they also imply an overlapping, shared existence between all things. It is here, in the overlapping identities, that the poems have the most at stake.
The Dream of Reason recognizes the indefinite nature of things. George writes that “[we] only know a thing by its periphery: / the meadow edged with trees. / Or happiness with its horizon of pain.” In the poems, lines are blurred between what things are: we are the other thing, the other thing is us. The poems reveal that the nature of things is not so precise or definite, like the “Fingers twined in yarn [that] become yarn.” In “The Sleeping Pig,” a pig evokes a sleeping child: “the flickering candle / of a dream moves his warty eyelids. / All sleeping things are children.” The sleeping pig is vulnerable like a sleeping child, yet the pig merits love as a pig, not because it is a sleeping child. In this way, metaphor is more powerful than transformation. It evokes sympathy for the other because it is like us, not because it is us. The comparison of child and animal occurs again in “First Day of Lent”:
I find a calf dead in the barn
–heavy as a sleeping boy–
and I bury him under the field,
down where the rain is kept.
The metaphor claims and shifts our habitual views. Pigs are children. Fingers are yarn. And when George writes, “The atoms of our bodies turn bright gold and silky,” our body is corn.
George writes that “Things proceed from us,” and in the poems, images literally proceed from each other. The poems work by a subtle laying of image upon image. For instance, the poem “Sword Swallower” opens as “the soul enters the body / through the mouth.” Then the “soul enters / through childhood.” In the next section “a barn with its doors left open / fills with night swallows-” and the end arrives exquisitely:
Sleep: that ancient union
of death with its body.
The child sleeps.
As in–the child returns
to the time before her body.
One of the book’s fortes is this subtle movement where the image echoes, or opens from, the previous image. It creates a sense of transformation and enacts the true nature of change. In George’s deft and tender language, change occurs invisibly, true to life.
Like everything else that we believe we know–change is not what we think it is. Darkness is not darkness: “It’s dawn; the dark unjoins / and drifts off into light.” Change occurs by drifting–a moving from one state into another. Neither is death, death. George writes that “After we die, our lives take up no space at all. / The same is true of love.” In “Encyclopedia of the Dead” “ the dead were able / to live on sandy beaches in summer.” Thus, the dead remain among us and even function with purpose.
The idea of death as a new state, not a finite one, is echoed in poems about skeletal objects. In “Talisman” the narrator carries the femur of a baby animal to school:
When the teacher asks
a question you don’t raise
your hand but quietly
wrap your fingers around
the thin shape, that bone
without a mother.
Here, the dead provide an alternative answer. In “Eros” a girl discovers a skunk skeleton and “she suddenly knows how to take it up / and shake the strange rhythms from it like castanets.” This is because “[a] skeleton has the same intelligence” of the whole. The poems have a respect for the parts of things–for the knowledge and life force that exist in bone, body, and buried things. Death does not bring an end because everything remains. However, the presence of the dead also creates an overarching sense of loss in the work.
Change occurs subtly–but also violently. In the compelling middle section about livestock (pigs, cows, and lambs), animal experience is represented with the same gravitas as human experience. In “The Belt” a cow gives birth and a man gives her his belt to bite down on “after she heaved all day against the boards”:
Bite down, girl–
–and she mouthed hard
and the calf came out like jelly, inert
and cooling on the trampled straw.
His belt where she’d chewed it
was like chewed bread. And how
did you imagine mercy would look?
Throughout the book, the poems contemplate the nature of pain and mercy. And in fact, the poems imply that both are ordinary, easy to overlook.
In the poem “The Traveling Line” from the same section, pigs walk in an assembly line to their death by electrocution. They then hang: “By the ankles they are swiftly inverted.” The hanging line is the center line of the poem and the poem itself is a skillfully constructed mirror poem (or palindrome); the inverse reflection of the lines emphasizes the repetition of the pigs marching toward death. There is no beginning or end. The poem manages to be unsentimental and heart-wrenching as we encounter again the circular nature of suffering. This poem is dark with dehumanization – except we’re reading about pigs. The book observes the ordinary nature of cruelty and even its presence among beauty. The poems, however, do not have a heavy-handed ethics. They reveal how others speak for the animals, like the pig in her crate who “doesn’t know she cannot turn around”; “they say her brain does not conceive / of turning.” The poem ends with the pig “circl[ing] herself for days / trying to bite her own tail.” The poem sees her as she is and thus undercuts the spoken lie with image.
Boundaries are not fully real in The Dream of Reason. The poems continually depict buried and hidden things. They reveal that things exist within other things; George writes “I forgot / the taste of water because it lay quietly / inside the taste of everything.” There is a magical otherness to the work–much like sleep or dreams–but the poems are grounded in ordinary scenes–as if to say that transcendence is easy to miss. The poem “Easter” asks how the body rises after death:
What will be the first to emerge?
The brain, pushing its murderous bulb
through the mud? The heart? No–
the heart is the last to rise.
The first to emerge is the image.
The power of The Dream of Reason is revelation through image, and yet these images radiate with feeling. George has given us a brilliant debut.
Jessica Cuello is the author of Hunt, a retelling of Moby Dick through the feminine & animal viewpoint, and Pricking. She was awarded The 2017 CNY Book Award (for Pricking), The 2016 Washington Prize (for Hunt), The New Letters Poetry Prize, and most recently, The New Ohio Review Poetry Prize. Her newest poems are forthcoming in Cave Wall, Pleiades, Crab Creek Review, and Barrow Street.