The Library of Dreams: New & Select­ed Poems 1965 – 2013

Howard Schwartz
  • Review
By – February 25, 2014

The Library of Dreams, con­tain­ing new poems as well as selec­tions from all four of Schwartz’s pre­vi­ous vol­umes, is orga­nized in reverse-chrono­log­i­cal order, so that new (The Library of Dreams) and recent ( 2011’s Breath­ing in the Dark) work appears first, fol­lowed by ear­li­er work, from Sleep­walk­ing Beneath the Stars (1992), Gath­er­ing the Sparks (1979), and Ves­sels (1977). Through­out these vol­umes— and in his fic­tion and work as an anthol­o­gist, as well — Schwartz has remained root­ed in Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and folk­lore, retelling old ori­gin sto­ries and cre­at­ing mul­ti­va­lent ones that achieve pro­found depth, con­so­la­tion, and mys­tery. In his new­er work, many of the poems are ele­gies. Even poems that do not direct­ly mourn the dead take on a nos­tal­gic tone, as found in Lan­guages”: Even the dead, / speech­less so long, / have their own lan­guage, / and when their silence calls out to us, / we listen.” 

The title of this new col­lec­tion is quite fit­ting, as Schwartz’s poet­ry insists that dreams hold cod­ed mes­sages con­tain­ing great truths — the dif­fi­cul­ty is know­ing how to inter­pret them: There’s the rub— / before you can fol­low the signs, / you must be able to read them.” Schwartz is care­ful to dis­tin­guish and between wak­ing and sleep­ing life, always let­ting the read­er know when he is describ­ing a dream rather than real­i­ty. Despite that dis­tinc­tion, how­ev­er, Schwartz pro­ceeds with a calm assur­ance that real-life wis­dom can be found with­in dreams. By record­ing and explor­ing his dreams, Schwartz engages in the dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish task of inter­pre­ta­tion — even when the dark­ness [is] inde­ci­pher­able,” as he puts it in Ghosts Rehears­ing the Past.” 

Schwartz’s poet­ry is folk­loric on sev­er­al lev­els. It evokes and draws from per­son­al cul­tural, and reli­gious tales, myths, and leg­ends, and it aims to be of use. This is evi­dent, for exam­ple, in how many of Schwartz’s poems— par­tic­u­lar­ly among his two most recent vol­umes — are writ­ten for friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers. Schwartz’s ear­li­er work leans more toward the lit­er­ary side, with love­ly moments of lin­guis­tic play and sur­prise, such as the final two stan­zas of Lost Myth of Albashad”: 

What remains
when no dream remem­bers?
Not even a crack not even
a crack not even
a crack.

Relat­ed content:

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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