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Dreams as Procedure in Lyn Hejinian and Jackie Wang’s Poetry

Margaret Ronda

“Now it’s dark and there’s someone in it,” Lyn Hejinian writes in a single-line section of her expansive “night work,” The Book of a Thousand Eyes.1 What happens in the hours of night, in sleep, in dream and insomnia, and in the transcription of these material states of being and experience into written form? How do such forms offer reflections or redirections of larger social situations, opening out onto unexpected imaginative terrain? This essay considers two recent works of poetry, Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes (Omnidawn, 2012) and Jackie Wang’s The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void (Nightboat, 2020), that inquire into these elements of subjectivity and sociality, returning again and again to the unbidden, submerged spaces of sleep and dream as essential sites of poetic inquiry. I consider how these texts turn to the unconscious processes of the mind at rest and the forms of materialist attention that they generate, with particular emphasis on the terrain of work and social reproduction as reflected and refracted in the realm of dream. Rather than framing sleep and dream as interior spaces where solitary fantasies and attachments play out, these books insist on the active interplay between the social and the dreamworld, between action and dream, labor and rest, the work of care and the task of sleep. Both of these texts draw on proceduralist methods as a means of staging the complex relations to work, unproductivity, social reproduction, and the elements of determination manifested in sleeping life. Yet they route their inquiries into sleep and dream, as well, through surrealist conceptions of unconscious life as a creative and politically charged space for engendering alternatives to present social and political determinations.2

The immanent dialogue between these modalities of surrealism and procedure, in turn, underscores the complex thinking on the determination and indeterminacy of dream-work central to both texts. Hejinian and Wang investigate the ways in which sleep and dream reflect broader forms of inequality and unfreedom. They consider irregular, desynchronized, fractured sleep as a reflection of material circumstances, and examine how dreams themselves dramatize the everyday exploitation of laboring life and the unending work of social reproduction under capitalism. Through their textual invocations of procedure, these poets reveal the ways dreams and sleep are themselves a kind of ceaseless labor, a task – like housework or caregiving or material replenishment – that always begins again, tied to the normative functioning of broader cycles of economic and social life. At the same time, in dialectical fashion, these writers convey how the surreal and visionary elements of dream retain a certain resistance to these spheres and hold open space for other imaginative prospects that emerge in nightly (un)consciousness.

Procedural poetics takes as its central imperative elements of chance, constraint, arbitrary and determined action in real time, and performative reiteration. Works of procedural poetics from Oulipo poetry, Yoko Ono’s instructions and rituals, John Cage and Jackson Mac Low’s collaborations, to more recent experiments by poets such as Michael Leong, Caroline Bergvall, and CA Conrad, develop carefully designed instructions or structuring devices that set out parameters through which the text unfolds. They draw attention to embodied experience within an informational and environmental surround, exploring how bodies perceive and respond to various stimuli. Such “structure-based poetics” amount to what Hélène Aji calls “radical research” on the conditions and contexts of everyday bodily acts, language practices, and, self-reflexively, the text’s own techniques of writing.3 As Andrew Epstein writes in his book on everyday-life poetry, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, many of these “rule-bound, performative experiments” are often constrained in relation to time and place, and the “results of these projects are often recorded, documented, and circulated in some way.”4 This elaborated empirical attention, he argues, facilitates “new ways of accessing and recording ‘the real,’ often through a kind of radical mimesis.”5 Epstein underscores the way that these procedural engagements with realism resist moments of epiphany or expressive transparency, instead highlighting the evanescent and often banal qualities of everyday experience and representing the poetic act of transcription as aligned with these ordinary acts.6

Epstein defines such everyday-life and procedural projects specifically as diurnal works, oriented toward the rhythms, habits, and temporalities of daytime existence and its embodied forms. The central trope of many such works, Epstein explains, is “wakefulness,” often elaborated via images of “morning and waking.”7 Epstein highlights the way these projects can serve to make readers more conscious of their habitual patterns: “a cure for today’s fragmented attention spans, projects promise to help ‘wake us up’ to the life we’re living and to make us newly appreciative of the day-to-day details, pleasures, and routines.”8 Proceduralist and project-based poets often describe their work in similar terms, as the cultivation of an intensified, wakeful attention that defamiliarizes ingrained habits. At the same time, proceduralist writing also serves as a means of documenting the social constraints and everyday forms of racialized unfreedom that structure the lives of minoritized populations, as in works by writers such as Harryette Mullen, Bhanu Kapil, and Divya Victor. 

Here, I turn from the day-works of this proceduralist tradition and its languages of alertness and waking life to examine poems of sleep and dreaming and the alternative forms of bodily experience, language, and attention they cultivate. As in other procedural pieces, Hejinian and Wang’s texts follow preordained parameters, chronicling the processes of a given series of acts. But here, these acts center on somnolescence and unconsciousness: falling asleep, dreaming, waking, recording these activities and interpreting them. Like Scheherazade, around whose story of survival The Book of a Thousand Eyes is framed, both writers engage with dream not as a space of unbounded free play but as a determined narrative act whose results are circumscribed by the “real.” Hejinian writes of this procedural process in her essay, “La Faustienne,” from The Language of Inquiry: “I have wanted to write in the dark, so to speak, when the mind must accept the world it witnesses by day and out of all data assemble meaning.”9 Sleep, like other habitual activities that have been the purview of procedural poetry, is the site of repetitive actions undertaken nightly, with ongoing sources of “data” to be “assembled” and sorted. In these works, sleep and especially dream undertake a form of communication with and reinscription of the external, material world, drawing forth significance from what the day has brought.

In their engagement with the realm of unconscious activity, hidden drives and the formal estrangement and defamiliarization, these works are also indebted to surrealist practices, with their emphasis on cataloging what surrounds and exceeds the terrain of wakefulness and rational life. Perhaps most importantly, we can understand these works as following from ideas by radical surrealists like Suzanne Césaire, who frames surrealism as a necessary artistic language of indeterminacy and opening in a time of fascist and authoritarian emergency. As Césaire writes in 1943 in “Surrealism and Us,” contemplating the spread of fascism and the unfathomable mass violence of  WWII, “surrealism can claim the glory of being at the extreme point of the bow of life drawn to its breaking point.”10 As they transcribe the mundane, laborious, and absurd workings of dream and sleep in a contemporary time of ecological breakdown, racial violence, and intensifying conditions of collective precarity, Hejinian and Wang point to the ways these workings take shape in and against contemporary conditions of collective life “drawn to its breaking point.” And like Césaire, they discern in the emergent images and patterns they transcribe essential imaginative alternatives to the impossible realms of such conditions. In The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void, Wang terms such figurations a “survival technique” in a collapsing world.11



To sleep: to fulfill biological needs for bodily housekeeping and repair, to allow time for processing of memories, to restore our ability to learn and develop anew.12 Sleep is a necessity, no matter one’s social or physical situation – a species universal, like other basic physiological requirements for survival. Dream and sleep are also realms of sustained inquiry by artists, philosophers, poets, and scientists, who study the fundamental gaps between conscious and unconscious existence, the specific work (somatic, imaginative, reparative) of sleep, and the hermetic nature of the dreaming mind. For many of these thinkers, sleep and dream emerge as the generalized other and antithesis of waking life, a withdrawal into the interior of our embodied minds in which things occur that cannot be retrieved, offering a powerful vision of another life we dwell in beyond conscious awareness. In Hegel’s brief remarks on sleep in Philosophy of Mind, he defines sleep as the locus of the “general nature of subjectivity” to which we return nightly from “the world of specialization.”13 Sleeping life, in this account, is the elemental foundation for the more specific forms of subjectivity that emerge during the day, but it also represents the absence of those individuated, “specialized” forms of selfhood. Freud’s arguments about the unconscious, about dream as “having at its disposal recollections which are inaccessible to the waking state,” and about the inner antagonisms at work in the dreaming mind, remain a vital psychoanalytic framework for describing this foundational alterity of the sleep-world.14 In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes that we easily forget our dreams upon waking: “They fade away before the impressions of the new day like the glow of the stars before the sunlight.”15 Or, as Lyn Hejinian puts it in an interview about her Book of a Thousand Eyes: “One of the things that can take you to the realm of something deeply unconscious is what you’ve totally forgotten, like it’s really lost. … So how could I get there?”16

Yet as various historians of sleep have argued, sleep and dream are profoundly social phenomena, bearing the imprint of their historical situation in their rhythms and forms. Chronicling many taken-for-granted aspects of contemporary sleep in Western cultures, Benjamin Reiss writes in Wild Nights that “virtually nothing about our standard model of sleep existed as we knew it two centuries ago.”17 With the rise of industrialization, the waged work-day, and electrification, sleep in Western cultures largely became consolidated into a single block of nighttime sleep and became more privatized rather than communal.18 Within capitalist modernity, sleep itself becomes a key terrain of struggle between labor and capital. Marx describes, in his chapter on “The Working Day” in Capital Vol 1, capital’s compulsion to generate more surplus-value through expanding the limits of the working day and encroaching on the boundaries of rest and repose:

It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. It is not the normal maintenance of the labour-power which is to determine the limits of the working-day; it is the greatest possible daily expenditure of labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory, and painful it may be, which is to determine the limits of the labourers’ period of repose.19

In turn, Marx’s descriptions of the extension of the working-day find new and intensifying form in the present, as Jonathan Crary has argued, in the continuing encroachment of “24/7 capitalism” and its ceaseless cycles of production and consumption, facilitated by digital technologies. At the same time, new industries and technologies of sleep, from pharmaceuticals and highly caffeinated beverages to sleep tracking devices and machines, have made sleep a new frontier for economization, even as sleep has become an increasingly fugitive presence in many people’s daily lives.20

Various studies have chronicled the ways socioeconomic and racial inequities are reproduced in sleep, highlighting “sleep divides” that disproportionately affect racialized and working-class populations already experiencing social precarity.21 As political philosopher Jonathan White argues in “Circadian Justice,” sleep should be understood as a realm of “‘corrosive disadvantage,’” “the presence of which yields further disadvantages” for already marginalized or precarious groups.22He writes that inadequate sleep can “make bad circumstances less bearable, whether poor-quality housing or cramped living quarters, and is often the very thing that makes them unbearable. Sleep affects a person’s mood, and thereby their evaluation and experience of what they encounter. Likewise it may change their ability and inclination to change their circumstances, making other disadvantages more sticky.”23 White chronicles various ways in which contemporary sleeping conditions extend the difficult conditions of laboring life; as he underscores, the effects of these intensifications powerfully correlate to broader forms of class and racial inequality. Sleep under contemporary capitalism is increasingly abbreviated and fragmented, and has also become more decoupled from routine, as workers are asked to work irregular or long hours – a function of the gig economy and the flexibilization of labor more broadly which was made more acute by the pandemic.24

Our waking and working lives thus interpenetrate conditions of sleep and dream in profound ways, creating night worlds that serve as strange, refracted mirrors of the present. In a recent article in Endnotes 2, “Sleep-Worker’s Enquiry,” Rob Lucas describes his work as a web developer as not only trespassing upon but actually determining the contents of his dreaming life. “I realised I was dreaming in code again,” he writes:

But in the kind of dream that I have been having the very movement of my mind is transformed: it has become that of my job. It is as if the habitual, repetitive thought patterns, and the particular logic which I employ when going about my job are becoming hardwired; are becoming the default logic that I think with. This is somewhat unnerving.25

Lucas describes a dream wherein he discovers a bug in the code he’d been working on all week in his real coding. As a “thought-worker,” he continues, “it is not that fantastical to say I have been performing actual labour in my sleep.” Such descriptions of working-while-sleeping offer new connotations to Marx’s idea of value-production occurring “behind their backs,” a new dimension of laboring life occurring within the realm of sleep. For Lucas, this “dreaming in code” reveals a perturbing sense of the deepest internalization of the alienating mechanisms of capitalism as they colonize the very logical processes and internal recesses of the mind, even in sleep. And yet, as Crary asserts, sleep and dream still serve, to a certain essential extent, as a space of reserve that has not yet been fully alienated and a site of imagining a different future. As he writes, “It is possible that – in many different places, in many disparate states, including reverie and dream – the imaginings of a future without capitalism begin as dreams of sleep. These would be intimations of sleep as a radical interruption, as a refusal of the unsparing weight of our global present….”26 It is these dialectical dynamics of sleep and dream – as a domain of struggle where broader dynamics of work, social reproduction, and social inequality find reinscription and also a radical “interruption” of those dynamics – that both of these poets explore in their contemporary night-works.


Lyn Hejinian’s Autobiographies of Dream

As Lyn Hejinian asserts in an interview about The Book of a Thousand Eyes, “I’m in favour of being conscious, and of being conscious that you’re conscious.” Over her body of work, Hejinian explores the conditions of conscious life in all their manifold variety through a poetics that intensively describes the modalities of thinking in action as they unfold in time. Her poetics of description, she writes in her essay ‘Strangeness,” enacts “a particular and complicated process of thinking,” at once “highly intentional”  and also “remaining open to the arbitrariness, unpredictability, and inadvertence of what appears” (Language 138). Description is a means of “apprehension” of consciousness as it happens, in its complexity and mystery, elucidating what she calls, following William James and Gertrude Stein, “the perceiving of perception” (143-44). In turn, these practices of description elaborate subjectivity not as “an entity” but as a “dynamic,” shifting with changing contexts (43). While description is Hejinian’s central compositional ethos, her poetry’s form often follows procedural processes. Perhaps the most famous instance of her procedural form is My Life, with its first edition of 37 sections, each containing 37 sentences, one for each year of the 37-year-old poet’s life, and the revised edition of 45 sections of 45 sentences. This form calls attention to the arbitrary imposition of arrangement and order that constitutes the work of life-writing, highlighting moments of memory, association, and attention as they emerge and disappear, both connected and contingently bound to what precedes and follows. A Border Comedy, too, develops a procedural method involving the simultaneous addition of lines across each of the text’s sections as a means of considering the synchronous and disjunctive relations of time and memory.27

If My Life remains the paradigmatic example of her autobiographical practice that defamiliarizes conscious experience via constraint-based method, The Book of a Thousand Eyes turns to the “unconscious world,” asking, as Hejinian puts it in her interview with Fagan, “What does it know that I don’t?” The imperative becomes to record the sleeping world as it emerges, anew and again, to the conscious self: Hejinian writes in the first section of The Book of a Thousand Eyes, “I’ll write / and I myself can read / to see if what I’ve written is right” (15). Such transcription in turn enacts immanent interpretation: as Hejinian writes in her essay “Strangeness,” “The very writing down of a dream seems to constitute the act of discovering it (one “remembers” more and more as one writes until one wonders if it’s the writing itself that “dreams”) but it is also and problematically an act of interpreting it” (Language 139). Throughout The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Hejinian evokes this sense of description as “problematically an act of interpreting” the night’s unfolding and its continual transformations. Hejinian suggests that sleep and dream are a kind of a form of immanent criticism: as she asks, rhetorically, “Doesn’t each dream catch a previous day of the world in an act of criticism?” (128). Hejinian’s intensive descriptions of sleep and dream enact a kind of interpretive relay, turning back on the dream world to catch it in its own acts of criticism. We can regard this as the essentially procedural aspect of Hejinian’s project in The Book of a Thousand Eyes: the book tracks the night-by-night workings of sleep and dream, bound to its logics, attempting to transcribe the dream’s “catching” of the real on unconscious terrain. “I’ve reported nearly all that I’ve learned as long as I was reporting it,” Hejinian writes (174).

Hejinian describes the impetus of this particular project in relation to the figure of Scheherazade as a feminist storyteller telling nightly tales to ensure the survival of the other women in her country – all to be killed by the sultan – and herself. For Scheherazade, Hejinian writes, “danger lies in silence, death hovers at the edge of dawn on the horizon of light when all stories come to an end, inscribing her end as well.” Thus her stories must unfold not through linear temporalities but via “performative concentricities and spirals” that “defer conclusions, prolong suspense, and interiorize meaning” for the sake of going on another day (254). Hejinian’s method in The Book of a Thousand Eyes, then, might be understood as Scheherazadian, returning night after night to the scene of sleep and its borders to transcribe its tales. Scheherazade was compelled to tell these stories, serially, night after night, in order to survive and save other women’s lives. Drawing on this compulsory telling as a frame for this work, Hejinian’s serial poems suggest a similar sense of an imperative to describe, whereby the sleeping world’s remaking of the real offers necessary glimpses of what Hejinian calls the “incommensurable” (70). To write and rewrite the Scheherazadian night-tale, in this light, is to lay bare and imaginatively reconfigure, even momentarily outmaneuver, the ceaseless reproduction of productive life and its forms of lived abstraction: a necessary and urgent task, she indicates.

In turn, these transcriptions often reveal the way dreaming life rearranges and renders newly apprehensible the antagonistic circumstances of daily life within capitalist forms of social relation – its harnessing of social time, its alienations and startling violences – as they emerge within or are temporarily escaped through the activities of night. Indeed, Hejinian’s book might be seen as the most oriented around questions of capitalist realism and its possible alternatives of all her works. While other poets affiliated with Language poetry have focused more centrally on critiques of the commodification of language and experience under consumer capitalism, Hejinian’s poetry has tended to focus more obliquely on anti-capitalist politics.28 In this book, however, her career-long investigations of realism and consciousness turn to the problem of labor and alienated life as it becomes newly visible in the realm of sleep and unconsciousness. As she writes in one section, “But now what’s terrifying is the disappearance of natural reality, the realization that reality isn’t real (it is only reified)” (258). Dreams and sleep, she suggests throughout this book, cast into light the reified qualities of the waking everyday. Across The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Hejinian directs attention to the ways everyday life is ordered by mundane, alienating forms of work and the tasks of social reproduction. We wake into ordered time and its forms of everyday desperation: “Today is ‘a day like any other’: the notion is mildly depressing, in some it could provoke anguish. Just to live – that seems like a desperate activity” (257). How do we fill these homogeneous days? With work, which is “all about keeping extraordinary bodies busy,” and with the domestic and bodily activities that facilitate it: cleaning, carework, preparing and eating food, tending the body (158). Such work seems ever more taxing and difficult. She writes: “Now people work harder than ever and the rents go up” (174). The sleeping world, to an extent, itself mirrors these dynamics in its determinate repetitions. She writes:

To repeat

Patterns over time to cover


And again repeat

Just as a person might, working like crazy, day and night, to cover

The possibility that she isn’t real

And won’t get this work whose rules keep changing done. (181)

Here, Hejinian suggests that dreaming might itself be an extension of the working world, with its endless reiteration of the same actions. In dream, Hejinian indicates, the repetition of dream patterns offer uncanny reflections of the alienated conditions of everyday life, structured around the imperative to be ceaselessly productive. These alienations become part of one’s own subjective structure: what Crary calls a “24/7 environment” that “renders plausible, even normal, the idea of working without pause, without limits.”29 The endless work of the person both “covers” and reproduces her own sense of unreality. In dream, the repetition of patterns reiterates these waking conditions of labor whose “rules keep changing” and which never ends, only reemerges anew. As she writes in another piece: “There’s very little separation of the outer world from the one within” (33).

At the same time, the interior perspective renders this “outer world” through complex refigurations and distortions. Everyday labor and domestic tasks often re-emerge in the dreamworld through imagery of the surreal: fabular tales and strange images. We hear, in one poem, about “the boy in the warehouse” who is guarded by dogs at the factory’s door, as barges go by carrying animals to the slaughterhouse (144). Another piece intermingles comic and strange images of domestic and manual labor with unsettling scenes of death and torture: “And yet here I am, humming like a shuttlecock as I move back and forth between the sink and the stove, while a body – maybe more than one – is lying on the floor, under fallen furniture” (277). Assertions of violence – “I’m going to set the place on fire, send it to oblivion, and die in it,” the speaker declares – veer into a long description of the difficult and tedious task of re-roofing a barn. “I’m only half awake and thinking we should put a layer of tarpaper on the roof first, before laying down the shingles, but I’m not sure how to attach the tarpaper to the metal” (278). By the poem’s end, the inexplicable violence of the opening images of bodies strewn on the kitchen floor finds reverberation in the speaker’s fear of falling off the roof in the midst of her precarious work: “I am afraid I’ll fall off the roof; the drop on one side is precipitous and long, the drop on the other even longer” (279). In such scenes, laboring acts are reframed in exaggerated form to underscore their essentially repetitive, banal, and dangerous character. Labor is linked with uncertainty, injury, and bewildering violence – and, still, remains necessary to undertake.

If the dreamworld repeats and reiterates the world of work and its alienations, Hejinian’s dream transcriptions also indicate that the distortions and strange images defamiliarize these activities, in so doing “catching” them “in an act of criticism.” The dreamworld renders everyday life at a strange slant, allowing space to apprehend them with an estranged perspective that remains fugitive in waking hours. Dreams, in this sense, become a means of de-reifying vision that offers a different vantage on lived experience and its social circumstances. She writes: “What the world has to offer is what millers have to suffer, and the next morning the miller will turn his face to the mill and set to work grinding the flour. But before then, he will sleep in order to release unconsciousness and let it flow” (299). To sleep is to “release” a way of thinking unavailable in waking life that “flows” unbidden. The book’s rendering of dream, sleep, and the liminal states that border them, opens out into a surrealist space of the “incommensurable.” In an essayistic piece in The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Hejinian writes: “The incommensurable can’t be incorporated into the realm of exchange value, of the commodity, it resists the submergence of everything into that system of equivalence, which nullifies uniqueness and compels us to exchange, for example, this beautifully made table for that tenderly nurtured cow” (70). Expressing the strange logics, patterns, nonsense sounds, narratives, images, and somatic experiences that constitute this varied world, the text’s explorations of dream attend to what can’t be reduced to logics of exchange, what remains extraneous or difficult to absorb. To dream is to interpret, to reconfigure, and, importantly, to expand the real as lived and remembered. In such transcriptions of dream, Hejinian argues, ideas and images emerge that remain unassimilable, reminding us of latent forms of being and knowing. She writes in a particularly charged series of images in one poem: “There in your hand is a message we can’t read. You are as quiet and complete as an egg and when it breaks there in your hand is a tile and on it are our names” (168).

In dreams, Hejinian indicates, we discern the outlines of a subject whose contours differ from that of the differentiated, waking self – more porous, more naked, more impersonal. As Hejinian writes in her essay, “Strangeness,” dreaming fundamentally “questions the relationship between subject and object, since the “I” of a dream is often either unassimilated or diversely identifiable, so to speak reversible, wavering between selves called Me and Not-me” (Language 140). The self is expansive and loose, multiple, in the sleeping mind. Many poems in The Book of a Thousand Eyes investigate the way the abstract social determinations – of gender, of waged work, of capitalist forms of commodification – come unmoored, however temporarily, within the zones of sleep and dream. In sleep “anything can come to me,” creating a more receptive and “defenseless” form of being: “satiated, metamorphosed, pitched” (18). This passive, receptive state enacts a lived alternative, however temporary and evanescent, to the world of work and activity. In unconscious states of being, in the flow of sleep, dreamers might find momentary release or respite from the forms of necessity that determine everyday life. Perhaps this state might best be understood, in Hejinian’s work, as a kind of passive refusal of these daily forms, achieved via the impersonality of unconscious being. This unhinging is akin to a person turning into something less, or different, or more (akin, perhaps, to Hegel’s idea of “generalized subjectivity”). It is, Hejinian suggests, “when they wake” that “they become persons and require clothes / and that’s what we term wakefulness” (160). Hejinian’s autobiographies of dreams, with their expansive descriptions of sentient capacities beyond the rational and known, attune readers to these other forms of being that we occupy all the time, if only in the surreal scenes of our dreaming minds, as they cohabitate with the material conditions of our waking lives.


Jackie Wang’s Sunflower Spells

“Everywhere I look I see sleepwalkers under the spell of the prison,” Jackie Wang writes (316). In her book of abolitionist theory on the prison-industrial complex, Carceral Capitalism, Wang considers the imbrication of racialized carceral logics of surveillance and punishment with capitalism’s economic structures. Describing the varied ways that carcerality is increasingly “bleeding into society” with ever-more-sophisticated forms of surveillance technologies that target minoritized populations, Wang describes the omnipresence of what she calls “algorithmic forms of power”: “invisible forms of power [that] are circulating all around us, circumscribing and sorting us into invisible cells that confine us sometimes without knowing.”30 Wang highlights how policing is increasingly organized by predictive mechanisms that attempt to discern criminal behavior before it happens and to police populations accordingly. She writes that such “predictions do much more than present us with a probable outcome, they enact the future” (49). Wang argues that carceral capitalism’s frameworks of “inclusion” and “exclusion” fabricate and reproduce these dystopian reals, even as their logics become internalized, colonizing imaginations and becoming internal norms.

Carceral Capitalism offers an extended critique of these systemic dynamics. In so doing, Wang asserts that to combat these forces, it is necessary not only to foster radical practices and activist response but to engender alternative discourses of imagination, prediction, and dream – counter-spells that facilitate creative thinking beyond the strictures of the present. In the book’s closing section, entitled “The Prison Abolitionist Imagination: A Conversation,” she argues that envisioning “a world without prisons” requires a truly radical re-imagination, demanding that we “work toward the total transformation of all social relations” (298). While such a fundamental reconception might be regarded as “an unrealizable dream,” Wang argues that it is perhaps necessary to engage carceral logics by developing “a mode of thinking that does not capitulate to the realism of the Present” (298, original italics). She asks, “Can the reenchantment of the world be an instrument that we use to shatter the realism of the prison?” This closing essay, experimental in its collage-like, poetic form, weaves together multiple voices from poets, theorists, and radicals (Mahmoud Darwish, Rosa Luxembourg, Assata Shakur) who draw on their experiences in prison to voice liberatory social visions, often through images of night, sleep, and the darkness of the prison cell. Reflecting on how these writers and revolutionaries articulate these ideas in relation to dreams of the future, Wang asserts, “When we act in accordance with the prophetic dream, the dream comes to directly constitute reality” (318). Dreams become the blueprint for visions of worlds to come, diverging from the passive realm of everyday “sleepwalkers.” Following Robin D.G. Kelley’s ideas in Freedom Dreams, Wang depicts dreams as the wellspring of “radical imagination that conjures and sustains visions of freedom even in the darkest times.”31

These investigations of the dystopian carceral spaces and envisioning of revolutionary dreamscapes find full poetic expression in Wang’s first book of poems, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void. The Sunflower develops a complex portrait of the way dreams reassemble the waking world, and the way dreams appear in conscious life as “papyrus,” “never intact, always half-dissolved” (107). Most of these pieces are prose blocks, though some are more fragmentary and evanescent in their form, mirroring the different states of mind and affective features these poems explore. These dream inscriptions detail varied activities unfolding outside the realm of waged production: erotic mingling, wandering through urban spaces, attending funerals, eating, waiting, partying, performing, talking. Wang stays close to the striking and bewildering narratives that unfold in the realm of dream.

While Hejinian’s work is impersonal and encyclopedic in its tallying of dream and sleep, Wang’s text deploys a first-person narrator who conveys each dreaming scene as an unfolding situation happening in the present tense. In Wang’s poetry, there is a strong correspondence between dreaming and waking selves, as the poems remain grounded in this focalized perspective, and Wang evokes friends, lovers, family, places, and situations clearly connected to the fabric of the speaker’s lived experience. Yet the “I” is necessarily estranged and defamiliarized within these dreamscapes: “My voice changes. I say, ‘Do you remember who I am? It’s me, Jackie. Do you even know who I am?’” (109). The “I,” above all, serves as an affective and somatic medium, channeling contradictory sensations and responses emerging across these dreamscapes. Often these responses pivot between ecstasy and terror, as images in the dreams weave through banal and comic moments toward heightened situations of social and ecological breakdown and the fugitive pleasures and insurrectionary acts that emerge amidst them.

As with Hejinian’s project, Wang’s poems are bound by the determinations of her dreams. The procedural process of Wang’s work involves transcribing her dreams in the morning after she wakes. As Wang writes, “Let me sleep let me sleep I write to find / To know—” (118). Like Hejinian, Wang emphasizes this element of interpretation in her book as a “strategic” engagement with the heterogeneous elements of dream, as she writes in a section of The Sunflower:  

In my talk on revolutionary loneliness I reminded the audience that how we choose to interpret life and death is not neutral; interpretation itself is always strategic. Some interpretations are more politically and personally enabling than others. I think of this when I write my dreams down in the morning. (108)

The inscription of the dream can be strategic, Wang indicates, not only in describing but enacting visions of what is and will be, whether by illuminating in new ways the predictive technologies and incapacitating mechanisms of carceral capitalism or by fabricating abolitionist alternatives to this hegemonic social imaginary. These alternatives are concretized in images of moments of intimacy with others and through radiant, uncanny figures that recur over the text: sunflowers, coral trees, butterflies, a decapitated angel brought back to life, a book, the sun. As with Hejinian’s poems, the imperative that drives this work is the compulsion to narrate dreams in order to survive a time of crisis, even if, Wang admits, “No one will survive money.”

Across these poems, images abound of life existing at the precipice of death or in its traumatic aftermath. Tsunami, plague, flood, bombings, suicide, forced migration all weave through these pieces. In one poem, the speaker is forced to play dead to avoid being killed in a Hunger Games-like scenario. Another piece describes a scene where the speaker is with all her friends in a collapsing building and everyone dies (including her dream-husband, the musician Thurston Moore). Various poems convey the feeling of being constantly surveilled, with satellites in the streets and “metallic citadels” where the “men of technoscience” watch over all (54). In one of the most powerful poems in the text, “The Sewer Rat Counter-Haunts the Prison by Nesting in Society’s Collapsing Aorta,” Wang writes of sneaking into her brother R’s prison and hiding in the “air vents” (53). “There is perfect symmetry between the interior and exterior of the prison,” she writes: “the city becomes another disc in the spine of a generalized carceral logic,” the streets clogged with “giant multi-story metallic blue GOOGLE BUSES” (54). In dreams, Wang suggests, the dystopian surveillance imaginary of late capitalism, its crisis-prone tendencies, and its psychic effects become apprehensible in ways that remain more abstract and disparate in waking life. They become dramatized through these heightened scenes of crisis, escape, and enclosure that show how a system in crisis imprints as a kind of collective death-drive on its subjects.

Charting the nightly narratives of these dreams, Wang indicates, opens space for a different kind of discernment. To write down the dreams becomes, over time, a means of knowing “more,” knowing beyond: “to know more than the way love inside the cave splits the skin on the knuckles./Or the way the cave becomes a terrordome becomes the city that gave birth to neoliberal trade policies: the surveillance state par excellence” (121). How do the repetitive inscriptions of dreams come “to know more” than these nightmarish reals? One answer that Wang returns to, again and again, is the real necessity and the transformative prospect of love, solidarity, and friendship that dreams manifest. The poems often address a “you,” whether a beloved or a friend or the reader. Through such sustained forms of address woven through the work, Wang suggests that dreams involve an intimate language of connection, sometimes achieved and sometimes thwarted, evoking fragility and distance but also intimacy and the capacity for ecstatic states of union. In a poem entitled “The Future is Between Us,” the scene is apocalyptic, as the speaker enters a room of computers and, to communicate with the “you,” must write a series of commands through an old AOL interface. For a time, the two collaborate with an intensity that is almost too extreme; then the apocalypse slams in: “the mainframe between us is wilting, everything starts to break, the satellites are crashing into sad lights” (30). In another poem, “The Vernacular of our Bodies,” Wang communicates with an unnamed “you” through a melding of languages:

In the dream I am always struggling to explain something to you in the language we created, in Jumyung-hua. I’m gathering the lingual fragments to finally say what I came here to say. I speak to you in a strange blend of Chinese, English, and bodyspeak. And telepathy and intuition and the cosmic synchronization of unspoken understanding. I am trying to say something and then—ah!—the revelatory moment. (126)

This sense of intimate, revelatory communication enacts, in this dream inscription, a kind of spell that induces an intersubjective merging: “You turn to face me. You are with me inside it” (127). At the same time, these “revelatory moments” of connection and comprehension are often fleeting, and many of these dreams are suffused with longing and the inability to touch or reach the other. She writes, “I want to give you a hug but I can’t—an invisible force holds me back. I know that if I try to hold you, you will turn to dust. Everything is very fragile” (80).

Across The Sunflower, Wang reveals the way that in dreams, what seems intractable can be reversed. A scene can shift, a barrier can dissolve, even death can be overcome. Wang holds open such images of reversal and renewal, as dreams disclose that what appear to be unchanging conditions can shift, enacting an abolitionist imaginary that can impact the real. As she writes in “The Coral Tree,” “I don’t believe the imagination can fix everything (I am a rigorous materialist!) but it can do some of the work: the work of creating openings where there were previously none” (108). In one especially luminous and uncanny dream-poem, “The Pink Phallus,” the “cybernetic smart city” that the speaker dwells within morphs into a “deindustrialized Caribbean island,” where the speaker notices an “a destroyed pink tower. A monument to mobile commerce” (58-59). The speaker discovers that “there are young people willing to inhabit the ruin. / To channel their immense energy into terraforming the wreck” (59). The poem ends on an image of fiery energy and youthful transformation: in the ruins of a deindustrialized space, the young people dance “until the island comes back to life.”

Recurring across the book are heightened, surreal images of coral trees and sunflowers, figures that serve as symbols of what can return, what can grow amidst ruins. The sunflower, in particular, reappears as a sign of turning toward light, connection, love, amidst dark and unfathomable times. The book itself, a “sunflower book,” is composed of these images passed along in dream and gathered up as a “code” for the reader. Wang writes: “The sunflower book: it is code for love” (75). Such images of the sunflower as a vision of the ever-present capacity for renewal extends to a broader belief in collective social capability. Wang writes: “But I truly believe we’re not waiting to become our better selves, that we are already so great as it is. We are aureoled beings doing our being thing” (99). Attuned to contemporary carceral and fascistic nightmares, these poems nonetheless display a fundamental, stubborn optimism about the radical capacity for visionary openings in this turbulent moment. Indeed, Wang’s book follows Robin D.G. Kelley’s insistence that “freedom dreams” do not exist outside the realm of “fascist nightmares”; as he writes in a recent reflection: “if anything, freedom dreams are born of fascist nightmares, or better yet, born against fascist nightmares.” This dialectic that insists on the omnipresence of fascist nightmare through and against which freedom dreams emerge is central to the utopian figurations of Wang’s poetry.

The book’s dream-narratives draw attention to what is already present: the imaginative capacities demonstrated in dreams illuminate other possibilities, themselves borne from collective struggle and hope. Dreams and their visions of passive refusal and active abolition contain prospects latent within everyday consciousness, waiting to be discovered and returned to. Wang’s optimism echoes Suzanne Césaire’s conception of surrealism as an emancipatory project, a revolutionary hope that acknowledges but also defies the conditions of the present as the only possibility. In “Surrealism and Us,” Césaire describes surrealism in the era of fascism and global war as the “tightrope of our hope” (38). Wang’s poems similarly point to the social capacities revealed in dream and the unconscious as a source of renewal and hope in catastrophic times – a tightrope stretched across the abyss, the sunflower casting its spell in the face of the void.


Coda: Speculative Procedures

“Dawn brings all speculation to an end” (333). With these words invoking the breaking of day, Hejinian draws her Book of a Thousand Eyes to a close. Describing the endeavors of sleep and dream as essentially speculative, Hejinian ends her book by retrospectively framing the text as a form of imaginative conjecture, bounded by diurnal and bodily limits. The book becomes, in this sense, a counterfactual and conjectural space where scenarios can play out with a kind of limited freedom – a way of understanding textual work that reflects the work of dream. As Sidarta Ribeiro writes in his history of dreams, The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams, “dreams are … a privileged space for counterfactual situations, that is, things that did not happen but could have happened – and may still.”32 In this sense, the dream-work can be understood not only as a transcription or redirection of the real, but also a space of conjectural imagining, even a series of speculative instructions for what “may still” happen. The dream concentrates and refocuses attention on what is to come, while also offering an immanent interpretation of what has – and has not – already been. In turn, these poems serve not as manifestations of concrete knowledge but as interpretations that themselves embody forms of speculative action. As Hejinian writes, “Sentences in bed are not describers, they are instigators” (17). These texts, then, hold open space to generate forms of indeterminate knowing that refuse certainty and remain fluid, in process.

Speculative accounts of bodily and social life beyond the terrain of the waking mind, Wang and Hejinian’s poems challenge the bounds of expressivist lyric and its privileging of voice, address, and individual subjective experience. Their emphasis on the realm of sleep and dream as a space of what Hejinian calls “expectant knowledge,” elusive in conscious life, situates their work as a study of what lies beyond lyric poiesis and its forms of mastery (44). We can connect these works, in turn, to various other contemporary modes of non-lyric poetics that approach bodies and environments in lateral, processual, and materialist ways, from procedural works to sf poetics to metabolic writing. In all these modes of exploratory writing, the affordances of lyric are replaced by an emphasis on formal features such as catalog, repetition, parataxis, constraint, distortion, and citation that investigate the varied valences of what postcolonial studies scholar Julietta Singh calls “less masterful subjectivities.”33 Across such contemporary poetic projects, we can observe this turn from explorations of the lyric humanist subject to studies of the processes of habit, chance, and constraint that shape lives of various forms. In such works, subjectivity disperses and moves across beings, atmospheric and ambient rather than directed. Wang writes, “ ‘I’ is the background of thought at the beginning of sleep / Or the fog that surrounds you like the awareness of death when you face the corpse” (18). Such “dehumanist” lines unbind a central subjective position, allowing for other, more speculative, non-teleological and masterful forms of experience, knowledge, and imagination to emerge as central meditative sites of inquiry. These poetics – procedural, materialist, speculative – offer vivid and urgent instruction in how to live, dream, work, and imagine in and beyond the world of “wakefulness.”

  1. Lyn Hejinian, The Book of a Thousand Eyes (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2012), 142. 

  2. For more on the politics of surrealism, particularly as connected to racial, gender, and sexual liberation movements, see Joanna Pawlik, Remade in America: Surrealist Art, Activism, and Politics, 1940-1978. 

  3. Hélène Aji, “Poems that Count: Procedural Poetry,” A Companion to Poetic Genre, Ed. Erik Martiny (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 354. 

  4. Andrew Epstein, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 30. 

  5. Epstein, Attention Equals Life, 232 

  6. In her essay, “The Rejection of Closure,” Hejinian similarly argues for a poetics of the “open text” that resists what she calls the “coercive, ephipanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry” in favor of a text that “emphasizes or foregrounds process.” 

  7. Epstein, Attention Equals Life, 107, 204-205 

  8. Epstein, Attention Equals Life, 235, my italics 

  9. Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 250. 

  10. Suzanne Cesaire, “Surrealism and Us,” The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-45), Ed. Daniel Maximan (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 34. 

  11. Jackie Wang, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void (New York: Nightboat, 2020, E-book), 18. 

  12. “Why We Sleep,”

  13. Quoted in Peter Schwenger, At the Borders of Sleep: On Liminal Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 65. 

  14. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 9. 

  15. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 37. 

  16. Kate Fagan, “A Fable for Now: Kate Fagan interviews Lyn Hejinian,” Cordite Poetry Review, 1 November 2017, 

  17. Benjamin Reiss, Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World (New York: Basic Books, 2017) , 20. 

  18. See Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Time’s Past (New York: Norton, 2006). As anthropologists Richard Chenhall and Katie Glaskin point out in their volume, Sleep Around the World, Western sleep practices only recently turned toward the privatization of sleep, and indigenous cultures continue to practice forms of communal, diurnal, and public sleeping. 

  19. Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, Trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books),  375-76. 

  20. See Matthew Wolf-Meyer, “Natural Hegemonies: Sleep and the Rhythms of American Capitalism,” Current Anthropology 52.6 (Decemberr 2011), p 876-895. 

  21. See Katherine Ellison, “The Great Sleep Divide,” Knowable Magazine, June 22, 2021. 

  22. Jonathan White, “Circadian Justice,” The Journal of Political Philosophy, November 2021, 1-25. 

  23. White, “Circadian Justice,” 2. 

  24. For more on the pandemic’s transformations of sleep and dream, see Brooke Jarvis, “Did Covid Change How We Dream?” The New York Times Magazine, Nov 3, 2021. 

  25. Rob Lucas, “Sleep-Worker’s Enquiry,” Endnotes 2, 

  26. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), 128. 

  27. Another instance of Hejinian’s procedural work is her Border Comedy, which, as Jennifer Scappettone describes in a review, is generated through a particular constraint: “A Border Comedy’s compositional process stems from Hejinian’s enduring interest in the way memory determines pattern (i.e., in pattern’s “psychical ‘pastness’”), and accounts for the work’s disjunction: She adds lines sequentially across the poem’s fifteen books – all simultaneously “underway” – in order to tap the lapses generated by time’s passage.” Jennifer Scappettone, “Lyn Hejinian’s Border Comedy,” Boston Review, Summer 2003. See also Hejinian’s collaborations with Jack Collom and Leslie Scalapino. 

  28. For a trenchant critique of Language poetry’s forms of anticapitalist poetics, see Tim Kreiner, “The Politics of Language Writing and the Subject of History,” Post45: Peer Reviewed Issue 1, 2019. 

  29. Crary, 24/7, 9-10. 

  30. Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism (New York: Semiotext(e), 2018), 41. 

  31. Robin D.G. Kelley, “Twenty Years of Freedom Dreams.” Boston Review, August 1, 2022. 

  32. Sidarta Ribeiro, The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams, 189. 

  33. Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 11. 

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