Burnt before pop. Burnt before
black. Burnt before taste of charcoal.
Burnt before. Before firecrackers at the public pool
and sparklers stuck into weeds
on my seventh birthday with as many candles.
Even before the breakfast table—
because dreams are merely “a physiological warm-up”
before one wakes up—
I rise and shower
and reach for whatever warm-body’s on the counter.
Before martini, before computer failure, before random street murder.
The Poet on the Poem:
“A Dream of Toast” may appear to have nothing in common with Japanese poetics but this is where my abiding interest in Japanese aesthetics has led me.
Over the years I have often used lists, word associations and erratic repetition. For this particular series of lyric poems, I began with a self-imposed assignment: use a quote (specifically from a Benedict Cary article on dream theory), repeat a phrase or line, hold the number of lines under twenty. In general, repetition falls into a list format and variation in meaning is essential in keeping things moving—moving as in pace and emotion.
I learned about lists from Ivan Morris’ translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon where readers see how a mere list can be elegant writing. The generic term is zuihitsu—which includes other sub-forms (journal entry, anecdote, casual essay etc.). In “A Dream of Toast,” I began with the word “toast” to see how far word associations would take me: bread browned by heat (especially the smell and taste), being burnt, raising of glasses to honor someone, a “warm body,” a drink in honor of someone, to be in a non-functioning state, and slang for a homicide victim.
Of course, paronomasia is not uncommon in the West, especially in the form of puns. Since Japanese is vocabulary poor, it is especially rich in words with multiple meanings. Word play is so deeply appreciated that, as Robert Brower and Earl Miner point out in Japanese Court Poetry, there are at least three poetic terms for it: engo (“word association,” i.e., a word that has or creates an association with the preceding word or situation, often bringing out an additional dimension), honkadori (“allusive variation,” which can be compared to literary allusion, is specifically the echoing of the words … of a well-known earlier poem in such a way that recognizable elements are incorporated into a new meaning … ).
In other poems published here and in previous work, I often select words that suggest several meanings in an attempt to burst out of a linear experience. The word acts as a kind of pivot, which in Japanese is known as kakekotoba, a rhetorical scheme of word play in which a series of sounds is so employed as to mean two or more things at once by different parsings. (And there are more than these three examples.)
Also of value in Japanese aesthetics is asymmetry, as in the odd number of syllables in both tanka and haiku. I continue my use of one- and two-lined stanzas to create an off-beat effect. For the sake of asymmetry as well as a spontaneous quality, I also favor an erratic patterning for both stanzas and slant rhyme.
Of course I have also absorbed the use of innuendo from Western culture, whether Shakespeare or Mae West. But finally, I hope that my set of lyrics conveys a quirky regard for Japanese sensibilities.