Reviewed by Nyla Matuk

The Certainty Dream
Kate Hall
Coach House Books, 2009
96 pages, $16.95

A book about dreams, and about certainty, needs a Familiar. That is, it needs something the mind returns to and recalls, a touchstone that shape-shifts and interrogates familiarity and certainty, allowing readers to contemplate the opposite of certainty in dream logic, i.e., possibility. In Kate Hall’s The Certainty Dream, a mynah-bird figure stands for certainty and possibility—two central polarities in the book.

The author uses them also as twin master tropes, ruminations that are the poetry’s very support beams. In “Hydraulically Operated,” for instance, the mynahs are featured as the locus of uncertainty:

I count the mynah birds overhead
as minutes. But they are not
really mynahs. In the empty dump box, they are

not even beautiful, not exactly

These birds are elements that the dreamer cannot be certain of, yet this is not the first time they feature in the book, nor the last. The poet is being carried ineluctably “along the shoreline in my own vehicle,” that is, her dream, but her view of these transitory phenomena, these “not exactly birds,” brings us back to the certainty that there is no certainty; that the self is a fictional possibility dreamed up by itself, carried away on a shoreline. In “Hearing Mynah I Hear Myself,” Hall is also uncertain of the self when she writes,

I didn’t know if I was given a tongue then
or if the mynahs were given
tongues whether we would truly understand
what they said

In “Pascal’s Wager,” Hall shows possibility and probability as inescapable facts that lead us to doubt the self, or at the very least to go through the motions of wagering that we could not really exist:

We like to play games but only if
we get to keep our shirts.


Pascal understood that probability is triangular in nature.
Cardan was also working on this problem
for noble reasons. He was in debt.
In an amazing act of clairvoyance he accurately predicted
the date of his own death. He had the probability thing down.

This poem employs a choppy musicality to get the brazen outcomes out there; the tone suits the stark fact that we can play games all we want, but the odds could be stacked against us, and against the world’s ability to redeem subjective experience (in this poem, the poet’s never being able to tell which of her customers at a restaurant likes ground pepper; and her conclusion: “What are the odds? You can never be certain”). On the other hand, the prosaic sound of the book overall had me pining for a bit more lyricism—it seems dreams lend themselves to a lyrical language rather than a factual language. I want dreams to contain harmony and melody.

Another reservation I have about “Pascal’s Wager” is that it involves farfalle, pepper grinders and kalamata olives, and that strikes me as silly. This could be Hall’s intent, of course, in which case, it works after a fashion. But this is a book about certainty and knowing, so I’m inclined to read about the pasta and the olives straight up, I’m afraid, in the cold light of existential ideas. They are the imagery the poet has chosen to illustrate that God is in the details, or perhaps that He is not; or, that we are not, that the world doesn’t care if we want ground pepper.

If the book’s recourse to intellectual puzzles seems heavy-handed at times, this is tempered when we read a bewitching line or two in the midst of the Cartesian query. Such a query is surely a fundamental oneiric question, and for that reason the collection hangs together well as a poetics of ideas. It also brings us back to the very human—and shared—concerns we have about what we can and can’t know about the world and ourselves. It’s this vulnerability that makes the book worthwhile; it’s an invitation to survey our questions about whether we exist: in the world, and in the dream.

I like the way Hall moves from the particularity of the absurdly oneiric to the general, like a camera zooming into detail and then zooming out to show larger context. Although Hall occasionally borders on editorializing her own work, passages such as

Half asleep, I eat
an entire jar of chipotle-lime mustard,
I’m not sure why.

followed immediately by,

According to one health pamphlet,
asking questions is a roadblock
to real communication. Dennett says
we’ll do whatever it takes
to assuage epistemic hunger.

show us a kind of dream psychology even as it contains a certain analysis: a nonsensical binge followed by a psychoanalytic-style intervention suggesting that to question eating the jar of mustard (“I’m not sure why”) is a defence mechanism to communication, one that precludes epistemologically processing the tactile world—i.e., the oddity of the contents of a fridge late at night.

This can be a powerful experience when reading poetry: the poet holding up a mirror to the reader and saying, look, you are mon semblable, mon frère … you, too, are anxious and perplexed inside the logic of dreams—in the dream itself, or the next day, or in anticipation of another visitation of the same dream.…

The literary persona is also shown as an unreliable anchor of the self, and certainty, in the long poem “Suspended in the Space of Reason: A Short Thesis.” In a section titled “Literature Review,” Hall writes of Wallace Stevens:

Stevens was vice-president of the Hartford
Livestock Insurance Company and in his final
days at the hospital he confessed to having
a certain emptiness in his life. Disembodied voices can be
a kindness. Most people would never admit to
having poetic conversations with a dead
insurance broker, yet many have memorized Stevens’ lines.

The phrase that is of interest is “a certain emptiness in his life”; it hovers between meaning a certain—or definite—emptiness, and a more colloquial meaning, as in a kind of emptiness. If emptiness in the first instance can be so definite for someone like Stevens, whom many have memorized, then this is a bleak dream indeed: is there any redemption to being a literary figure? Probably not. Later in the same section, Woolf’s suicidal subjectivity is a certainty—perhaps the central certainty of Hall’s book:

Virgina Woolf collided with herself.
She listened to herself talking to
herself and finally understood
she wasn’t going to recover from any of it.

We read this kind of self-cancelling view of the self—pure subjectivity—and see its limitations. Such passages bring The Certainty Dream fully into the language of interiority. Shifting automatic thoughts characterize the dream. Is the certainty of the dream only that we can listen to ourselves talking to ourselves? In the last lines of the book, uncertainty over speaking prevails, however—that is, uncertainty over “putting something out there”:

who will call out
and calling out who will answer

We probably can’t know this. The mynah in this last poem is imagined by the poet as “speechless” before her.

Nyla Matuk is the author of Oneiric, from Frog Hollow Press.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply