The Unwinding: An Uncommonly Enchanting Painted Poem Celebrating the Wilderness of the Imagination and Our Capacity for Love, Trust, and Hope
“If I said that my love for you was like the spaces between the notes of a wren’s song, would you understand?”
By Maria Popova
“Some dreams aren’t dreams at all, just another angle of physical reality,” Patti Smith wrote in Year of the Monkey — her exquisite dreamlike book-length prose poem about mending the broken realities of life, a meditation drawn from dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.”
As I leaf enchanted through The Unwinding (public library) by the English artist and writer Jackie Morris, this quiet masterpiece dawns on me as the pictorial counterpart to Smith’s — a small, miraculous book that belongs, and beckons you to find your own belonging, in the “Library of Lost Dreams and Half-Imagined Things.”
Its consummately painted pages sing echoes of Virginia Woolf — “Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.” — and whisper an invitation to unwind the tensions of waking life, to follow a mysterious woman and great white all-knowing bear — two creatures bound in absolute trust and absolute love — as they hunt for wild dreams, “dreams that hold the scent of deep green moss, lichen, the place where the roots of a tree enter the earth, old stone, the dust of a moth’s wings.”
What emerges is a love story, a hope story, a story out of time, out of stricture, out of the narrow artificial bounds by which we try to contain the wild wonderland of reality because we are too frightened to live wonder-stricken.
Morris — whose art conjures forth Robert Macfarlane’s poetic spells against the impoverishment of language in their collaborative masterpiece The Lost Words — begins The Unwinding with a charming apothecary label of how this potent tonic for the imagination is to be taken:
Inside, there are hares that speak in koans, foxes with parasols and mandolins, nocturnal cloudscapes of enormous blue fish.
While a spare, poetic story accompanies each pictorial sequence, partway between fairy tale and magical realism, the text is only a contour around one of myriad possible shapes and shadings each watercolor dreamscape invites — each years in the painting, each a consummate Rorschach test for the poetic imagination that confers upon our waking hours the iridescent shimmer that makes life worth living.
In the twelfth dreamscape, titled “Truth: The Dreams of Bears,” the enchanting woman whispers into the soft warm ear of the sleeping bear:
If I said that my love for you was
like the spaces between the notes of a wren’s song,
would you understand?
Would you perceive my love to be, therefore,
hardly present, almost nothing?
Or would you feel how my love is wrapped
around by the richest, the wildest song?
And, if I said my love for you is like
the time when the nightingale is absent
from our twilight world,
would you hear it as a silence? Nothing?
Or as anticipation
of that rich current of music,
which fills heart,
And, if I said my love for
you is like the hare’s breath,
would you feel it to be transient?
So slight a thing?
Or would you see it as life-giving?
A thing that fills the blood, and
sets the hare running?
Complement The Unwinding with poet Mark Strand’s stunning ode to dreams and Nathaniel Hawthorne on the liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, then supplement the poetics of the mind with the poetics of the body in the fascinating science of dreaming, depression, and how REM sleep helps mediate our negative emotions.
Illustrations courtesy of Jackie Morris; book photographs by Maria Popova
Published October 7, 2020