Rich with images drawn from nature and mythology, the poems in Dreaming My Animal Selves are as diaphanous and enchanting as the dreams they seek to evoke. Like dreams, they are also often mystifying, full of allusion and paradox. While both dreams and poetry can—and should be—enjoyed experientially for what they are, the critic in me delights in cracking them open for a closer glimpse at their meaning. What helped me do this with Hélène Cardona’s collection was reading it through the lens of mysticism.
Mysticism is a nebulous concept and has been described, praised, and criticized in countless ways by countless people. Oxford Dictionary defines it as the “belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.” No religion has a monopoly on it; you can subscribe to Christian, Islamic, or Hindu mysticism alike. The uniting beliefs and motifs, in addition to the possibility of direct spiritual union with the absolute through contemplation and self-surrender, include the use of paradox and the obliteration of spatial and temporal boundaries.
The poem “Dreamer” exemplifies all three of these core mystical motifs in addition to Cardona’s trademark motifs of animals and dreaming, as seen here in excerpts from the poem:
Consider this, be fortunate, grateful,
consider this, be alive
for the greatest gift is given with death.
There is no end and no beginning,
surrender, surrender, surrender…
as I dream the world into being
as I dream new memories
as I dream myself into love falling into you…
Let the wheel of time absorb you,
have your heart broken.
There is a sense of letting go in this poem that is strangely reassuring; the lines “surrender, surrender, surrender” and “have your heart broken” are both repeated. The exhortation to “have your heart broken” strikes us as particularly strange at first glance because usually we consider heartbreak to be one of the most painful experiences there are. It’s unavoidable, yet many of us do whatever we can to avoid it. And here Cardona is urging us to let our hearts break. If we think of this submission to heartbreak as a mystical surrender of the individual self rather than the traditional, romantic heartbreak, it makes a lot more sense.
Cardona also artfully employs paradox, another hallmark of mystical writing. The lines “Consider this, be fortunate, grateful,/Consider this, be alive/for the greatest gift is given with death” are particularly paradoxical in that they instruct us to “be alive” while telling us in the same breath that “the greatest gift is given with death.” Which is being championed here, life or death? The answer Cardona gives us is “both.” One achieves mystical understanding by learning to see the beauty that unites all experience.
Seeing the unity behind all things requires that we see past arbitrary spatiotemporal boundaries. “There is no end and no beginning,” she declares before urging us again to “surrender, surrender, surrender,” boldly rejecting the notion of linear time. The final lines of the poem “Let the wheel of time absorb you,/have your heart broken” remind us again that time is cyclical. Spatial boundaries are also obliterated as Cardona declares that common spirit unites all of the world: “Ah to let Aphrodite guide you to the great/spirit who proclaims again and again/mountains am I, rivers am I/wind, sand and rain am I/moon, sun, and stars am I.”
Hauntingly evocative in its mysticism, Dreaming My Animal Selves is part fairytale, part spiritual replenishment. Like the experience of dreaming, Cardona’s poetry feels simultaneously exotic and familiar, covering foreign terrain that will eventually lead us home.
A citizen of the U.S., France, and Spain, Hélène Cardona is a poet, linguist, translator, and actor. She taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University, translated for the Canadian Embassy and NEA, received a MA in American Literature from the Sorbonne, and fellowships from the Goethe-Institut and the Universidad Internacional de Andalucía.
She is the author of The Astonished Universe, is notably published in Washington Square, World Literature Today, The Warwick Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Dublin Review of Books, and Poetry International and is co-editor of Dublin Poetry Review, Levure Littéraire, and Fulcrum.