A review of Dreaming My Animal Selves by Helene Cardona

Reviewed by Elvis Alves
Dreaming My Animal Selves
by Helene Cardona
Salmon Poetry
Paperback: 80 pages, September 3, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1908836397

There is the belief that dreams are ideas within the unconscious mind that push their way into the conscious mind. This Freudian classification of dreams is insufficient because it creates a “tight box” around what we think dreams are. Thankfully, there are writers like Helene Cardona that move beyond this box in their work. Similarly, Cardona’s poems challenge the narrative, often found in Western cultures, that sees human beings as dominant over and against all other animals. Left unchecked, this narrative creates separation between human beings and animals that, at the core, justifies and allows for the extinction of the latter.  One should read Helene Cardona’s Dreaming My Animal Selves because of the refreshing treatment she gives the subjects, dreams and animals.

There is the sense in Cardona’s work of a reality within dreams that human beings need to tap into, in order to live fuller lives. She declares in Pathway to Gifts, “The dream opens forgotten realms. I think that’s what time is” (35). The idea of hidden treasures experienced in dreams is shared in From the Heart with Grace.

….in dreaming lies the healing of the earth.
In dreaming we travel to a place where all is
forgiven. In dreaming is the Divine created (22).

It is also in dreams that we interact with animals in ways contrary to the “norm.” In Night Messenger, Cardona writes, “Like the penguin, I lay on a leaf, let the river transport me, knowing I’ve entered another world” (31). The beauty of this piece is that the dreamer does not want to be in control. This lesson is learned from the penguin who serves as teacher. Therefore, a more free self comes about from the interaction with the animal. Wisdom spills from the mouth of a crane in Isles of the Immortals, “Animals are allies. All is kin, one consciousness”(44).

Cardona admits that she is not reinventing the wheel in calling attention to the need for unity between human beings and the natural world. Other poets have done what she is doing.

I hear Blake’s voice, walk through
the forest, and Yeats, reflect the light.
In this pool I turn into fish (In Dreams Like Rain, 49).

In a more contemporary context, one can put forth Mary Oliver as a poet whose work reflect the move toward wholeness of life. In talking about the process of writing, Oliver said she likes to take walks and gets inspired to write during the walks (i.e. when she observes an animal or flower). On the other hand, it is not the waking world but sleep that serves as inspiration for Cardona.  To drive home this point, Cardona’s Dreams Like Water is quoted here in its entirety.

I trace patterns in dreams
through being disguised
undone like particles broken apart
revealing pieces of me.
I pursue elusive sleep
in the hope to heal mishaps
the last chance to anchor my boat (17).

It is interesting that Oliver and Cardona take separate paths to reach the same conclusion, that of the need for the wholeness of life.  This happening shows astute inventiveness on the part of Cardona.

Dreamer is one of the longer poems in the collection, and is also one of the strongest. In it Cardona lays out the benefits of living a life unhampered by conventions—a life experienced in dreams—and needs pursuit in wakefulness.

Consider this, be fortunate, grateful,
consider this, be alive
for the greatest gift is given with death.
There is no end and no beginning,
Surrender, surrender, surrender (60).

The person becomes a free self in surrendering to what is experienced in dreams and living accordingly when awake. In the same poem, Cardona writes, “life needs beauty and complexity.” Yes, and she wants us to embrace both. Fortunately, her work helps show the way.

About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at http://www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com