reviewed by Shane A.
Freud states in The Interpretation of Dreams that 'dreams are the royal road to the unconscious'. Having noticed us standing on this road with our thumb out, Sarah Arvio slows the car, swings open the door, and invites us in. The conversation we share is one-sided. She speaks in dark surrealistic vignettes pulling us through her consciousness. On this royal road we become witnesses to her dreams translated into halting and haunting poetry. This self-labeled ‘exploration of mind’ and ‘intimate memoir’ is aptly titled night thoughts.
However inspired, the collection offers a fair amount of head-scratching.
Arvio’s night thoughts, her dreams, are rehashed and rewritten in poetic form. But just like dreams, they still jump: ‘a lot like the hat of the little prince / that was pregnant with the elephant / pick up the phone another snake crawls out’(‘green snake’). They still appear incomplete: ‘toilet paper around them as they swim / shoaling & hurrying like sperm or why / the strange low light or why they are shoaling’(‘shoaling’). Their ideas are still fantastical: ‘a flock of giant birds all red & blue / gallop at me three naked men’(‘mustang’). While the subject matter may sometimes befuddle you, it’s surprising how easily you can relate to it – just like dreams.
But relatable does not always equal an easy read. Were it not for the second half of the text, composed completely of the author’s notes, it's possible many readers would find the work too abstract.
Take for instance these lines from ‘fruit bowls’: "in the middle of a table / have yellow & red & blue fruit in them / I remove three large pieces of excrement / from my body & wrap them up like fruit". Some of us can take that as it’s written, perhaps visualising bananas as excrement or vice-versa and applying some schooled interpretation to the visual. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that many others would become weighted down by the grotesque visual and simply see the work as a convoluted mess of obscenity and shock.
Yet this is where the collection seems most inspired. For the poetic reader who shuns the notes as anathema, it’s not imperative that you read them. But for those who seek more answers, or more of a memoir-ish experience, Arvio’s personal algorithms for each dream and odd visual provide that insight.
It’s been suggested to me that Arvio was seeking to make a statement with this format; that by offering such a large collection of notes she was bucking against established poetic form. If that’s the case it falls flat. This collection, this work, would not be complete were it not for the notes, making their inclusion an act of utility, not one of protest.
The notes make the poems less opaque (clear would be much too strong a word). Take for example the lines "in the master bed of my childhood house / I am lying in crumbs dirt & debris / & I roll over toward my analyst / who’s getting in the bed just now with me / into the vile bed where I lie with me" (‘master bed’). Arvio states this is about loneliness with ‘master bed’ perhaps an allusion to masturbate. Or ‘pink pistachios’, where she writes: "I say piss & mustache that’s my dad / the nuts are a man’s sex but we know this". Without the notes we’d never know Arvio’s own analysis which elucidates that pistachio, or ‘pee and mustachio’, is a nod to her father.
However inspired, though, the collection offers a fair amount of head-scratching. Some of the interpretations seem superficial or contrived. Take the poem ‘squirrel’, in which the speaker dreams of cutting the tail off a squirrel: "cutting board I didn’t like it was / hard inside & the fur was rough I had / to bear down & grind I didn’t like it / but had begun & so went on I saw / the fur teacup in the glass case when I / sipped I gagged this was not surrealism". In the notes she lassos this to a memory of a dead squirrel whose tail she lops off, and to seeing Oppenheims’s Le Déjeuner en Fourrure ('Fur Breakfast'). No doubt this is a plausible interpretation but in a text writhing with sexual imagery, and one of which the author writes that some events were the result of her ‘almost hallucinatory arousal’, it’s just a hard furry teacup to sip from.
This work is introspective. As the reader we’re dragged through the mental excrement of a woman in search of the root or her psychological anguish. In the process it’s hard not to question some of our own dreams. The only certainty that remains standing, in the end, is that the impacts of adolescence leave a lasting bruise on adulthood.