(I Dreamed a Dream)
a dream: in my dream, seven girls
fat and good and meaty came up to the meadow
and I loved them in the grass, and after them
seven skinny girls blasted by the East wind
and devoured up the fat ones with hungry haunches,
even though their bellies remained flat.
I loved them too and they also devoured me.
But she who interpreted the dream for me,
she whom I loved, really loved,
was both fat and skinny,
and she also devoured and was devoured.
And the day after her I knew
that I would no longer return to that place.
And in the spring after her, the flowers in the field were changed
and so were the names in the telephone book.
And in the years after her, war broke out
and I knew that I would dream no more dreams.
When a poet like Yehuda
Amichai immersed as he is in the Jewish textual tradition
writes a poem about dreams, it should surprise no
one that his allusions will be to dream-narratives firmly anchored in that tradition.
Take the example of Halamti Halom ("I dreamed a dream"), taken from his
1980 collection of poems, "Shalva Gedola: She'elot u-Teshuvot" ("Much Peace of
Mind: Questions and Answers").
Any reader of the first and longest of the poem's five stanzas will recognize
it as a rewriting of one version of Pharaoh's recurring dream in Genesis 41. Seven
fat and therefore handsome cows, having just bathed in the Nile, are grazing contentedly
in a meadow when they are devoured by seven lean and therefore ugly cows, who
nevertheless remain thin and ugly. Young Joseph interprets this and another similar
dream of Pharaoh in socio-economic terms: seven good years followed by seven bad
years; so, quick, appoint an overseer and the rest,
as they say, is Biblical narrative.
In Amichai's version of the dream there are no cows, but rather fourteen young
girls, seven fat and seven skinny.
(1) I dreamed a
dream: in my dream, seven girls
(2) fat and good and meaty came up to the meadow
(3) and I loved them in the grass, and after them
(4) seven skinny girls blasted by the East wind [that had blasted the
ears of grain of Pharaoh's second dream, but had nothing to do with
(5) and devoured up the fat ones with hungry haunches
(6) even though their bellies remained flat.
(7) I loved them too and they also devoured me.
The first thing the
attentive reader will notice in this poem is that its Hebrew title, Halamti
Halom ("I dreamed a dream") is the prosaic version of the poetic diction
of Pharaoh's opening words to Joseph when he tells him his dream: Halom
Halamti ("A dream did I dream"). With this inversion of the two words,
Amichai signals to us that, however monumental his poetic model, however
cosmic its import, and even though he is talking about a dream (and a
fantastic one at that), his rendition will be anchored in everyday reality.
Of course, no more than Pharaoh understood his dream does the poet comprehend
his reverie (although he does guess that there is something sexual about
"hungry haunches"). He needs an interpreter, and it turns out to be a
fifteenth girl, his "truly beloved" of the second stanza. The beloved
turns out to be no less complex a human being, than the narrative of the
dream is complex. The poem insists, moreover, that reality is more complex
than any fantasy.
But she who interpreted the dream for me,
(9) she whom I loved, really loved,
(10) was both fat and skinny
(11) and she also devoured and was devoured.
The beloved interprets
the dream by her very being. Indeed, she models the dream and seems to
be teaching the poet a lesson about real life: that in all human intercourse,
in all intercourse that is on a human scale, everyone is alternately a
fat cow and a skinny cow, a beautiful human being and an ugly one, a user
of others and an instrument of others.
The following three stanzas cut the poem down further to human size: the
couple becomes a series of three couplets, representing the swift passage
of time as measured by his beloved, who is not a person but a moment.
The next day, the next spring, the next years are all represented as taking
place, not "after that," but "after her."
(12) And the day
after her I knew
(13) that I would no longer return to that place.
Once he has learned
the lesson about the complexity of real life, the poet no longer needs
to play Biblical games. It is not at all clear from the poem whether he
is happy to learn this lesson. There is an element of regret in the fact
that he is being forced by his newfound understanding to leave his field
of dreams. That ambiguity is preserved in the next stanza/couplet.
(14) And in the
spring after her, the flowers in the field were changed
(15) and so were the names in the telephone book.
There is nothing more
poetic than flowers in a field; there is nothing more prosaic than names
in a telephone book. With the passage of the poet into maturity (not into
the maturity of hoary old age, but into the maturity of fruitful springtime),
he realizes that both dreams and reality do not endure. And since dreams
are therefore like reality, the need for dreaming has been diminished.
The need for dreaming? Perhaps even the capacity to dream. For given the
social and political reality of life in the twentieth century, given the
advent of that very concrete thing called war, how can one dare to dream?
(16) And in the
years after her, war broke out
(17) and I knew that I would dream no more dreams.
These last two lines of
the poem force us back to its beginning. Dreaming dreams was a way of playing
with one's tradition of dreams. In the beginning it seemed like fun to trivialize
a biblical narrative and bring it down to earth. But then there is a turning
point, and the poet must confront real human experience; he must learn
whether it takes a day, a season, or several years that there is something
beyond dreams. It may not be the economics lesson that his illustrious ancestor
Joseph learned. But it may be just as cosmic. And just as tragic.
Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew
Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly
formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language.