Giovanni Battista Piranesi, ‘Appian Way’, frontispiece for ‘La antichità romane’ (1756).
As I lay awake, I began to feel
that my body’s image from my body
had detached. It’s not entirely pleasant,
this sensation, yet tends to descend
only if I’ve slept too deep for too long
which, these days, is a sure-fire guarantee
I’m not affected by it too often.
This morning when it came – or, namely, when
the mind’s own notion of its body
had stronger than the body grown in strength,
with eyes shut I made an experiment:
moving the mental body a quarter-turn.
When this I’d done, it felt so fully real
(as if I’d made the movement actually)
another virtual quarter-turn I took,
so in my mind my head was resting now
where physically should have been my feet.
Set neurophysiology aside!
Always, in this state, imagination
For of the brain, we have no direct sense;
but, of the mind, it is
Far be it from my intent to argue
that ‘the soul’ departs to disport abroad;
or even that a portion of the brain
(the part, perhaps, that bears within itself
a picture of the body’s pose and motion)
has o’erstepped its mark at times like these,
assuming prominence more than usual.
All I know is this: that having turned about
in the bed an imaginary body,
I opened now imaginary eyes
and found a room not unlike that recalled
from childhood, where my younger sister slept
when we both were kids – excepting its size:
the ceiling high, the walls widely parted,
which – for a child’s room – gave a curious feel
of uncluttered and more than ample space.
A remembered room, so, remembered too,
its bigness perhaps by my childish eyes.
I knew full well that I was in a dream
and stared about in wonder, to discern
what light I saw by. I knew with eyes shut
in reality I lay. And yet I saw
What kind of seeing is this, lit somehow
by lightless impressions from inside?
Of objects there are none within to see,
nor of reflected rays to see them by.
It is my habit now when in this state
to make a thorough survey of what’s sensed,
inspecting how this seeming-seeing fools
us with a semblance of solid things.
Under applied attention it unweaves.
Look for colour and you will find none; look
for touch, there’s none there either to be found;
nor taste, nor sound, nor smell; yet it presents
as something having each and all of these,
but in the nature of the thought
rather than external things revealed.
In the mysterious night-world of sleep
seeming is semblance enough for being;
light’s mere concept is enough to see by;
memory’s furniture fills the void;
and body is surplus to requirement.
Needed only are body’s sensations
to make a sense of separateness between
impressions from one side or another.
Is mind a place? Milton’s Satan thought so
and built of it a Hell in Heaven’s despite.
But had he looked at what he took for mind,
and paused before assuming it as his,
he might have glimpsed the gaps between the weave
and grasped the awesome truth: that even here,
in our deepest, most interior recess,
we’re no more with ourselves than anywhere,
for self is God’s only, spending, spending,
promiscuously always and forever.
Piranesi, ‘Interior of the Patheon’.
Architecture is human habitat,
but in imagination comes to speak
of what is given and of what surrounds.
Buildings in a dream perform no function,
need no plans nor labour of erection,
so, freed from all material constraint,
they can assume forms close to an ideal.
The cities of my dreams throng with structures
cleaving to imaginary purposes.
Gasometers or giant cisterns haunt
the skylines of these imagined townscapes.
Beneath a columned dome last night I walked,
with distant birdsong in autumnal light,
between funeral monuments interspersed
with landscaped gardens, waterfalls, fountains –
yet it was the quality of that light
which seized my heart tightest by its beauty:
golden radiance, seeming to collect
in the porcelain summit of the dome
then raining down, like diagonal mist,
onto the shining tombs and epitaphs.
I stared until light became thought only,
growing in beauty as it grew unreal.
Piranesi, ‘Ruins of a sepulchre on the Appian Way’ (1764).
Thoughts by their nature arise un-unique.
To re-think is to think exactly again.
In dreams, place partakes of this nature.
On having woken, often there’s a sense
we visited nowhere new but returned
to an instance of a former idea.
‘The same place, but a different guise’ is
common in dreams, impossible awake.
There is a vast clock tower, its timepiece
long-broken, or sounding spasmodically.
With weeds the rusted face is overgrown.
Underfoot, debris crunches as we climb
mouldering concrete stairs to its apex.
The dim, dank air is musty with a scent
familiar, of old, abandoned spaces
that dates back somehow to the seventies:
a place in the old house, under the stairs,
where my parents hung coats and stored the shoes,
so much in use and never decorated.
Why the tower should smell like this inside
I cannot fathom, yet each time I dream
of it,in one of a myriad forms,
this odour is a constant that betrays
something hinting at commonality –
but what it might be lurks in mystery.
Piranesi, ‘Ancient altar, with other ruins’.
There is one other place I’ve visited
so many times, I cannot hope to count.
So often and so many times, perhaps
of all the dreams I’ve dreamt this is the one
my mind tends towards above all others.
A dual place it is, of two clear parts:
linked cemeteries, one old, one new.
The newer one is bright and clean and fine.
The dead lie hidden, decently arrayed.
It’s modern, or else sometimes dating back
to the nineteenth century: regal, sombre,
melancholy – for sure – but well-controlled,
unlike its older twin, which breeds nightmares.
Ancient and decayed, the soil here threatens
to crumble, crack, like mouldy honeycomb,
exposing rancid vaults, mottled coffins,
or – worse – the putrid freight that hides inside.
This place, sometimes, deep-most at its core
resolves to an effigy of decay:
a hunk of oozing scalp, with hair attached;
or severed member, nothing else beside;
as if the place were pointed all at that.
Often, in the prelude, I am firstly
by the newer graveyard, where all is well,
except – already – a faint foreboding.
Inevitably, mischance will intrude:
a wrong turning, a moment’s confusion,
or sometimes an ineluctable pull,
collecting me into the old graveyard’s
slow-motion aura of threat and terror.
‘It dates back to the eighteenth century.’
Prosaic-sounding, yet inside a dream
details can unlock a store of horror.
A serif font ne’er did anyone harm,
yet in the chiselled script upon these stones
the evil genius of this place cavorts.
In curlicue and italic flourish
a brooding evil grins malevolent.
Duped by this place, or having stumbled
within its orbit by my own neglect,
the machine-like demon that here presides
let’s fly the shutter, and up it snaps,
and behold: oozing death and rank decay!
So predictable, that over the years
dreaming is become like recognising,
and as or just before the trap springs shut
often I wake myself by will alone.