That phrase came to me first, followed by a set of instructions:
1. Write down the words heard in the dream.
2. Describe what was happening in the dream when the words were heard.
3. Record anything that connected with the words in your waking life that day.
4. Enter the dream phrase into an internet search engine.
It was all very precise, like a manual from the unconscious, the Greek ‘tetra’ for the four steps. The dream was black and white with the merest slivers of red and electric blue swimming somewhere at the edges of vision.
The next morning, a mild autumn in Adelaide, the light (hopeful of rain) entering my study window, I began following the instructions.
When you enter the words ‘dream tetras’, Google ignores your spelling and sends you straight to the Tetris Effect or Syndrome, named after the famous video game from the 80s. In the game, random four-sided shapes cascade toward the player who has to fit them into a wall, without leaving gaps. The Tetris Syndrome occurs when people spend so much time devoted to a particular activity that it alters their mental image of the world and patterns their dreams, in the way a Tetris addict continues to see the little colourful tiles tumbling through their sleep.
The syndrome is actually the persistence of a habit into a new environment: the sailor staggers on land, the computer programmer dreams in code. If you’ve had a day bodysurfing, try shutting your eyes that night, and you may well see waves rising up out of the dark. The Tetris Effect often occurs in the transitional zone between sleeping and waking known as Hypnagogia, a borderland or half-dream state, where images are seen and remembered, tactile sensations experienced, sounds and imagined speech heard, including my phrase ‘dream tetras’.
Further searching reveals ‘L’effet Tetris’, a different idea relating to the development of artificial intelligence. In the video game, the bright coloured shapes float down toward the player at increasing speed; you have to make quick decisions about how to orientate the tiles into the wall. There’s often no time to calculate every angle. For survival, a ‘good enough’ decision is better than a perfect one, if the perfect one comes too late. I’ve often wondered about this. Do I spend too much time thinking and then miss out? Or is the fact that I’m still here a testament to the value of looking carefully before deciding?
Right down here, on the third page of search results, is something called – ‘My Dream Tank’. Someone has posted their concept of the perfect aquarium. In the species list is the Cardinal Tetra – also called ‘neons’. They, or perhaps the Tetris tiles, must have been the bright little slivers of red and blue at the edge of the original dream.
‘little jacky winter’
I heard the words as I was cradling my son in the dream. He was very small, perhaps in the first few months of his life. We were in an air pocket, surrounded by rock strata. It was like a Blake etching. The sensation was of an inner shell of happiness, which I had to protect with my body against the crushing layers. The rock was the world. The rock was desensitised brutality. There was also the impression of a small bird, hovering around the edge of the dream. My son’s name is Jack. Is there perhaps a bird called the ‘Jacky Winter’? I feel there is.
That morning, late for a job, I was riding fast into the city. I just missed it –
crouched in the centre of the bike lane was a tiny bird. It didn’t even move aside as my wheels shaved past it, only hunkered closer to the bitumen. I knew it was still alive because of that slight motion and because, even at speed, our eyes caught each other looking. Despite knowing that it was alive and vulnerable to the next bicycle or car, I contemplated riding on, because I was late and the hard luck of the world, nature with a capital ‘N’, would decide things. But I couldn’t persuade myself for more than twenty metres. I was the hard luck of the world, the big ‘N’, at that moment, and perhaps the Jacky Winter dream was still running in a bleached out way in my head. Here was a duty, plain and simple. I balanced my bike against a light pole and walked back. The bird was a New Holland Honeyeater, just a chick, the yellow in its wings not bright yet, the striated black and white of its throat still subtle. It gave its instinctual warning cry as I grasped it as gently as I could. It wanted to take off but was incapable, paralysed by something. As I held it in my fist, the bird’s claws fastened on my shirt. There were no good bushes nearby, only an empty carpark with some scraggly trees. Nothing for it but to walk to the municipal gardens, two streets back. As we went along together, the bird was silent and closed its eyes; a bad sign I knew from past attempts to rescue stunned birds. Its claws were still clasped on my blue checked shirt; was it a death rigour already? There was a big tree like a tent (a Carob I think) in the centre of the park. Here, if it had any chance at all, would be its best one. At first when we were inside the Carob’s shade, the mechanical jewellery of the claws would not let my shirt go, but then, as soon as I prised the bird onto a branch, the chick opened its eyes and flew off to another tree, leaving me a small, yellow-striped feather stuck in the hairs of my right arm.
The internet agrees with the dream – Microeca Fascinans , the Jacky Winter, is widespread in Australia and Papua New Guinea. The Field Guide to Australian Birds says the Jacky Winter perches on posts and stumps, and pounces on prey like a robin. Its preferred habitat is open woodland. Its cry a ‘clear, ringing chwit-chwit–chwit-queeter-queeter-queeter.’ Microeca Fascinans – something small and enchanting…
‘I’m worried about the drones’
My dead father said it to me as he sat on the end of the bed. It felt good to hear that quiet, gentle, though anxious voice again. That anxiety had often been there, perhaps from his Depression-era childhood. He felt so present there in the dream, I could sense his weight on the mattress. I told him not to worry about the drones. They were horrible, yes, but they were far away. He said he was worried because they were becoming smaller and more prevalent and he could see them in the future by the millions, following individuals, policing them, becoming their executioners. But who would control them all in this Panopticon, I countered, who would do all that watching? Then, who would watch the controllers – another order of drones with another order of watchers, and so on endlessly? ‘I suppose’ he said softly, not reassured. And I sat up from sleep.
In the daylight, as I was riding to work, a Wattlebird followed me, swooping at my blue helmet. For a hundred metres it flew just behind my head, a rapid wing-beating shadow, and it reminded me of the personal surveillance drones my father described. This is what they might feel like, just behind you and above, out of your sight line. At lunchtime, as I browsed the newspaper, I read an article about the ‘Draganflyer X6 miniature drones’ and how police departments are now investing in them.
Googling ‘I’m worried about the drones’, the first webpage that comes up features Ron Paul, a former Republican from Texas who says he’s worried the government might kill Edward Snowden with a drone.
‘the crack in the crib’
An old dream, this one. Far, far back. My grandfather who was a Presbyterian minister is coming up the driveway to our house at night, swishing his black cassock and chanting the words ‘the crack in the crib, the crack in the crib’. I can see myself asleep in my boyhood bed as he approaches. The rhythm of the words is the same as the ticking of the pendulum clock in his dark house, the Manse with its penumbral oil painting of Saint Sebastian. Is he warning or threatening me, this black-cloaked grandfather?
What I did with this the next day was use the phrase to name my first collection of poems. Possibly a mistake. The publisher’s deadline was up, so I grasped at this message from the unconscious.
It seems to me that internet searching is a kind of lucid dreaming – a transitional state of images, sounds and texts, a borderland of Hypnagooglia. Entering the dream phrase into search engines we find ‘cracking a crib’ was nineteenth century criminal slang for breaking into a house. Conan Doyle uses it in The Red-Headed League, ‘He’ll crack a crib in Scotland one week, and be raising money to build an orphanage in Cornwall the next.’ Then there’s the gangsta rap: ‘Talkin ‘bout all the crack they cookin up in the crib / I’m up in the morning with the rest of these rookies/ You out here selling them dimes, bitch I’m out here selling them cookies.’ Next, a news story from Upper Dalby, Pennsylvania, about a baby recovering in hospital after eating crack cocaine hidden in her crib. Way, way down, on the last page – there’s my collection of poems being advertised. Quantity – 1. Condition – Very Good. Price – £10. A rare book. Perhaps I should keep quiet about the box of them under my bed.
‘bright, dark red’
Only just retrieved this phrase from the dream, as I travelled out towards waking. The setting was a train, chiming and clacking between Eden Hills and Coromandel stations. I spent years on this line, going back and forth to university from my home in the hills. As a boy, I walked to the local primary school beside the same tracks. A classmate’s mother killed herself near here, jumping in front of the oncoming train. I can hear the dry clatter of the stone ballast and the pinging pulse the rails make before the train comes. Their dull shine and metallic smell is like blood.
At work the next morning, my editor asked me to find World War One poems for a special broadcast commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the war – that day of black comedy when Franz Ferdinand was backed up in the open-topped car right next to one of the assassins, after they’d missed him the first time. It occurs to me as I trawl the literary Dardanelles and wade the written Somme, how officially sanctimonious we are about the military in Australia. This obsession with the First World War, why don’t we just get over it? Is it something to do with our over-compliance, our history as jailed jailers? Why this obsequiousness to the uniform? I find plenty of bright, dark red. In particular, the dream connects with Wilfred Owen’s poem about the artist who poured his colour ‘down shell holes till the veins ran dry’ and that line that says a ‘leap of purple spurted from his thigh’.
It’s all lipstick and hair dye when you search ‘bright, dark red’ – but here’s a crimson square called ‘the e of dreams’. Push on the gate and it tells you in eastern European English that red in a dream means “threats and troubles.” Crimson or dark red clothes are ‘a sign of safe disposal of intrigues of enemies’. A red pepper ripening on a branch means ‘the person independent and economical will be your partner in life’. Fingers covered in red ink are a ‘problem with jealousy’. And lastly this quote: ‘for a woman to dream that her furnace became red-hot means that she will love for a kind and warm soul.’
‘gone into the great archive of forgetting’
Peter Goldsworthy asked me in the dream if I knew what had happened to our old friend John Griffin. I answered that he had ‘gone into the great archive of forgetting’. Peter gave me that quizzical look of his, and I must have returned to a deeper sleep because I don’t remember more.
In the morning I pulled down John’s book, a signed copy of Backyard, his collection of humble, illuminating essays about a lifetime of gardening. His stories and radio-plays were often about plain things and ordinary people who had a surprising secret somewhere, a strange fantasy. John himself looked ordinary, unathletic, always in collared shirt and with wire-framed glasses, very much the deputy principal. He was the last person to promote himself, though he could be quietly assertive. We were friends for years, helping to edit each other’s work. I hadn’t seen him for a while and when I rang, his wife Tina told me he had gone into a home because he was suffering from Lewy Body Dementia. I asked if I should visit, but she thought he probably wouldn’t recognise me and it might agitate him. Then Tina died. I was away for the funeral and so I lost my link to John. I was surprised at how fragile it was. None of our mutual writing friends knew which home he was in.
A search reveals no death date for John Griffin, born 1935, so perhaps he is still alive somewhere? His publisher has lost all contact. None of the nursing homes in his district have any record of him. Hidden down concrete paths, behind ‘facility’ walls somewhere, he defies the internet. But there are clues in his book; a brother’s name, ‘Eugene’, who lives in a ‘huge old house in the west of the city’. I try the white pages and there is an ‘E Griffin’ in an inner suburb. A gruff, matter-of-fact voice (just like John’s) answers, and I can hear the echo of a spacious room behind the words. Yes, he is John’s brother, but John died more than a year ago, soon after Tina. That unclosed dash after his birth date is wrong. The reverberant voice sounds like John himself correcting me from the great archive of forgetting.
What did those words mean? At first I thought they were about the growing army of dementia sufferers – the archive of those who are forgetting. But perhaps they also meant those who are forgotten. Where was his obituary? Why did our city newspaper think that his life was of no importance, but they devoted pages to the death of a football coach? Was I also thinking about how likely it is that most of our work as writers, our first-edition-only books, will be forgotten after we die? It seems the dream words now meant something bigger; the archive of all those who must be forgotten in time, all the unremembered dead of the world. How many of us have once lived? One hundred billion or more? If everyone of us was a slim volume, or a manila folder containing just the essential papers, how big would that archive be?
Searching ‘gone into the great archive of forgetting’, there’s an article about our over-reliance on computers causing us to forget how to do things by ourselves, from making bread to flying planes. The reflex of ‘google it’ is rotting our memory, or at least outsourcing it. Here’s a story about the electro-chemical mechanism of memory, and the possibility of a pill to target and erase bad memories. ‘Bad for whom?’ we might ask. Another item describes how the very act of remembering changes what is remembered, like pulling the file and changing the order of the papers, then putting it back in a slightly different place. A Heisenberg uncertainty principle of the mind. Following link to link, I come to Edwin Morgan’s concrete poem, simply called Archive. It’s made up of the words ‘generation upon generation’ typed over and over again down the page, gradually disintegrating as letters fall out until only a single ‘g’ is left. That afternoon I write an obituary for John Griffin, two years late, and send it to the local paper.
Some great literary figure was whispering Latin to me in the dream. The figure was cloaked, the scene shadowy. Maybe it was a theatre and the figure was an actor playing Virgil. The set-design owed a lot to Gustave Doré. But then, stage lights down, house lights up, and those sotto words were all I caught.
My Latin is terrible, but I knew enough to realise this was about crying. I haven’t had a proper howl for years, though I weep more and more often – at small things and large, beauty and sadness. Far from becoming hardened, I think I’m getting softer and more emotional as I age. I cried at old man Cohen’s concert because it was so fine, I wept in the light wells of Gaudi’s cathedral, sometimes I shed tears at the television’s blatant prompting.
That day, on my lunchtime walk from the office, I passed through a tiny park called the A. J. Shard reserve. The name always strikes me – it really is a shard. There is only one bench in the park, and on it, a young woman sat crying. Big, silent, shoulder-shaking sobs. She looked down to her feet as I went past. At first I kept walking, embarrassed, not wanting to intrude, but then I did a u-turn. Standing beside her I asked if there was anything I could do to help. Lifting her head, eyes watery bowls, she silently shook her head. ‘I’m sorry’, I said and walked on. The end of an affair, a miscarriage, death of a parent, a savage argument, or having to euthanise her pet… who knows? It could have been anything. Maybe just the sorrow of the whole world, focused there, at that moment, in her being.
‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’, is the correct form, the internet tells me. ‘There are tears for things’, ‘tears in things’, Virgil has Aeneas say, as he looks at a mural showing the Trojan war, a war that has forced him into exile in Carthage. He’s a refugee, he’s suffered, but he’s found safety. Sympathy for another’s misfortune, but also the general tragedy of the human condition, both meanings are there in the Latin.
But I mis-heard it in the dream, jumbling ‘sunt’ with ‘rerum’ and producing ‘rerunt’. What did that mean? Was Virgil calling me a runt? A poetic squib with no big stories, just shards and fragments of feelings? A search on ‘rerunt’ leads to a young woman’s blog about the death of her cat who was called ‘re-run’ but also, because it was skinny, ‘re-runt’. Unlike the girl in the park, this virtual one, tells everyone, everything.
‘allein, now it comes to the dark photos”
At first I heard the word ‘alien’ in the dream, but then I realised by the context it was the German ‘allein’. I was sitting by myself in my mother’s house at Blackwood late in the day, no light in the room except for that which was rapidly disappearing through the big lounge-room window, a window that once had looked out over rolling farmland and now was full of new houses. The dream was set some time in the future. My mother, alive today in her aloneness, was now dead. I was sorting through her photographs. The details: me on a tricycle, my father, briefcase in hand, my brother playing on a red ‘Implematic’ tractor at the royal show, my mother on a scooter at Kefalos…. were all sinking into the darkness. I don’t know why I didn’t turn on the light. I had the sense of being a lone custodian of the past, as I worked to pack up the dead woman’s house.
Today I’m by myself at home. Cath is away and won’t be back till tomorrow. I walk around, listening to my bare feet on the lino; pad, pad, pad. I hear the children’s voices in the schoolyard across the road, like seagulls, so close, such a long way off. I make coffee, go back for a biscuit, force myself to sit in the writing chair. I’m not very good at being alone. I think of calling my mother, but don’t. I worry about her living by herself, but she tells me it doesn’t bother her. In school I was always labelled a ‘loner’, but I never wore that badge with any pride. Yes, I liked being alone with my thoughts. I liked long, isolated walks. But I also sought company. Afraid I was too weird, or not entertaining enough to be with, I tried hard. Perhaps it was that very effort that marked me out as the alien.
Searching on ‘allein, now it comes to the dark photos’ brings you in short order to Rilke, the poet whom Auden called ‘the Santa Claus of loneliness’. I take down from my shelves one of my grandfather’s books. I inherited his collection of poetry at the age of sixteen, and he was obsessed with Rilke. Opening one of the books at random, the inside cover says ‘Mary Martin, 13 Alma Chambers, Commercial Place, Adelaide – 10/6.’ Then my eye falls on the line ‘Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben’ - ‘Who now is lonely, long shall be alone’. I’ve always rejected Rilke, way too flowery and effusive for me, but now I’m coming round. You can come back to poems when you’re ready for them. Lines like:
Behold, the trees are, the houses
we live in subsist still. It is only we
who pass everything by like a transpiration of air
Yes, that was the mood in the darkening house, going through the boxes of photographs. Then Rilke asks the pertinent question: ‘What was real in the world?’