Evocative this, evocative that. This poem is a little engine of evocation, starting with the title: Read Before Waking. Read Before (T)aking, as found, often on pill bottles? That the title is attached to the poem like an admonition-label might be attached to a bottle of pills, is telling. It sets up the notion that waking is akin to taking a drug.
This is counterintuitive, and yet apt. We often think of dreaming as an altered state of consciousness, but to surrealists, child soldiers, the terminally ill, and librarians, waking can seem the altered state, the arena of confused senses, the inveigling side show we would like to depart from to then regain our equilibrium, our sense of normality.
The title also suggests that we read, or take in, information while we are asleep. Read what? The poem? Or perhaps we aren’t the ones admonished. Perhaps we are not to read, but to be read, and whoever or whatever is to read us should read us before we awake. Or perhaps, as I like to think, we are to read ourselves and then wake up.
After the title is traversed, the body of the poem ensues like a stack of pills we can take, one after the other. The first pill, the rodent doll, is alchemical. The dissonance between rodent and doll transforms both. The doll becomes like a voodoo doll, potent, magical, a sorcerer’s prop. The rodent becomes more than just a threatening pest. It becomes something a young child might clutch to his or her breast.
The second pill is the “we” who are beginning to attach black petals to the rodent doll, building the doll, but for what purpose? Or did we find the doll almost finished and decide to add a final flourish? That we are beginning to do this now suggests that the rodent doll is still in the process of becoming and hasn’t yet reached its full potential.
The third pill is that the rodent doll has a role in its own becoming. I like this notion very much. It gives the doll agency, purposiveness. It’s not, when finished, going to be under our control.
The fourth pill is that the doll, to finish itself, will nimbus. I’m not usually a fan of nouns turned into verbs, but since nimbus involves light, and light is both verb and noun, this verbification of a noun feels right.
The final pill is that which is nimbussed: a skull, normally the central location for agency, housing, as it does, the brain. In this case the brain is silver human hair. So, the rodent doll fashions, out of reflected light, a brain of silver hair, silver giving the hair a sense of age, of accrued wisdom, or a notion of value. The alchemical process of the poem has turned a rodent doll into an agent of wisdom and ancient worth.
Franz Wright has given us a chance to join in the alchemical process. We can be the “we” affixing black petals to the feet and hands of the rodent doll, breathing life into it, and then standing by as it takes over, nimbussing itself into awareness. Much like what happens when one stands in front of a fire as it builds itself in intensity, we can then experience the sensation of an image coming into its own, turning from a static figuration of letters on a page into something Jungian, archetypal, powerful.
Franz’s advice is to engage in this process before waking. I think that’s a good way to approach this poem and much poetry in general. Even if awake, to gain maximum effect of the poem, take it in with the sleeping mind. Allow the rodent doll and its process of becoming to work in you without subjecting it to the standard analytic processes of wakefulness. No one can say for sure what this type of poem-taking will lead to, but at least when you’ve arrived, you won’t know how you got there.