A Little Girl Rocking a Cradle
by Nicholaes Maes, circa 1655
National Gallery of Art, London
Recently I discovered the poetry of James Newton Matthews, a friend of James Whitcomb Riley. Matthews might have become as famous as Riley, had he not been a doctor in a small town in Illinois, a husband and a father. Here is one of his poems:
To a Sleeping Boy
dreamer! stealing from the day,
The golden keystone of the arching hours,
To lay thy drowsy head among the flowers,
And down Lethean waters sail away!
The wind is in thy ringlets, boy, and they,
In flossy tumult, fall in fairy showers
Around thy cheek, and all thy childish powers
Are chained in sleep, beneath the sun’s bright ray.
The beetle, droning in the apple tree,
Thy mate is, and the whistling bobolink
Pipes half his sweetest roundelays to thee;
Sleep, little tyrant, in the singing grass!
The days will wither, and the years will shrink,
And all too soon thy rosy dreams will pass.
~ James Newton Matthews
From James Newton Matthews, Tempe Vale and Other Poems (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1883), page 180. This poem is in the public domain.
“To a Sleeping Boy” might be considered too sentimental by many poetry publishers today, but it has a certain charm to it. Anyone who has looked lovingly on their own sleeping child or grandchild can certainly identify with the sentiments expressed.
There are less sentimental was of writing about dreaming, as we can see from Barbara Eaton’s poem:
All my life, I've had the same nightmare --
exactly the same,
over and over again.
I am riding on the train alone.
I am a very small girl,
maybe four or five.
I have blue eyes and blonde hair.
The air is blue with smoke.
I am alone.
I am sitting on the aisle.
The train is full of big, older men.
They are smoking cigars.
I am wearing a little blue plaid dress.
I have a warm coffee cake on my lap,
and there is a note
pinned to my shoulder.
I do not know what the note says.
I do not recognize anyone on the train.
I am alone on a train full of strangers.
Where am I going?
Am I sleeping?
Where are Mama and Daddy?
Am I going to Aunt Anna Mae's house?
Where does she live?
Will I ever see Mama and Daddy again?
The dream has fuzzy edges.
The darkness of my memory
swallows the dream,
but the nightmare
always comes back --
exactly the same, every time,
over and over again.
~ Barbara Eaton
Used by permission of the poet.
When I read this poem, I can see the little girl. Eaton does not have to describe the forlorn look in the child’s eyes—she has told us enough that we can see it. We can feel the little girl’s fear. Eaton told me when, as a grown up, she finally share this recurring nightmare with her mother, she learned its origin. She was put on a train from the Chicago area to Wisconsin to spend some time with her aunt when the birth of her brother was eminent. She was given a cake to take. Barbara had no memory of the actual event—just of the recurring dream. After it was explained to her, the nightmare ceased.
Here is another nightmare poem, quite vivid, but very different from Eaton’s, and not, so far as I know, stemming from a childhood experience:
the ship lurched and we
clutched the railing, momentarily forestalled in our
desperate quest to find the source of the smell –
glimmering onions and mushrooms, voluptuous
vegetables – sautéed by some magician below.
Three days after escaping brutal pirates,
we few survivors, starving, awakened from
dreaming about home, the sun peering
into the stifling cabin where we found refuge.
The savory incense pinched us, reeled us in –
hypnotized, unbearded and naked with hope.
Whispering prayers, we made the descent,
deep into the marrow of the iron beast,
where at last we discovered great fires
popping with the brilliantine slick of olive oil.
Outlined by the blaze in the blackness
was a taut, tattooed chef, preening like some
La Scala diva and brandishing machetes
like ginsu knives, his wry smile daring us
to step forward and eat . . . or be eaten.
~ Kate Hutchinson
From Kate Hutchinson, A Matter of Dark Matter (Kelsay, 2022). Used by permission of the poet.
I can almost feel the lurch of the ship, see the pirates, and smell the vegetables. I can also hear the whispers and the popping of the olive oil.
For my book, Pequod Poems: Gamming with Moby-Dick, I imagined the dreams of the sailors who were gone for months, even years, on whaling voyages. The dreams, which are definitely not nightmares, are expressed in this Asian sonnet:
Sailors’ Dreams on The Pequod
The sailors sigh
for Polynesian girls
or for the wives or fiancées they’ve left
back home decked out in lacy gowns and pearls,
hair spilling from their bonnets in soft curls,
but when they reach for them they are bereft.
Long months at sea
these curvy specters haunt
with beauty daytime eyes can never see,
and all the loveliness those women flaunt
seems to the mariners a cruel taunt,
and every kiss an unreality.
blankets they are twisting in
when called to watch for whales another day
are damp with sweat, but there is no soft skin
for all delights of night just fade away.
~ Wilda Morris
From Wilda Morris, Pequod Poems: Gamming with Moby-Dick (Kelsay Books, 2019).
Some Links to Dream Poems Online:
Jeanie Tomasko, “Angular Bones,” https://www.rattle.com/angular-bones-by-jeanie-tomasko/.
Candace Armstrong, “Milkweed Trails,” http://quillandparchment.com/archives/May2022/milk.html.
The May Challenge:
The challenge for this month is a poem about a dream. Your poem may be literal or metaphoric, serious or humorous. Use your imagination! Note that the blog format does not accommodate shaped poems or long lines; if they are used, they have to be broken in two, with the second part indented (as in the poem “Lilith,” one of the May 2018 winners), or the post has to use small print. Note, too, that long poems are at a disadvantage.
Poems could be disqualified if the guidelines are not followed.
1-Title your poem unless it is in a form that discourages titles.
3-Put your submission in this order:
Publication data if your poem was previously published
A brief third-person bio
Your email address – it saves me a lot of work if you put your email address at the end of your submission.
4-Please keep the poem on the left margin (standard 1” margin). Do not put any part of your submission on a colored background. No colored type. Do not use a fancy font and do not use a header or footer.
5-You may submit a published poem if you retain copyright, but please include publication data. This applies to poems published in books, journals, newspapers, or on the Internet. Poems already used on this blog are not eligible to win, but the poets may submit a different poem.
6-The deadline is May 15. Poems submitted after the deadline will not be considered. There is no charge to enter, so there are no monetary rewards. Winners are published on this blog.
7-Please don’t stray too from “family-friendly” language (some children and teens read this blog).
8- No simultaneous submissions, please. You should know by the end of the month whether or not your poem will be published.
9-The poet retains copyright on each poem. If a previously unpublished poem wins and is published elsewhere later, please give credit to this blog. I do not register copyright with the US copyright office, but by US law, the copyright belongs to the writer unless the writer assigns it to someone else.
10-Decision of the judge or judges is final.
11-If the same poet wins three months in a row (which has not happened thus far), he or she will be asked not to submit the following two months.
12-Send one poem only.
How to Submit Your Poem:
1-Send your poem to wildamorris4[at]gmail[dot]com (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for “dot”). The poem must respond in some way to the specific challenge for the month.
2-Put “May Poetry Challenge Submission” FOLLOWED BY YOUR NAME in the subject line of your email.
3-Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog if it is a winner, so be sure that you put your name exactly as you would like it to appear if you do win at the end of the poem.
4-Poems may be pasted into an email or sent as an attachment or both (Doc, Docx, rich text or plain text; no pdf files, please). Please do not indent the poem or center it on the page. It helps if you submit the poem in the format used on the blog (Title and poem left-justified; title in bold (not all capital letters); your name at the bottom of the poem). Put everything in the order listed above.
6-Also, please do not use multiple spaces instead of punctuation in the middle of lines. I have no problem with poets using that technique (I sometimes do it myself). However, I have difficulty getting the blog to accept and maintain extra spaces.
Poems shorter than 40 lines are generally preferred but longer poems will be considered.
Barbara Eaton is a semi-retired community college instructor of English. She holds a Ph.D. in Shakespeare and Medieval Literature from the University of Maryland and is named in Who's Who in America. She has published poems in a number of literary journals.
Kate Hutchinson recently retired from a 34-year career of teaching high school English in Chicago's northwest suburbs. Her poetry and personal essays have appeared in dozens of publications and won numerous awards, both regional and national, as well as three Pushcart Prize nominations. Her latest collection of poems, A Matter of Dark Matter, was released in 2022 by Kelsay Books; her previous two books include Map Making: Poems of Land and Identity (2015, THEAQ Press) and The Gray Limbo of Perhaps (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Kate is active with several local poetry organizations, including serving as contest chair for Chicagoland Poets & Patrons and as assistant editor for the literary arts journal East on Central in Highland Park. To find more of her work and information about her new book, visit: https://poetkatehutchinson.wordpress.com/
James Newton Matthews (May 27, 1852 – March 7, 1910) was a poet and a country doctor. He was encouraged to give up his medical practice and go on the road as an entertainer, reading his poetry for the enjoyment of audiences, but declined to do so. He helped bring Paul Laurence Dunbar to the attention of the literary world, and carried on an extensive correspondence with James Whitcomb Riley. Numerous other well-known writers of the day visited his home in Mason, Illinois.
Wilda Morris, Workshop Chair of Poets and Patrons of Chicago and a past President of the Illinois State Poetry Society, has been published in numerous anthologies, webzines, and print publications, including The Ocotillo Review, Turtle Island Quarterly, Li Poetry, Puffin Circus, and Journal of Modern Poetry. She has won awards for formal and free verse and haiku. She was given the Founders’ Award by the National Federation of State Poetry Societies in 2019. Much of the work on her second poetry book, Pequod Poems: Gamming with Moby-Dick (published in 2019), was written during a Writer’s Residency on Martha’s Vineyard. Wilda seldom remembers her dreams.
© Wilda Morris