|Bear. Collage by John Digby|
These orange coloured bears
shaggy and cumbersome
their faces smeared with honey
slowly lumber forward on their hind legs
rising from the sleeper's unconsciousness
and begin their astonishing dance
a silent deliberate ballet
to a strange music splashed with silence
in which time has wound down to an adagio
in order to hold the dreamer's attention
each bear clasps a sun between its jaws
and cartwheels freely through the air
cavorting like a trapeze artist
leaping leisurely from star to star
juggling a dozen different suns
with the adroitness of a skilled conjurer
they waltz above endless pine forests
touching here and there
with their heavy paws
a tree or two that suddenly flares
into a mass of threatening fire
erupting like a raging volcano
that sprinkles the dreamer with sputtering lava
now all hell opens before him
and the terror begins
he feels himself slipping into an inferno
in which he sees his body
bubbling in a ball of fire
his flesh and hair melting
leaving a grinning skull
his eyes burning wrapped in lapping flames
he cowers between the twisted sheets in fright
as the nightmare brings him close
to the razor's edge of waking
the bears appear from the fire
laughing and dancing around his head
and then one by one they retreat
creeping away on tiptoe
as if afraid to wake him
leaving him to settle back into sleep
still dancing they become smaller
shrinking from their shaggy forms
gradually disappearing into the depths
in which they harden into far flung lights
becoming handfuls of scattered stars
thrown across the night's cold face
This is no ordinary dream poem - it is poetry, music, dance, astronomy, horror movie, all in one.
It is also a highly structured dream that appeals both to our senses and logic.
It starts slowly - "slowly lumber", "time has wound down to an adagio". It starts piano - "silent deliberate ballet / to a strange music splashed with silence".
And then it builds up with "cartwheels ... through the air", "waltz above endless pine forests", "leaping leisurely from star to star", in a crescendo of sound, movement, height, speed, to an inferno of fire "wrapped in lapping flames" and "a raging volcano". The pandemonium has every feature of a good horror movie - "his flesh and hair melting / leaving a grinning skull" - and an unrestrained ballet movement - "his body / bubbling in a ball of fire" with full symphonic orchestra blasting every decibel out of its brass section.
It subsides with a gentle diminuendo as bears "retreat / creeping away on tiptoe".
Throughout the poem you find these scattered threads of sanity, bringing you back to the dreamer's perspective - "hold the dreamer's attention", "edge of waking", "leaving him to settle back into sleep" - and the very reassuring "faces smeared with honey".
The end, the coda, is a peace sublime - still, cold night and the eternity of Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and the third bear, unnamed.
'The Bears' by John Digby from To Amuse a Shrinking Sun, Poems & Collages published by Anvil Press Poetry in 1985. Reprinted with author's permission.