The Mansfield Revue appreciates The Certainty Dream

The Mansfield Revue
January 8 2010

'A book about dreams, and about certainty, needs a Familiar. That is, it needs something the mind returns to and recalls, a touchstone that shape-shifts and interrogates familiarity and certainty, allowing readers to contemplate the opposite of certainty in dream logic, i.e., possibility. In Kate Hall’s The Certainty Dream, a mynah-bird figure stands for certainty and possibility—two central polarities in the book.

The author uses them also as twin master tropes, ruminations that are the poetry’s very support beams. In “Hydraulically Operated,” for instance, the mynahs are featured as the locus of uncertainty:

I count the mynah birds overhead
as minutes. But they are not
really mynahs. In the empty dump box, they are

not even beautiful, not exactly

These birds are elements that the dreamer cannot be certain of, yet this is not the first time they feature in the book, nor the last. The poet is being carried ineluctably “along the shoreline in my own vehicle,” that is, her dream, but her view of these transitory phenomena, these “not exactly birds,” brings us back to the certainty that there is no certainty; that the self is a fictional possibility dreamed up by itself, carried away on a shoreline. In “Hearing Mynah I Hear Myself,” Hall is also uncertain of the self when she writes,

I didn’t know if I was given a tongue then
or if the mynahs were given
tongues whether we would truly understand
what they said

In “Pascal’s Wager,” Hall shows possibility and probability as inescapable facts that lead us to doubt the self, or at the very least to go through the motions of wagering that we could not really exist:

We like to play games but only if
we get to keep our shirts.


Pascal understood that probability is triangular in nature.
Cardan was also working on this problem
for noble reasons. He was in debt.
In an amazing act of clairvoyance he accurately predicted
the date of his own death. He had the probability thing down.

This poem employs a choppy musicality to get the brazen outcomes out there; the tone suits the stark fact that we can play games all we want, but the odds could be stacked against us, and against the world’s ability to redeem subjective experience (in this poem, the poet’s never being able to tell which of her customers at a restaurant likes ground pepper; and her conclusion: “What are the odds? You can never be certain”) ...

[The] collection hangs together well as a poetics of ideas. It also brings us back to the very human—and shared—concerns we have about what we can and can’t know about the world and ourselves. It’s this vulnerability that makes the book worthwhile; it’s an invitation to survey our questions about whether we exist: in the world, and in the dream.

I like the way Hall moves from the particularity of the absurdly oneiric to the general, like a camera zooming into detail and then zooming out to show larger context ... passages such as

Half asleep, I eat
an entire jar of chipotle-lime mustard,
I’m not sure why.

followed immediately by,

According to one health pamphlet,
asking questions is a roadblock
to real communication. Dennett says
we’ll do whatever it takes
to assuage epistemic hunger.

show us a kind of dream psychology even as it contains a certain analysis: a nonsensical binge followed by a psychoanalytic-style intervention suggesting that to question eating the jar of mustard (“I’m not sure why”) is a defence mechanism to communication, one that precludes epistemologically processing the tactile world—i.e., the oddity of the contents of a fridge late at night.

This can be a powerful experience when reading poetry: the poet holding up a mirror to the reader and saying, look, you are mon semblable, mon frère … you, too, are anxious and perplexed inside the logic of dreams—in the dream itself, or the next day, or in anticipation of another visitation of the same dream'

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