Jackie Wang’s poetry debut, The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void, delivers a fascinating mix of fantasy and reality to start off the new year. Many of these poems have a startling beginning – frequently we enter in the moment of a catastrophe, whether it is a natural disaster, attempted murder, perceived poisoning, or just a vague sense of something strange looming. Wang lends credence to the value of dreams in a way that few seem to, and what is often dismissed with a wave of the hand is held in a gentle spotlight here.
“You can’t imagine how much attention I give to the worm on the sidewalk of LA,” she writes. Anything can be written into something greater than what it physically is; one moment can become your whole world, especially as a writer, driven to draw attention to small and simple things. This is the mission of dreamers, as well, to not let little treasures fade into obscurity. Perhaps this is partly what motivates some people, like Wang, to write down their dreams, to keep a tiny fragment of a magical mental domain. It is also advantageous to visualize dreams, and this poetry collection has the bonus of illuminating illustrations by Kalan Sherrard, varying from labeled portrayals of loneliness to feminist communes.
There is a wondrous thrill, and equal anxiety, in the rapid morphing of dreams and their retellings. Countless unexpected links emerge as if from mist. Sometimes in dreams we can do things we would not be able to do in real life (not that dreams are not real, as these poems artfully indicate). We can be people that we are not able to be, know things that we cannot possibly know. Dreams can be utterly ridiculous, and we can find ourselves holding hypothetical conversations with historical figures long dead. Other times, dreams can be disquieting and serious, bringing to light revelations that we may not have consciously realized or confessed. Wang describes one such shocking sentiment, abruptly clear in the haze of wistful abstraction: “I don’t understand what has changed but I know I will never be able to touch you again.”
From the very first pages of this collection, we find ourselves both in the waking world and a dream world, in “a Hunger Game caused by global warming.” We are uncertain how much time we have left in whatever place we inhabit. There is an ethereal element to departure, the way that Wang describes it. The most love we’ll ever be shown is at our funeral; we announce death like any other major life event, like a wedding.
The end of our earthly lives, as well as the end of the earth itself, only scratches the surface on the well of somber topics that Wang addresses. She condemns prisons as society’s darkness, mourns suicide by starvation, wags accusatory fingers at gaslighting and covering up apocalyptic disease. She does consistently sprinkle humerous interruptions in the midst of political or religious turmoil, such as pausing a violent bicycle chase to order pizza and thinking this is efficient rather than preposterous. The dreamscape establishes a lofty yet whimsical ground to build up from, and is a unique way to emphasize the power of perspective. There is definitely a healthy dose of the surreal in our real world, if we open our eyes to it.
“In the end I am no longer able to believe that anyone is ‘good,’ though sometimes people are ‘correct,’” Wang differentiates. She gives careful consideration to philosophy, nods to well-known thinkers from Kant to Kafka, as she uses the lessons of dreams to inform daily life. In dreams, we can break walls down with axes when we feel impatient, but it would likely be frowned upon to actually do this, even if it were somehow for a reasonable cause. She encourages us to think about what is truly worthwhile to pursue, what parts of crazy dreams might essentially be brilliant, or give root to a blossoming thought. In a dream where she mistakes possession/obsession for love, she notes that making an assertion about whether you have been wanted or wronged is also making a subconscious judgment about your own worth.
The reaches of the unconscious mind seem random and limitless, as the content of our dreams can continue to be outlandishly surprising throughout our lifetime. We can learn a lot about ourselves and the world through analyzing our dreams. Wang devotes a poem to explaining her view of her own dreams as oddly beautiful, showing both a “destroyed world” and a “luminous world,” which is very much like real life. There is drowning but there is also shimmering water; there are bombings but also there are bright, upright trees, and flowers forever growing towards the sun. There is a flip side of the coin, in every dream and nightmare.
Bethany Mary has studied both health science and creative writing, and currently works as a medical scribe in Alabama. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.