An Experiment in Knowing: Sabrina Dalla Valle on Kelly Lydick’s Mastering the Dream

Mastering the Dream, Kelly Lydick, Second Story Books, 2007

You could call this a quiet reflection on the nature of permanence as the text opens with “And the next thing I know, I’m lying on a sterile table, saran wrap between my body and the black vinyl, my arm out to the side getting inked: Aleph, Mem, Shin…” Or, say this is a tale of broken attachments, “forgotten coat. fading scent of cologne. something like a backyard that burns.” And it is… everything in between. Mastering the Dream is a non-linear synthesis of important things in the life of a seeker – essentials distilled into words that once pieced together provide a poetic précis of the narrator’s integrated identity: “I was six years old when I discovered that light is both a particle and a wave.”

In the tradition of hermetic mysticism voiced through Kabalistic overtones, Kelly Lydick, not only masters the dream, but masters cross-genre experimental prose: journal entries, accounts of near death experiences, letters to self, story compositions, instructions from her teachers, dreams, and pure lists of distilled words cleansed of any specific reference: “sunrise. morning. day. afternoon. evening. twilight. dusk. nightfall. night.”

Form follows function; this book is a creative template – transparent to how the mind wanders through different spaces as it follows a thread to the past and other preoccupations. “A couple of years back I looked for you in my sock drawer and I found only old fortunes from a dozen different Chinese dinners.” I sense Lydick is at times in a trance using her body to dig for something in her soul.

Lydick creates coherence between the different texts by disciplining herself to method, employing classical Cartesian essay writing to organize her mix-genre pieces: cycles of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The themes of dream awareness, drug- altered reality, childhood memory and creative writing tumble around in an orderly fashion as the narrator, Marie, finds their crossroad. The intention of such a design could be to dissolve the boundaries of consciousness and unify all parts of self: “Maybe cremated thoughts are like disintegrated opposites. Maybe you have to murder the Either/Or to get the And.”

Each entry ebbs and flows, at times seeps into the other – like life, death, and the dream. In a journal entry Marie writes, “This morning when I looked in the mirror I couldn’t see myself.” Crossing boundaries of consciousness and possibility requires the bold strike of a pen, no less, because as “The rabbi says: the brain cannot distinguish between what it sees and what it remembers.” This is where imagination tunes in.

Lydick leads us to question the conventional margins we delineate between existential states – as well as our tendency to cast our life experience in terms of binary opposites, “I think every time you say ‘I am’ you’re also saying ‘I’m not’. Does this make sense?” Marie incubates her need for resolve in her dream life, like a good postmodern thinker would, to find the “supplement” – that which lives between the pain and ecstasy: “love. admire. like. estrange. dislike. abhor. detest. despise. hate.”

Marie ruminates over several major life events: near death and death of best friend, as well as pains of love – seeking resolve first by wishing to forget.  I like the elegance of how various themes pertaining to difficult memories fit together in patterns, telling a deeply emotional story without being sentimental, “all the make-up has been thrown away. rolled under the vehicle and smashed. I am glad for my bare face.” The text deftly stitches these lacerations from loss with a nearly clinical use of language, “acquire. consummate. gain. conserve. sustain. lose. forfeit. misplace. forget.” Lydick is a doctor of the phrase, bringing voice back into silence created by difficult memory.

This she can only do through love cultivated for her Self, a phenomenon that develops through the text in letters that Marie writes to herself. The Rabbi, steers her gently, “Your ability to love is found in your ability to pay attention.” And Lydick does pay attention to details, “the clouds before a thunderstorm. the shingles on a roof. static on the television. the exterior casing of a 1980’s boom box.”

The tone and direction of this work reminds me somewhat of the Imagist HD, words tightly arranged into impressions. “Be mindful of your words as they become your actions,” writes HD. In the economy of language, every word is essential. Both authors share the Hermetic preoccupation with transformation and return to origin through an individualized psychoanalytic self-examination of their own suffering. “My vision is what I thought was there. My vision is what was not there. My suffering is realizing what was not there.” For, to master the dream is to decipher the irony of sufferance.

Despite the collage of expression, the book’s direction is clearly set by the first page. Time is related to matter moving forward in a measured return to the origin – from density to the ephemeral. It is this walk through the continuum of binaries that makes mastering the dream possible, resolves life’s ironies. If Lydick has by this first book negotiated the presence of mastery in consciousness, I am curious to see what such mastery is capable of in her next work.

Purchase Mastering the Dream

A War With History: Kelly Lydick on Sandy Florian’s The Tree of No

The Tree of No, Sandy Florian, Action Books, 2008

The first page of Sandy Florian’s The Tree of No begins with the word “beastly” and gives readers a world bubbling and brimming and burgeoning with possibility of image and noun, “The high hitch of increase sways softly in the sun, here in our scarlet garden” and we meet the protagonist: “Beastly, I fall at Adam under the shade, un-clocked, first frocked, oven-ed at the core, from words no western man can wet.” On the second page, Sandy Florian continues “beastly” and dreamy, “replete and eaten” and I come upon a dream, a dream of a concept of time. And it is this second page that I become aware that language is related to time, which “becomes my authority.” And it is here that readers are introduced, dreamily and beastly, to the sign and signified, signifier and referent, and are reminded of Saussure’s Linguistics. Entering this world, the world of the word, the world that Florian has created, the world and word of the dream, and meet the protagonist “like wakening from sleep, like the beast” as dreamy and beastly, or moreover, human, as can be. And as the reader, I read, as this is good, and so I continue.

I continue, intrigued and enraptured, ensconced by the world on the pages, the words of this new world of protagonist and Montgomery, pulling me through time, and it is here on the fourth page that I realize “in this awkward position of…most awkward awakening” that “In the beginning was the word” and the word created the world, and the world we have entered is the kingdom of sign and signified, signifier and referent, absurd in its making, and in its abstract form, this story, this story made up of words has captured me in time, and I, I am now part of this brilliant world.

And just as God has created the world in the Bible, I soon learn that the characters here are creating, building, a city. Come on now, I am coaxed by the narrator, Let’s build ourselves a city. And in this city, let’s build a tower with its top to the heavens. Or else, we’ll be scattered namelessly all over the planet in our Euclidian screams. And so a city is built. Eve and Adam are there with Montgomery and Diana, and decide that no city would be complete without every kind of cattle nameable. And so a list is born: “Alentejana and the Allmogekor and the American and the American White Park…and the Damietta and the Dangi…and the Greek Steppe and the Groningen…and the Nelore and the Nguni.” Once again I am reminded of Saussure’s linguistics—that signifier and signified are connected arbitrarily. Here Montgomery’s list is a clear use of Florian’s hyperbole; species by species, a world is populated, word by word, letter by letter, this world, this city, is built.

In this world, there is also a flood, however this flood, unlike what is known of the traditional Noah story, is a flood of thoughts “rush[ing] in and my mind opens to the flowing tide with its ebb and flood, with is eighth, its quarter, its half moon, its half empty bowl, half full of fuller empty seas.” In creating a work parallel to the structure of the Bible itself, Florian inherently asks the unanswered questions: Who is the real author of the Bible? And how do we know, how can we prove it? Who [or what] is really the creator? And just because someone creates a work of art, does that mean they are God, or God-like? Or is this our “beastly” human arrogance:

In the first of the order books, I read the account of that first creation of this first
world, how in the beginning, the earth was void, how darkness was on the face of the deep, how the spirit of god moved on the face of the waters, like the spirit of Narcissus on the face of the lake. Then god said, Let there be light, and then there was light. Then god said let there be air, and let it distinguish the water.

Arrogant or not, the structure of The Tree of No makes it obvious that form follows function: what is language and how does one use (or overuse) it? If language is absurd, why not, then, create what we like, real or absurd alike…

Early on, Florian makes use of the following characters: Diana (30), Adam (29), Judah (22), Abraham (80), the fictitious Montgomery(2), Joseph (49), Homer (33), as if there are no differences between the characters known from Greek or Roman mythology, the characters depicted in Biblical text, fictitious characters, or actual literary figures. They are presented and regarded as the same. In this World, the world of The Tree of No, Diana is of no greater importance than Abraham, who is of no greater importance than Montgomery. In doing so, Florian invokes the questions: What do we considered canon? Where’s the literal in myth? Why are Biblical stories taken as literal, or truth? Can our canon be myth? And further: Where’s the proof?

It seems that Florian is also inherently asking: If someone can write the Bible, or specifically, a canon of any kind, and can create a world of characters, then why can’t I? And why, then, can’t my world, my fictional world, that I’ve created with sign and signifier, real and absurd, and with finite set of linguistic rules, be regarded as: Literal? Canon? Myth?

I asked my self as I read: Is Florian comparing, by way of her work, the tree of “no” to the tree of “life” or the tree of “knowledge”? But then later realized the answer: If knowledge is posited by language, and life can be described, articulated, remembered, created, or recreated by language, then, we must be able to create a fictional world through which we navigate and experience, just as Florian has done here. And if knowledge is illustrated and expressed, through language and the structure inherent in the system of language used, then, does it matter to which tree Florian is comparing?

Further into the work, Florian’s language seamlessly moves between narrative and borderline-exposition, and the reader is constantly surprised with what treatise-like prose comes next:

This is a true story. My actress is a dame, a doll, a devourer, a femme fatale. She has talons for feet, and the windstorm blows her wings and lioness hair in unambiguous cuneiform inscriptions, like the bones in the ankles of beasts. She is, of course, the beloved wife of Adam who seized the light. In my story, the husband and wife bicker in the bedroom. The she takes up lodging in the middle of a tree trunk.

And Florian’s use of language brilliantly leaves one tongue-tied:

Speech is the elegant postman of the mind. Eloquently speaking about the deliveries of Cicero. From the fiction to the failure. From the failure to the fall. From the fall to the flaw. From the monster of the body. Utility is the end of virtue. Justice the end of man. Of every act. Of every thought. Of every truth.

I read how thought is the thought of thought. How the soul is the form of forms. My legs ache. My eyes look. Plots are added to furnish the warning example that some men are birthed. Some are inspired. And since there can be no tragedy without motion, we walk side by side out of the scarlet garden as commas become signals for the sigh.

By virtue of the structure of language, one is bound and limited by the language we use. And to create—one is both liberated and confined by the very nature of la langue—by the tool we use to create. One can create infinitely with a finite set of terms: this is the paradox,

To approach the right light in spring. To sunbathe in the summer. To weave coats out of winter and snow. In the autumn, I see the comet catastrophe. Shooting between the words, Let there be, and There is. That is the local apocalypse. Presented by the universal blank.

Between creativity and creation there lies a calamity. So I may say, Let there be love, and in saying so, I imagine it and make it live.

Florian then takes this one step further. If language is absurd, and religion has been built upon the language of the Biblical canon, then religion itself must also be absurd. Florian comments on the literal biblical messages, the dogmatic constructs and societal rules that have been constructed, built, upon these meanings and taken as truth. The protagonist openly states: “I have a war with history.” And that “History is a meaningless enigma. The sooner it is stopped, the better off we are.” It’s statements such as these, that double as narrative and exposition, that brought my attention to the parallels between the absurdly fictionalized “Tree of No” world and the world in which we actually live.

As I near the end of the book, I encounter the section “Psalms.” Here the form of The Tree of No takes on a new and different tack; the linear, prosaic structure has been replaced by short, concise paragraphs, centered on the page. The narrator “Eve” sings:

I sing to give birth to the bread. I sing to give birth to the sommelier. My book is now called toward the pasture where every brother and sister will each pay a dollar for each dead page.

And prays:

At Christmas I pray so hallowed be thy name, Small turns, I take, I’m still becoming, but the sin in me says I.

And it appears, too, this comment is less about the fictional world and more a general social commentary.

Not only is The Tree of No a commentary on language and the use of language, it is a personal canon, a use of mimesis, a creative exploration, and a social commentary, through the eyes of one Sandy Florian. This work is an opportunity for Florian to vehemently state: this is the world that I have created, this is the world that I see, and that is how I see. I do not have to be bound by what has come before—NO—I can create the world—my reality—as I see fit. It can be real, it can be fictitious, it can be absurd.

And as I know this work is at “war with history” I am reminded that one is not bound by history, the reality that has come before, the city that was previously built, or rather, the literary canon that has come before. Inherent in the act of creation—in the building of this city, this tree—is hope:

Seven heads upon seven hills upon which one lone woman sits like a metropolis. I heard, Write this. Blessed are those who are invited to the supper. Then heaven opened to a new and brighter heaven and the earth to new soil, and when the oceans disappeared, I heard, Write this. I am making all things new.

In The Tree of No, where no thing is anything, the word is creation, and absurdity is normalcy, expected, surprisingly and unsurprisingly, for linguists and others alike, this book will leave you, dreamily, beastly, saying yes.


Kelly Lydick received her B.A. in Writing and Literature from Burlington College (VT), and her M.A. in Writing and Consciousness from the New College of California (San Francisco). Her writing has appeared in Twittering Machine, the Burlington College Poetry Journal, the New College Review and ditch. Kelly’s work has also been featured on KQED’s The Writers’ Block. She is the author of the chapbook We Once Were (Pure Carbon Publishing, AZ), and the experimental work, Mastering the Dream (Second Story Books, CA). Her website is: