By Alexis David
In Jackie Wang’s dreamy collection of poems, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void (National Book Award Finalist), Wang casts her own spell over us, the reader. The book contains a series of dreams. When I was young, my sister would always tell my family her dreams at breakfast. Both my sister and Jackie Wang appear to have a deep intellectual inner life. Dreams are a way of sorting out the chaos of this rich interior life.
Wang writes her dreams in an immediate present tense that is both intoxicating and disorienting, “A woman is trying to kill me. At first she acts friendly but then turns on/me. She is spying on me” (33). When I review books of poetry, I spend a long time with them. I carry them around with me to the places I go. While reading Wang’s work, I found myself at a coffee shop with my husband and two of our friends. We were talking about ghosts. Suddenly, a woman with a tattoo of a ghost appeared in the line. We all noticed this and found it strange. My friend tells me that she believes in ghosts and she tells me that after a person dies, you have 40 days for them to stay in this realm and then they must go to the next sphere. I found this incredibly interesting. It reminds me of Jackie Wang’s work, which is so influential on the reader, that I found my syntax changing to replicate hers.
I bring up ghosts because Wang’s poetry is otherworldly. It is partly academic, partly fairy tale and partly just badass. In “Survivor Trauma,” the speaker wakes up from a dream, unhappy to be awake. She says, “I like the person I was in the dream” (26). There is a sense that the speaker feels more truly herself in her dreams, even if they are, at times, unsettling and otherworldly.
I don’t read poetry in a New Criticism kind of way. I am deeply curious about the author. Because of this, I often search the web for biographical information. I found a talk by Jackie Wang about “the oceanic feeling.” Romain Rolland first used this phrase in 1927 in a letter to Sigmund Freud. It is the feeling of being one with eternity and appears to be related to the Lacanian theory where an infant does not perceive itself to be a different entity from its parents.
Wang’s interest in “the oceanic feeling” may in part dictate an entire book spent dreaming, “In the dream I mutter/Capitalism is not a bed of sunflowers/as I hobble around Wall Street/in broken high heels” (21). This image is beautifully encompassing of the book: undertones of dream states, of longing for a different economic system and oppression of women—the high heels that are broken.
Additionally, this is partly a book of pilgrimage, of a speaker who has “always been without country” (1). In “Life is a Place Where It’s Forbidden to Live,” the speaker is a traveler, someone who is on a journey to “The Asian market,” “the Palace of Snacks” (1). In “The Phantasmagoria of Failure” the speaker talks about “a fellow lost-girl” who “when I hear her speak another/language to her mother. . . it indicated she had been transplanted” (84). It is tempting to say that this is a collection of poems from a writer of color looking for identity; this may be partly true, but Wang writes with a disassociation that I am guessing comes from her view of “the oceanic.” Instead of the speaker trying to fit into a particular country or region, the speaker is searching for something better, a limitless feeling. However, there are also thematic impulses of not fitting in, “D calls to tell me I’m not a real person of color” (14). This book may also be addressing both the loneliness of dreams and the loneliness of perceiving yourself as someone who doesn’t fit in. In “[A Moment Breaking Loose from the Past Becomes the Voice Inside Your Head,” Wang writes, “Here/there is no Friend/just the soundless reverberations of/the disappeared, an errant herd/of revenants who roam the page in search of a body faithful/enough to hold the memory” (124).
Often from waking from a dream, I feel exhausted. My own dreams are strenuous and tiring. Wang’s dreams are more invigorating. They read like small police dramas, like journal recollections with the people in them going by letters instead of their real names.
Perhaps there is a constant need for dreaming: “I said we had a shared dream” (17) or a need for “the oceanic” as a means for connecting with other people, even if these people are, like a figure “Angela” who is a “decapitated angel”(23) that the speaker carries around with her. In writing down her dreams and turning them into poems, Wang plays with the idea of logic. Both dreams and poems don’t often follow our waking life logic. Wang’s poems unnerve us, but also soothe us. This book of poems will unsettle you and by the end of the book, you may feel that you have woken up into a strange new morning.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Sunflower-Cast-Spell-Save-Void/dp/1643620363
Alexis David is a fiction writer, poet, and illustrator. She has published the chapbook, The Names of Animals I Have Loved (Dancing Girl Press, 2019). She holds an MFA in fiction from New England College and a MA in education from Canisius College.