Knopf Poem-a-Day: April 10, Sarah Arvio’s “airplane” and “forsythia”

Sarah Arvio’s night thoughts: 70 dream poems & notes from an analysis is what the title proposes, and more. The poems describe her richly evocative dreams, and some of the thoughts that arose from the dreams. The notes that follow are both an essay and a memoir: they recount how, as a young woman haunted by disturbing visions, she went into analysis to save herself, finding lost memories through the amazing process of free association from dreams—the recurring images and colors, word riffs and puns—which illuminated her early life and freed her from anguish. She explains “I came to understand that the mind seeks to disguise and conceal what is too painful or shaming to endure and at the same time offers up clues to the secret.”

Today, we offer two dream poems and a related excerpt from the notes; readers may find that Arvio’s dream study is uncannily (and rewardingly) like the close reading of poems.


& now an airplane lands in the field
& incinerates  I use this strange word
when I tell the dream   not flames or burns
there was a rusty barrel out in back
we called the incinerator strange word
for an old barrel where we burned the trash
I took my diaries out there in back
in the brightdamp where a spatter of rain
fell in the ashes & striking matches
lit the edges & watched as the pages
curled charred & would not burn I said my life
burn up my life & for one lifetime
I thought I can stop now & take them back
but no they were burning so I let them burn


here’s a dream about my mother there are
three black smokestacks in a black night sky
belching black smoke & yellow sparks &
as the sparks land beyond the black river
they are yellow forsythia blossoms
cynthia was my mother so ha ha
we said for cynthia for cynthia
to the great bush of flaming yellow sparks
only now years later I say for sin
then incinerator for the barrel
where I burned up my sins I had tried to
insinuate myself into her thoughts
but no luck they were elsewhere but why
three black smokestacks & why the black river

incinerator, forsythia, in sin

My first real breakthrough was the dream called “airplane.” Describing the explosion of the plane, I used the word incinerate. And then I remembered burning the diaries. When I say ‘remembered,’ I don’t mean I recalled something I had thought of now and then over the years. I mean that the memory broke open, shocking me, and I saw that it—the event—had happened, that I had known of it long before, and then forgotten.

The sudden viewing of a lost traumatic memory happened only a few times during the analysis. ‘Sudden’ means shocking—the return of a powerful memory. Other memories came more slowly. I understood later that a traumatic memory lost and then found releases other memories. By ‘breakthrough,’ I mean this was the first time I had the sense that there was more to know about my suffering and that I might be able to find it.

Growing up, we lived among woods and orchards north of New York City, not far from the Hudson River. The barrel where I burned my diaries was in our backyard, near the woods. In the dream, the airplane bursts into flame on the edge of a field near some woods. In “forsythia,” the sparks shoot from black smokestacks. These are also, in a sense, incinerators. There was a forsythia bush in the side yard, under the pine tree—flamboyantly announcing the arrival of spring and always blooming on my April birthday. And yet, how impossible not to see that it belonged to my mother, since her name was Cynthia. I often climbed to the top of the pine tree, so I could sway in the wind and view our yard and woods from the highest point.

The word  sin came as a surprise, and I remembered that my mother’s mother called her Cinny. The words  Cynthia and  incinerator combined to produce the idea of sin and living in sin—with its reference to sex. And burning up my diaries in the incinerator: burning my sin… The belching of the smokestacks and the blackness of the smoke also suggest pollution—. It was a black, black night, lit by shooting sparks that are blossoms. The black river is our river, the Hudson, and the sparks fall across it, from west to east, becoming forsythia blossoms on the other shore.

Listen to Sarah Arvio read “airplane” and “forsythia” on the Knopf Tumblr.

Learn more about Name’s night thoughts and browse other titles by Sarah Arvio.

Excerpt from NIGHT THOUGHTS © 2013 by Sarah Arvio. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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