(Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2014)
Writers are often recommended to chronicle their dreams. Once recorded, one is expected to find the consequences within the strange images, the symbolism, the wild transformations. I could never capture them. My nightmares were never as frightening on paper; my transitions were never clear. Michael Bazzett, on the other hand, makes this look easy. In his new poetry collection, You Must Remember This, Bazzett reminds us what is at stake with our dreams. He not only creates borders and bridges between dreams and reality, but draws entire city maps of the subconscious, yet his command over classic literary devices like imagery, metaphor, and alliteration help to illustrate a dream-world anchored to reality. This partnership of the strange and real navigates the bizarre, discomforting moments of one’s dreams in such a way that one never feels lost.
In “Atlas”, the speaker is led to a map that contains every detail of his life, from his scars to his childhood toys, until he ultimately finds a list of his future accomplishments. He discovers
there is actually a numerical list of deeds, some quite surprising.
It gratifies you to know you will one day befriend an orangutan
Many years later, while those at your bedside await your last breath,
you remain serene. There has been no orangutan, you murmur.
No orangutan whatsoever. In this moment, you begin to recover.
This scene seems ridiculous, but the second-person point of view commands the reader to not only believe what is happening, but to experience it firsthand. This is reminiscent of the ancient Greek notion of a “memory palace,” making the images, along with the emotions at hand, nearly impossible to forget. This poem then becomes a metaphor for our expectations, presented by a life map in a locked box under a bed. Throughout this collection, I found myself wondering, “What’s my orangutan?” Bazzett immerses his readers in a surreal world, yet this other realm remains understandable and relatable.
A preoccupation with time persists in the next few poems, as does the orangutan. “The Same Bones”, a piece about a man observing his future self, opens with “the face slack and whiskered in silver / the sag of the curtain beneath the eyes / the crepe-paper crinkle of skin in the hinges.” The sounds of this passage—slack/whiskered, slack/sag, curtain/skin, skin/hinges—all describe this aged face as if viewing the image of an elderly man under a microscope. The image itself is nothing new, but the descriptors cast shadows, wrinkles, and other features in a fresh way. Later, the speaker explains:
he knows me, this man
well enough that I crave his good opinion
we share some version of the same bones
having fathered the same children
with the same woman in a shared bed
though neither of us necessarily knew it
at the time: this is not a new form
of perversity but an old one…
The literary devices here, namely alliteration and consonance, hold our hand as the image gets stranger. The visuals are striking, but how he reinvents common psychological crises is the true pulse of the poem. At the end of this piece, the two “versions” of the self look into each other’s eyes and imagine a situation where an orangutan at “the primate house” asks for the time. This seems, at first, contradictory—I thought we never met the orangutan!—but it is another poem, another dream, and the dreamer’s subconscious is persistent, just as our teeth can regenerate once shattered the night before, only to fall out again and again. In this particular case, an expectation is brought to life in the form of an ever-present zoo animal.
But it is not just the recurring images and themes that bring these dreams to life; it is also how they transform. Throughout Bazzett’s collection, a man’s penis becomes a rooster, a man becomes a fish, a hunted bird becomes a woman giving birth. As these events unfold, each speaker’s innocence and discovery allow such things to become believable, and the reader is able to experience these moments in real time, as with the orangutan.
There are also other characters that appear with independent lives apart from the speaker. In “The Building”, a man is in the back seat of a car in a city he has never been to. He passes an asylum where he imagines a woman in one of the rooms. Suddenly, the reader is in the room with her:
Her thoughts are as flat as a table
as she takes a ballpoint pen and copies:
the building sense of momentum
as he entered the strange city
She traces the words
in pale blue ink on white paper.
The two characters are impossibly connected, but omniscient point of view allows for the reader to infer that the human dreamer has a divine power over the characters and places in his or her dreams. Later, this same woman, “suspected / / there is another one (city) beneath it. Tunneled / with caves and scattered with old bones.” But eventually, she “prefers to become a silence / and filter out through the slatted shutters into the open // window of the passing car.” Here, the hero’s perspective is again brought to the foreground. With these lines, the speaker is so deep in this random character’s mind that he must share these thoughts and images; after all, this is his dream. This suggests that the nameless faces in the streets or in our dreams have a purpose relating to us—and what if they do? This is one of the many questions that Bazzett proposes: not just what is important in our dreams or memories or lives, but why.
After finishing You Must Remember This, I felt like I had no other choice but to comply. Bazzett’s diction and syntax is clear and contemporary, yet glazed over with classic poetic devices and forms, and each piece does what many poems strive to do—simultaneously capture a specific moment while encompassing a timeless universe. The dream logic, unusual images, and unexpected transformations form a poetry collection that explores parts of the human psyche as if for the first time. Bazzett has created a pop-up book of his dream journal, one that leads to a unique angle on life and captures us within the mind of another.
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Timothy Lindner is recent MFA graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University, currently working as a Senior Production Editor on higher education textbooks and digital courses for John Wiley & Sons, Inc.