Music, Weightlessness, and the Waking Dream

I used to wake every morning to soundtrack of Gattaca on my cd-player/alarm clock.  The incessant call in the music evoked something both melancholy and haunting.  The dark tones of the string instruments resonated with something deep inside me, striking some blend of longing and worry, as if I weren’t quite certain where or who I was in that moment, or perhaps that I belonged somewhere else.  In those moments just after stirring and not yet quite being ready to rise,  my mind would often struggle to recall where it had just been. The truth is that I am terrible at recalling my dreams.

Only rarely will a dream linger long enough for me to take note.  Usually in some semi-conscious state, I’ll jot down the main details, convinced that there is something deeply important buried in the minutiae of the narrative.  I guess we all want to believe our subconscious has something useful to say, and usually it does, but it wants to speak in a language we don’t know.  There are the usual dreams of school and work.  Dreams which involve restaurants and aquariums full of large fish.  Dreams which revolve around lost love or new acquaintances.  Dreams with mothers.  Dreams with cars.  Dreams where one stands on the side of a hill looking out to sea.  All through my undergraduate and working years as a programmer I would dream not of flying, but of levitation.  Of the ability to control gravity.  I would imagine that I could alter my weight and gradually rise in the corner of rooms or slip out high windows.  Sometimes the dreams were so commonplace, that in the waking world, if I were tired enough, sometimes I’d assume for a moment that that ability were real before remembering it belonged to the dream.

Once I tried to write about that sensation of rising.  I kept coming back to the memory of swingsets in old playgrounds.  Kept recalling the way we used to push ourselves higher and higher, always yearning and dreading that apex, the point at the end when we were neither rising nor falling, but someplace in between.  Weightless.  Suspended between possibilities.  There at the moment, escape or ascension seemed possible.  Perhaps even transformation.  Perhaps even flight.  The mind erased for a moment the idea of gravity.  The world would freeze.  Everything would look small, then you would descend again, faster and more sudden than before.   Then your feet would glide over the earth.

What is it about being suspended between two worlds that seems so compelling?  Why this obsession with the liminal moment, with standing at the threshold of two possibilities and not quite wanting to choose?

It’s October already.  The year wants to turn.  The season is already changing.  In the last light of summer and fall, the leaves on the trees burn red and gold.  In the prairies, the fields have been harvested.  The wind blows cooler.  It’s the season we want to lay things down quietly.  To watch the world hesitate then move on, like a river over stones.  I’m hesitating too.  Wanting that same weightlessness.  Wanting to enjoy that pause before the world becomes something else, perhaps something more beautiful, more haunting, more difficult to put into words.

Here on that threshold we say goodbye, but linger.  Once, I woke with part of a poem.  A few years before my father’s death, I woke thinking of his father’s death.  Part dream, part memory, part conjecture.  I found myself imagining his farewell to his father.  That last scattering of ashes.  That silence.  That long pause at the shore.

I Dream My Father on the Shore

What I am learning to give you is my death.
~ Wendell Berry

Outside, beneath the light of late October’s candled sky
the weave of ash and maple burns. We stand silent on the graveled shore.
My father lifts his father’s ashes from its urn, a strangely heavy thing
he seems to say, his arms swaying, then casting out into the long dark
as if to throw a line, while we wait for some sound, a wave,
whatever marks the distance between a father and a son.

And when night comes, it comes without a tread, without a word.
The stars, flickering in their endless retreat, more distant and sure
than before, do nothing while the shadows continue to fill the trees
with their cast-off clothes. The harvest is long past, the apples
have fallen to the orchard floors. Even my father turning to go
is almost lost to the reeds already in his path, his figure no more
than a pattern of light — a memory of a road that winds
through the darkness to our waiting ride home.

from The Lost Country of Sight (2008)

Even here the story doesn’t end. A new threshold emerges. Last year I worked with a talented composer, Juhi Bansal, who set a number of my poems to music, including this one. You can hear a performance of this piece here — it’s part of a suite of four pieces, all of which are quite stunning.

The poem becomes something else. The instruments and the singer become something else. And again, there is an odd weightlessness, a sense of hovering that might almost be akin to love.

3 responses to “Music, Weightlessness, and the Waking Dream”

  1. Stella says:

    Wow! That’s an amazing performance. I notice they further edit your poems to fit the music – how does that feel?

    This is a lovely and profound post…but overwhelmingly it brought me back to swinging as a child. I had a garden swing and would spend hours and hours swinging back and forth. And you capture precisely why – that dangerous and thrilling place between here and there.

  2. Neil says:


    The composer was initially worried that I wouldn’t approve of her edits, but the more I listened to where she was going with it, the more convinced I was that her edits made perfect sense given that music in many ways can do things that text cannot.

    I think if the composer can find a way to capture the emotion/spirit/essence of the original piece, then allowances certainly can be made. There are things that we do in poems which can be accomplished more efficiently in music (repetitions, parallel structures, rhythmic orderings — these all are textual efforts to create resonance and “music”). Naturally a good composer recognizes and reimagines these moments using his/her own set of tools.

  3. Natasha says:

    I researched several techniques of levitation in the past. One of them was explained in terms of music and space in-between the worlds. The idea is that any note occupies time and space at a certain frequency. The space is mathematically defined by its vibrational field. The moment that the vibration of the filed changes, the note stays the same (based on its frequency), but exists in a parallel world. In order for it to be able to exist in the same time, but not be of that time, it destroys the time it is presently in (I think black holes function in a similar way). The time we presently exist in is defined by the field of gravity, therefore it automatically destroys gravity.

    I too dream of levitating. It often rains flower petals and snows at the same time. I dreamed of my grandmother’s death (the closest person to me) a day before she passed away. She passed on September 18th – in the fall. I remember calling my Mom and asking what time she died, before they told me that she did. I too dreamed of a river and gravel and floating above all of it. A month before her death, I messed with the poem VI from “Las Piedras Del Cielo.” I don’t speak Spanish, so I translated each word individually and left it alone; It didn’t make sense at the time. After her death, I understood what the poem meant to me, and wrote my own English version of it (based on the words I translated).

    Poem VI from Las Piedras Del Cielo (sky stones)
    I looked for a drop of water, of honey, of blood, I moaned,
    All matter, everything I saw turned into stone.
    My tears, the raindrops, the water became petrified.
    All blood and all honey of our land followed.
    I saw them as far as the mountains of agate at dusk:
    The full rivers that ran from the mountains,
    Ran dry, cracked, crumbled from dust to dust,
    Their waters, which once fell into a goblet of fire,
    Once were like best wine, like fresh breath.
    Time passes by like a broken river.
    It carries the grievous gravel of death.
    The leaves were ripped off the trees standing tall,
    The pages of books, the thoughts, the future itself passed on.
    I looked at the sky, and I saw above all
    The grey boulder sun forever shone and warmed up the stone.