from Muscle & Blood Magazine, Issue II, Spring 2011:
A Visit to the Dream World of M.V. Montgomery’s Poetry Collection Strange Conveyances
a book review from Benjamin C. Krause
“The better part of my life is spent in dreams.
Only by chance awakenings do I learn where I have been.”
(“Pathways,” lines 22-23)
The above quotation, from the opening poem in M.V. Montgomery’s Strange Conveyances, sets the tone for a collection that constructs a world out of a character’s dreams, as Winsor McCay famously did with his early 1900s comic strip Little Nemo (1). Much of Strange Conveyances is spent in a modern-day Slumberland, where the speaker often interacts with people and places from his past. He may find himself staring at a house under a lake, or suddenly dead and wondering what he should do next, or at one point, the newest recruit as a crusader for a new zombie utopia. There is an element of surrealism and even fantasy to many of these dreams, but Montgomery puts every poem over by means of the speaker’s matter-of-fact way of speaking.
Like a character from a magical realist novel, Montgomery’s speaker never thinks any situation to be bizarre. And like Camus’s Mersault, he never has reservations about his present predicament. But though it is interesting to draw these parallels, it would be irresponsible to call Strange Conveyances either absurdist or magical realist. It is a book about dreams, and though it is impossible for me to speak for everyone, my experience tells me that both of the above-mentioned qualities are common attributes of dream-consciousness. In some poems, the speaker reconnects with past selves, both distant and near in age. He also reconnects with people from his past. When he meets these people, he is sometimes the same age/self he was when he knew them, but other times he’s his current self. In these poems, Montgomery poses questions relating to the nature of the self, as well as the way dreams treat it, that deserve to be studied in much longer and more critical essays.
There are rare moments of lucidity in the poems, but even they explore subjects that, like dreams, could never be—for example, the speaker wishing to be invited to the wedding of his former brother-in-law, with whom he once had a very close relationship.
In the closing scene of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men, Ed Tom Bell states that he “had dreams.” His wife replies, “Anything interesting?” His response is that “they always is [sic] to the party concerned.” This reflects the conventional wisdom that dreams are only valuable to the person having them. But this moment of dialog added by the Coen Brothers was intentionally ironic, as the two dreams in No Country for Old Men are fundamentally important to the narrative.
A century ago, Winsor McCay enraptured newspaper readers around the world with a comic strip about the dreams of a boy named Nemo. How soon we forget. If Little Nemo is no longer part of our popular folklore, and if Joel and Ethan Coen did not finally euthanize the old cliché of the irrelevance of dreams with the above-mentioned exchange, then we all must read Strange Conveyances, for no greater proof exists in the contemporary literary world of how captivating the dreams of another can be.
Strange Conveyances receives my highest recommendation, and though the decade is very young, it comfortably tops my list of the best poetry collections from January 2010 to present.
1. If “Little Nemo” rings a bell, but you are unfamiliar with the strip, you have probably seen the 1992 animated film adaptation, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an American and Japanese coproduction. Or, like me, you may have been introduced to Little Nemo through the video game adaptation for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Little Nemo: The Dream Master (1989). Both were superb examples of their medium, and have become classics in their own right, but neither came anywhere near capturing the spirit of McCay’s comic strip. However, due to the nature of the strip, it is doubtful that a film or a video game ever could do it justice. The vast difference between the two adaptations, even though they were supposed to be tie-ins (they were released the same year in Japan), is a testament to the strip’s open-endedness, and the quality of each final product demonstrates the sincere respect the creators had for McCay’s work.