I have so ruined myself
reading your bad poems—
ruined, I say, because
my mind has become

a kind of corduroy
of your poems’
awkward lines, the cheek
of my soul imprinted

with their stripes
like a child’s cheek
after napping—that when
I arise I will despise

them as fantasies:
how suddenly will they
be rubbed away, until my
soul is supple again!

Aaron Belz


Review by Richard Mather

Dreams are notoriously amorphous and weird, so it is somewhat surprising to discover that “AS FROM A DREAM WHEN ONE AWAKES” is quite disciplined in terms of its structure. Many of the words are only of one or two syllables. There are four short stanzas, each comprising four short lines. But that’s not to say the poem is rigid. There are very few end-stopped lines: phrases spill over the line breaks and reach resolution only in the last verse. Nor is the mood of the poem restrained. The italicized “ruined” in the third line is illustrative of the poem’s emotional excess, as is the opening line, I have so ruined myself / reading your bad poems.

On one level, this is a poem about the experience of reading someone else’s bad poetry and the effect it can have on the reader’s mood. Reading bad literature can be tedious and disappointing. But not many people would say they are “ruined” by the experience. Having said that, the closing lines of the poem are remarkably therapeutic, the narrator having been restored, revitalized and reborn.

But let us focus on the main motif: corduroy, a thick, ribbed cotton fabric. In other words, it is a woven material. This poem is also a weaving, a braiding of ambiguity and rhetorical figures. Let’s look at this weaving more closely. First of all, the poem’s title is ambiguous. Is the poem about a dream or like a dream? Has the speaker been asleep at all or is he/she using sleep as a metaphor? When the speaker claims to “arise,” is he/she arising from asleep or getting up from a table and chair after having read the bad poems? And why has the speaker’s mind become / a kind of corduroy? The word “become,” which hangs at the end of the first stanza points towards a metamorphosis. But then something happens. The succeeding a kind of is tentative, unsure of itself. This rhetorical instability hints at the speaker’s state of mind – unsteady and insecure.

Indeed, there is an overwhelming sense of exasperation in the poem. Only the familial tenderness of the child’s cheek / after napping disrupts this irritation. But the sudden irruption of I will despise at the end of the third verse comes as a shock. The forceful rhyming of “despise” and “arise” is too strident. Its shrillness strikes a false note. Luckily, the poem is saved by the soothing mood of the last stanza (more on this later).

The image of the child’s cheek recalls the cheek / of my soul in the second stanza. This is a lovely and unusual image, and it plays an important role in the poem. The central motifs – the cheek / of my soul and the corduroy – are blatantly dissimilar images. But they are yoked together by the wonderful simile of a soul imprinted with stripes like a child’s cheek after napping.

[T]he cheek / of my soul reminds me of the concept of the soul in Judaism, whereby bodies don’t have souls; souls have bodies. In other words, cheek / of my soul is a poetic way of saying that the body is an extension of the soul. The soul is not some distinct entity; nor is the soul some kind of ‘ghost in the machine’.

The embodied soul is suffering because it has been imprinted with “stripes.” It is hard to avoid the image of a body marked by the striking of a whip, as in punishment. These stripes – which characterize both the corduroy itself and the “awkward lines” of the bad poems – are something to be “despised.” Fortunately, these lines/stripes are relegated to the status of “fantasies,” that is to say, they lack substance and are subject to erasure. In the poem’s closing lines, the stiffness of corduroy is replaced by the liberating exclamation of sinuousness (my / soul is supple again!). The soul – and the speaker as a whole – has overcome ruination; the stripes that quietly lashed the speaker have been rubbed away.

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