Jerome Rothenberg: 'The Dreamers, for David Antin,' reprinted from 'A Seneca Journal' with a note in reminiscence

[NOTE: In the more than six decades of my friendship with David Antin the pleasure of talking & thinking together was foremost, as much where we disagreed as where we agreed, & David & I knew that for any surface differences we had, the underlying impulse was nearly identical & made for a bond that even now fills me with wonder. I was also keenly aware of his trickster side — as he was, I know, of mine — & never sought to turn him away from it but always relished his thrust toward the unexpected & outrageous. A case in point was a claim of his that began sometime in the seventies & went on for a decade or more thereafter — the assertion, often repeated, that he never dreamed & that he never had dreamed or had first-hand knowledge of what dreams were. I understood of course what was behind it — much like his rejection of the “imagination” & the “sacred” (otherwise near & dear to me, or imagined as such) — on which I often called him out & which he just as often shook off & persisted. It was with regard to that, while living on the Allegany Seneca reservation in the early 1970s & writing A Seneca Journal and Shaking the Pumpkin (but also A Big Jewish Book), that I addressed David in the poem that follows. While the poem is otherwise an exploration of dreams & a dreamer religion & practice among the Senecas, the address that starts it is to David in his condition of fictive dreamlessness, a concern of my own that David was the first to embrace. Some years after that, David, when the time was right, began a magnificent reading or rereading of Freud & Freud’s dream works, & confessed & described the many dreams to which he himself, for all his past denials, was also susceptible. And the sentence from the poetic past that we most often repeated to each other, then & always, was from Shakespeare in the voice of Hamlet: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams.” Which we carried with us — to the very end.]


Seneca Journal 7: “The Dreamers”


                                                for David Antin




that couple sitting

in splendor of old houses

Albert Jones & his wife Geneva

were old before my time

he was the last of the Seneca diviners

died 1968

the year we first stayed in Salamanca

with the power to know dreams

“their single divinity” wrote Fremin (S.J.) 1650

as we say “divine”

the deva in us

like a devil

or a divus (deus)

when these old woods were rich with gods

people called powers

they would appear in words

our language hides them

even now

the action of the poem brings them to light

dear David

not in the business man’s


but asking

“who is Beaver?”

forces them out of the one mind

in mything

mouthing the grains of language

as David that sounds like deva

means beloved

thus every Indian once had a name




 “devils” the Jesuits said

or “dreams”

but were barred from the dying man’s room

who sat       dreaming       singing

surrounded by bells      knives      needles      scissors      blankets      caps      coats       wampum belts      beads       awls

“the thousand objects of his dreams”

was careful not to kill a desire

in sleep

he knew he wanted to eat

dog’s flesh or man’s

that his father’s hatchet had vanished

something forever secret

waited in him

the 13th virgin in the love feast

always out of reach

therefore they fed him like babe or woman

the dark diviner at his side

wept still over riddles —

beads & pumpkins —

& the man screamed rolling in the fire

cut his own fingers off with seashells

once aimed a blow at some poor girl’s head

but stopped (said) “I am satisfied

“my dream

“requires nothing further

like the vision as a boy he saw

an old man “of rare beauty”

who held out bear meat in right hand

human in left

ate of the bear & was a hunter

came back     ordered gifts

“10 dogs

“10 porcelain beads from each cabin

“a collar (belt of wampum) 10 rows wide

“4 measures of sunflower seeds

& sat 10 hours by scorching flame

singing his death song

so the Jesuit wrote

“all their cabins they have filled with dreams




was it the moon she saw

like the moon in Poland that old mother

once lighted up our minds

that the Iroquois woman dreamed of

had walked out from her cabin

baby daughter in her arms

“old moon’s dropped down to earth

(she says)

“’s become a woman

“like myself but holds

“another babe

“as if I’ve walked into a mirror

& the moon stands

blood red


“I am thy dominant


“fat with my moon glow

“grant thee the power to name gifts

“maybe tobacco       flashy beads

“robe of red squirrel fur

“to thee be given

“see they proclaim dream feasts in my name

“so much I love thee

“I would thee be like me

“like fire


“to live in color of

“mine fire

now is herself

Red Lady

dresses all up in red

her feathers cap belt shoes all red

she’s even smearing her body red

encircles each protuberance

red of her labia

so fine

’s her brain turned upside down

now she will walk bare foot through

200 fires

squawk her old woman song

grown red with love

stretches her pink tongue to touch

“her last desire”




“turned upside down”

this is the ceremony at last

there is nothing

before it greater than

the woman at the rim of her own dream

sees a new world below

the air expands

blows against

her legs

its fingers open the dull labia

suddenly aglow

& burning

red with a new promise

the world-child takes root in her

will be a daughter

she be the grandmother to what

is good & bad

walks now in the new

world below her head

like crossing the back of an old turtle

on your hands

in a country where everyone wears feathers

where skin’s like glass

opens a window in her breast      say

from which an Indian

tired from his “show”

stares out

shines at you

a gold tooth

& a terrible top hat

with flags