Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“I found an invisible button and pushed it,” the voice of this text declares. Then “Everything—everything—turned white. A complete blank white slate, no forms, shadows, dimensions.” Beyond magical realism or surrealism or other extant qualifiers on the “real,” Ortiz gives us dream-as-form, weaving a new genre out of an ostensible dream diary, what she calls “dreamoir”—“a narrative derived from the most malleable and revelatory details of one’s dreams, catalogued in bold detail. A literary adventure through the boundaries of memoir, where the self is viewed from a position anchored into the deepest recesses of the mind.”
Our narrator here—if she can even be considered to be a singular self, splicing in and out of so many scenes, so many fragmentary puzzle-pieces of implied narrative—finds herself pregnant, repeatedly, and, when confronted with the idea, eschews any identification as the mother of Christ. She gets assigned pallbearer duty for a corpse distributed among gift boxes, discovers a beautiful rainbow, and witnesses boys tossing sticks of dynamite. She stands by as a friend investigates an alligator’s mouth with a magnifying glass, spends some time stuffing a roasted rabbit, and watches as a cat gives birth to nine kittens or, later, a bear leads her nine young cubs. One time she murders her mother. Another time she tries to keep her mother from witnessing her own death. Old lovers hand back evidence of their relationship to her, or are associated with cats—lost cats, cats needing attention, cats wearing collars with old phone numbers on them.
The locales here are familiar-turned-strange, known yet increasingly alien the more deeply they are engaged. “Once again in the Olympia-that-is-not-Olympia,” Ortiz writes of a recurring dream-version of a waking place. Likewise, these dreamscapes will strike readers as recognizable, even as the details are wildly strange. “I took a night hike with an enormous group of people spanning my entire life,” sounds, generally, like a dream scheme, the sort of set-up that passes for plot in our sleeping imaginations. Somnambulant turns of phrase appear, unbidden. A desired man announces his identity, via business card, as “Clover Father,” a creative new sex position is termed “the afghan wig,” and at one point our heroine declares, “I’m already an expert in being excommunicated!” Claustrophobia, vertigo, swells of confusion and anxiety are all par for the course, with peculiar particulars making splashes around the periphery: “I wasn’t entirely sure how I would get out of that place. More gargantuan swordfish leapt through the fountain.”
Ortiz’s project here gains strength from its very precariousness, the ever-shifting balance between intimacy (the sense that we, as readers, always already somehow, viscerally, know these scenes, this dreaming) and distance (that cold-shower feeling of hearing someone else recount their ever-inaccessible, always only secondhand, dreams). I found the most resonant moments those that most echoed a kind of collective nightmare culture currently unfolding. The United States declares all its borders suddenly closed, for instance, in one dream, wherein our narrator first half-jokes about living in diaspora, underwater, then, with the cold-sweat solemnity of woken truth, “contemplated what I would do—set fires, burn my way out of the country.”
If dreams allude to a waking life through a warped glass, Ortiz has polished that glass such that we see the distorted face of the narrator aligned with our own. As a chronicle of some uniquely other dreamer, it lacks only a legend, a decryption device, for making sense of repeating fears and codes, gestation, the number nine, various offspring with varied hungers. Yet with a voice that weaves in and out of the reader’s own subjectivity, becoming, at moments, our own or something eerily resembling it, Ortiz’s volume lacks only blank pages for further additions, personalization and annotation.
Official Wendy C. Ortiz Web Site
Official Civil Coping Mechanisms Web Site