Ways to dream

On Claire DeVoogd’s ‘Via’

Claire DeVoogd
Winter Editions, 2023, 136 pages, $20.00, ISBN 978-1-959708-04-9

“What were the dead like? What sort of people are we living with now? Why are we here? What are we going to do? Let’s try putting it in another way.”

— W. H. Auden, The Orators (1932)

Claire DeVoogd is a multifarious poet based in Brooklyn. Via is her first book. Writing more than eight centuries after the legendary Breton poet based at the English court, Marie de France, DeVoogd addresses her literary ancestor casually and intimately, like a familiar spirit. “I wanted to write poems in the form of correspondence,” DeVoogd says in an endnote. “At random … I picked up Marie de France.”[1] Why make a pen-pal of an old ghost? DeVoogd’s endnote suggests she sought a mode of charting her progress, learning from Marie’s “cartographic dimensions.”[2] Triangulating by Marie’s (historically and culturally) distant star, DeVoogd discovers launchpads amid everyday (which is to say, constantly changing) weather. 

By such methods, DeVoogd accurately pastes “You Are Here” stickers on all kinds of maps, mulling over Marie, Dante, or Chaucer while “[w]orrying about money, going for walks, having breakfast, reading the news,” and, all the while, “writing under the sign of this century.”[3] For the most part, DeVoogd, unlike several of her influences and elders (think Frank O’Hara, Eileen Myles, Stacy Szymaszek, or Dana Ward), resists authoring diaristic lyrics that crystalize the mundane as it blossoms into crystalline fractals. Instead, DeVoogd shares detailed description of the kinds of daydreams (and day-mares) many people, and probably most poets, negotiate — in reveries, even as we consume toast and coffee, edit a work email, are brutally dismayed by the day’s Guardian, or vibe (earbuds in) on the bus. 

Everyday moments, when related by DeVoogd, often usher in the uncanny. “Apocalypse (as men in uniform),” for example, describes an instance of casual physical contact that détourns into a darkly vertiginous, violent, erotic identity contest:

My friend is brushing
my leg. He takes my wet face
in both hands he pulls
my hair to see if it’s
real. He puts
his wet face on my face
and screams. I am
him. Enough! I stand in
the medical position.[4]

In other poems analyzing seemingly recent experience, including “Apocalypse (as we drive north),” DeVoogd, with clichéd self-address, sets us up for a quotidian catalogue, and then instead pivots, to dive into whirlpools of imagery and metaphor, only to climb out, dripping, several lines later:

You spend your days
with an allegory of granite
chipped from a silk skirt
pressed by such and such a
glacier, it organizes
your time, you are blue
you are blue with it, and
roadside with candle shops
gas stations, stationary, antique malls.[5]

For DeVoogd, humor can punch (not down, but out and up), at humans we grieve, love, decry, hate, and celebrate (sometimes all at once). Her speakers seek to satisfy a deliberate, well-considered, but, at times, unmanageably enormous, hunger for experience — even such experiences as might devastate. (Here DeVoogd shares a tangential kinship with Henry Miller, who portrayed himself as “always merry and bright” while, also, self-destined for “rosy crucifixion.”)[6] Even the end of the world may be regarded as a mixed bag, not something to be painted entirely in black. Here’s how, in “Apocalypse (as men in uniform),” DeVoogd plots this crux:

The past
is a mythic green 
grotto and the 
human blood 
drips sibilantly from
a laurel hung out
to dry on the wire
like a green question
doily and the sun
eats it. Life is like that: funny
in the end.[7]

Pasts retrieved may appear ever-verdant (“mythic green”), and pondering them may be pleasurable, but, at the same time, dark and claustrophobic, like a “grotto.” In darkness, one who listens and observes must contend with animal noises, and the never-not-moving human blood that “drips sibilantly from / a laurel.” All around one, vital fluids drip audibly, it is suggested, even from the corpuses of half-forgotten poets, whose “laurel[s]” have been “hung out / to dry.” 

Past authors, as long as their texts are successfully transmitted, continue to pose, for us, a vital challenge (“a green question”). The fragility of all texts — ephemeral, in the long span of time, as a “doily,” and anyway destined, in the longer run, to be consumed by fire (“the sun eats it”) — must not necessarily inspire doom and gloom. In the instant of encounter, such fatal recognitions just as well may bring on seemingly involuntary laughter. Beckettian laughter, that is, at the absurdity of our existential situation: “Life is like that: funny in the end.”

The humor unclenched by DeVoogd’s exorcisms is also not unlike that prompted by Magritte’s famous painting, The Treachery of Images (1929), also known as The Wind and the Song, with its representation of a pipe, below which is written, in French, “This is not a pipe.” DeVoogd’s work often leads us to similar epiphanies, spurring productive doubt about everyday illusions, such as when we recognize the early vacuousness of a particular love affair: “You were so indescribable / so worthy of praise / and so on, and so on. / My love.”[8]

In the “Dream” poems — which alternate, in the section titled “Emergencies,” with “Apocalypse” poems — the reader encounters disquieting, oppressive nightmares littered with atrocious contemporary detritus:

the cave crawls with thousands of tiny
red devils, cartoonish, perhaps familiar
from bumper stickers, valentines, t-shirt
applique, with forked tails, sharp
little teeth, red horns, they 
chatter, chase me, they want to
bite me to death[9]

Sharp-toothed clichés seem almost to overwhelm the speaker, yet she already begins to demonstrate a distinctive brand of humorous resilience. 


How do we successfully message a poet born over 850 years ago? Little is known about Marie de France (fl. 1160-1215), generally considered the first recorded woman poet to have written vernacular Francophone (specifically, Old French) verse.[10] Scholars question where and when she lived, though many agree she was a French-born resident of England who flourished between, approximately, 1160 and 1215 CE. Yet it is still disputed whether a single author created the texts attributed to Marie. Some academics speculate about whether Marie was, in fact, a man. Her full name, too, is a cipher: “Marie de France” is a handle contrived for convenient reference, partly because the poet addresses herself as “Marie” several times, and partly on account of her assumed birthplace.[11]

Marie’s Lais render Breton folktales into exquisitely ornate poems, rhyming narratives of high artifice. Despite, or perhaps because of, Marie’s formal elegance, her short, action-packed Lais are compellingly readable, often spellbinding. The Lais borrow exciting plots from their demotic, anonymous sources, and captivatingly refigure and reconceive them for a refined courtly audience, at a time when tales of knights, ladies, and chivalry were modish.

Marie is keen, occasionally, to insert her own graceful but mordant asides, based, no doubt, on close observation of 12th- and 13th-century English mores. Consider this moment, from Marie’s laiChaitivel:

It would be less dangerous for a man to court every lady in an entire land than for a lady to remove a single besotted lover from her skirts, for he will immediately attempt to strike back. [12] 

Marie calls out a sexual double standard, side-eyeing the idiocies of “besotted” male suitors, and pointing out real traumas women faced (and, of course, still face) at the hands of spurned lovers who, too often, “strike back.” Witty and wise, Marie, whoever she was (and remains, for today’s readers) cuts a companionable, intimate figure. What’s more, Marie, a bit like a good modernist (I only halfway jest), self-referentially appraises the literary novelty, the newness, that she takes as her task:

Anyone who intends to present a new story must approach the problem in a new way and speak so persuasively that the tale brings pleasure to people.[13]

The poet’s challenge, as Marie frames it, is to achieve singular originality — and, equally critical — to entertain her audiences.

When encountering poets far removed from us in time, an array of readerly postures are commonly considered appropriate. Here are just several. One reader may gather, like a magpie, tidbits of historical and biographical data, and glean (squinting if necessary) the poet’s life’s reflection in their work — sometimes recasting authors as unreachably opaque quiddities. Another reader, like an officer of the peace, arrives bearing the badge(s) of theory, to test how well the text/author accords with the priorities of the world-systems such readers protect and serve. The supplicant reader prostrates themselves before authors, mortifying themselves with their inability to decode whatever appears, in the dominant text, impenetrable. Even more readers, however, choose wholly to ignore many ‘classic’ texts, satisfied, perhaps even a bit contemptuously, to allow hoary classics to gather dust in off-site library storage. 

Anyone could come up with many more such generalizations. Of course, simplistic caricatures of readerly postures like those I’ve just drawn are ridiculously incomplete and reductive. My cartoons certainly don’t do justice to cultural workers who employ subtle combinations of critical approaches to treat of their sources judiciously and win brilliant insights. To speak only for myself, though, I know that, at different times, I have tried on critical costumes not unlike those I’ve just sketchily drawn. 

DeVoogd, as already suggested, champions a rather different readerly approach, one that seems to me, right now at any rate, a bit rare and much-needed. Without entirely critiquing, or rejecting, other interpretive stances, she favors an immediate, even downright Romantic, interlocutory engagement with eminences of the past, including Marie, Dante, Chaucer, and many others.

What will happen, she appears to ask, if we approach such figures as still-living peers? What if 800 years is, in fact, not such a very long time ago? What if poets can in fact perceive their ancestors from close-up — not face-to-face, perhaps, but as if walking side-by-side? What actually may be moving in parallel, both in the practices of new poets and those of their still-decomposing forebears? What may appear to us if, medium-like, we encounter these ghosts with present eyes, minds, and hearts curious and brave enough to let them in? Might we accompany them on circuitous pilgrimages, and talk to pass the time? 

“I think of the writing of poetry as a kind of pilgrimage,” DeVoogd told me during a recent, unpublished, interview: “a journey that is mysterious, fraught, sometimes dangerous.”[14] Building on this, she invoked the author of the Divine Comedy, whom she had channeled in her recent chapbook, Purgatory (2023):

What I really wanted was to have a conversation with Dante. He really invites that, and he doesn’t get taken up on the invitation enough. More readers could say, “I’ll enter into this conversation, and I will walk along with you.” I wanted to cut Dante down to human size a little bit, as well.[15]

Here DeVoogd suggest an intimate, complicated, and not-uncritical partnership with a literary great, just like the one she pursues in her correspondence with Marie. 

Despite its many apocalyptic, nightmarish terrors, and its alarming findings (“everything has always been there, or is gone / including those things that remain unseen,”), Via is exemplary of refreshingly enthusiastic, even amateur, engagement — of a kind that, dare we say it, is sometimes hopeful, sometimes helpful.[16] While the book’s initial project may have been a surreal perambulation and echo-casting in Marie’s long shadow, Via conspicuously grew into a thing of baroque fantasia quite unlike the New York School’s trademark diurnal acrobatics.

Via’s first section, “Errands,” is subtitled “a correspondence with Marie de France.” But in its initial poem, “Marie Tells a Story,” the fictive Marie gets sassy and grabs the mic. DeVoogd occultly ventriloquizes a Marie, who, apparently unsurprised to find herself suddenly raised from the dead, takes over, to comment, often satirically, on contemporary situations and difficulties, and engage in some grotesque, and ghastly, self-depiction:

The word is a machine for making systems of reading, magical to the degree that such systems may be. 


It’s a blessing those people died that we profit, they say, and live today as masters of it, this hell, which is systematic, and the system of it a way to know hell. 


The coffee, the dishes, the sofa, the insects and little ecocide in the kitchen; the illness, alcohol, silence, books and paintings and playlist are signs to distribute power.[17]

Marie and the speaker, in blended colloquy, go on to voice horrifying situations and auguries:

At night I live in a garret next to a human animal that eats carrion, human carrion.  


Early in this millennium I grow terrified and weep in the gas tank, to know, in my bowl, the kind of meaning I will be, the million molecules of breath coming to sex, insect, putrescine, cadaverine. 


A great storm is coming and things will change. I’ll have to go out. I tell you to be quiet. We’ll wait as long as we can.[18]

This work is not exactly one of imaginary, visionary exchange, such as we witness, phenomenally, in Jack Spicer’s After Lorca (1957).[19] DeVoogd’s work is the attempted melding, rather, of two imaginations. DeVoogd’s and Marie’s correspondence recalls the one delineated in Baudelaire’s famous poem “Correspondences,” with its spectral notation of “long-held echoes, blending somewhere else / into one deep and shadowy union.”[20] Doubling herself with Marie, DeVoogd combines, from Marie’s end, uncomfortable maxims (“The word is a machine;” “It is a blessing those people died that we profit”) and, from DeVoogd’s living space, objects recognizably contemporary (“The coffee, the dishes, the sofa…”). The effect is a bit like listening to a person lying in a trance, vocally channeling two (and more) uneasy spirits. 

Such occult performances bring risks and ruptures. In “Soliloquy,” Marie appears to take DeVoogd to task: “[Y]ou yell / My name — but I always have one foot ahead of you / Memory splits across that second / Foot.”[21] If Marie inhabits this kind of future, DeVoogd’s poems passionately sprint to catch up with her.  DeVoogd strives to make verses that open time, dilating the instant in which we read, so we may return to immediate reality, and, refreshed, reengage with the problems at hand.

DeVoogd put it to me this way:

Reading- or writing-time is an extension of the dreamscape. The experience of poetry, in which time is suspended, as with dreams and visions, makes a space outside of time.[22]

Intrepidly to explore such aesthetic spaces may even help fortify us to survive ‘consensus reality,’ with its quite grave promised apocalypses. “Poems are time pieces,” DeVoogd told me, “and activate time in acts of language. Narrative can make a sensible path or pilgrimage through what may be a chaotic time-scape.”[23] If we are the stories we tell, as Joan Didion remarked, it can’t hurt our developing sensibilities, or block our pathways through the world, to attempt a close encounter with a culture’s lore, and, giving it the benefit of the doubt, and much sober attention, sharpen several senses of direction.


In “Survival Strategies,” a long poem in two staggered columns that one reads, by turns, both across and down (one’s head spins a bit), DeVoogd spits out a litany of negations, among them:

Foil shallows and electricity
Roses, no Damask not

Mecca not Jerusalem
Not roses not Rome. Not

Roses of Mecca or seeds
Of the roses of Mecca

Spilled on the road to
Jerusalem growing

Heavenly scents in
The Valley of Death
...No questions left
Not heads falling off. Not

The blade not
The firing squad not

The gas chamber not
The black box not

The outpost not
The jug not

The rag not
The papers not

The checkpoint not
The territory not...[24]

Nothing like negation to crowd rooms with elephants. Try telling us not to think of something. Talk about a quantity that’s not this, not that, not  the other. We are required, helplessly, to picture that other, that this, that that: everything that is to be negated. Only then might we ideate something else in its place, something new, perhaps, or even as yet unnameable, if a poet helps us, and we are capable.

Many of DeVoogd’s topoi, in “Survival Strategies,” are intrusive, distracting, overdetermined. DeVoogd, a bit exasperatedly, throws them out, only to dodge them, as if to say, “No, thank you, muse, let me blink my mind’s eye, and look at the next thing, the next thing, the next thing.” It’s not unlike a plain-text Twitter, er, ‘X,’ feed, or a mortifying Instagram scroll: a rebus of violence and beauties, colonies and bricolage, amid many horrors. The goal is not to place these ideas and images out of mind but, with gleeful malice, to act in ways such that they don’t obsess or possess us. As DeVoogd told me:

“Survival Strategies” is cumulative, proliferative. The poem is shrugging off all of these things, even as it’s accumulating them. If I were to draw a drawing of the poem, it would be an “X,” or a cross.[25]

The images, sounds, terms and emotions rejected, as “not” being the thing in question, may form an ornate frame around this as-yet-blank canvas. We might see through these rococo moldings and cartouches of trashed words; the frame may be large or small; the picture can remain unclear. Hence the Dark Lady’s eyes are, as Shakespeare spills, “nothing like the sun,” and on her cheeks lie no “roses damasked, red and white.”[26] Why, then, in our mind’s eye, do stars and flowers suddenly appear? All of this evinces DeVoogd’s claim that “My ideal of poetry is something like the via negativa: an encounter with something that exceeds the knowable, in which there seems to be something I don’t have eyes for.”[27]

At the same time, this is fast poetry. Terms are exploded, a bit like a text message that, on second thought, one deletes just after sending. When facing down our daily inundation with video, photographic, and textual evidence of torture, murder, genocide, and rape, we could come to a halt, each time, to rage and weep. Recently, such news, certainly, has arrested me, brought me to tears, waylaid me. But succumbing like that to each freshly broadcast horror would render us incapable to care for ourselves and others, or get needed work done — such a collapse is not even an option for most. Our survival and others’ requires us to acknowledge distressing bulletins, but, pragmatically allow them, for now, at least, to burst like toxic bubbles, leaving the air we must move in apparently clearer, so we follow, without falling, our several spiral pathways into night. We, like the poem, are “shrugging off all of these things, even as [we’re] accumulating them.” 

Like it or not, for most something like this does seem to happen again and again. How could we ever write a cover letter, or a recommendation, or a poem, or an email, read a book, surf Netflix, wash the dishes in the sink, or shower and walk around, if we were always ruminating fixedly on firing squads, black boxes, decapitations, the Holocaust, border guards, and on and on? How can we “fail better” as people and artists, and still go on “brushing the teeth, and all that” (per John Ashbery) while nightmare signifiers, always, come to accost our eyes and hearts?

Detonating negative ideations might come off as a reckless project: immature, too easy. After all, people correctly hold passionate moral convictions about many of the terms listed in “Survival Strategies,” not to mention throughout the rest of Via. In DeVoogd’s defense, though, a specific variety of goodwill is captured and presented, by implication, beside and through such feints. There is a kind of joy in allowing space, in these poems, for quick bursts of awfulness, as well as its nimble avoidance. DeVoogd’s hilarity, with its sometimes discomfiting 100-yard stare, is rarely far from Rimbaud’s pitch-black comedy in “The Drunken Boat.” DeVoogd and the poète maudit both bring on more nauseating trips than that of the Sloop John B, and yet, somehow equally melodious and, in their own sickening way, also guilty fun — like too much tooth-rotting sour candy.


DeVoogd told me, during our Zoom call, that she is a lucid dreamer. This is a talent she continues to develop because, as she says, “Sometimes, I don’t have control over dreams. But lucid dreaming has presented itself as a strategy to get out of nightmares.”[28] Waking life, it plainly seems, is never ‘but a dream.’ We stand, not a few reckon, on the precipice of our world’s end — just as so many of Chaucer’s contemporaries worried during Europe’s Black Death; or, more recently, as my own generation feared, in the 1980s, the often-heralded Cold War nuclear catastrophe of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction.’

“We inherit the idea of Apocalypticism,” DeVoogd points out, “that, in the Middle Ages, was fueled by the Black Death.” She goes on: “As postmodernists, or modernists, we encounter past apocalypses as world-producing. Forces observed from what was then present jolt the world closer to forms that we understand.”[29] Perhaps we are going to have to rely on apocalyptic lessons, as she would have it, if we wish to imagine where we are, or might be.

DeVoogd’s poems, then, explore and interrogate past exemplars, textual models of life well, or poorly, lived. As much as she would reinhabit, resurrect, and rehabilitate past legends, DeVoogd seeks also accurately to witness and to communicate: not only terrors, but also pragmatic ways to survive, living and dreaming. 

Marie, as DeVoogd explains, “is writing to fill an empty, or distressed time. She writes to keep away grief.”[30] DeVoogd’s poetic strength-training, brilliantly on display in Via, testifies to imagination’s viability, even at this fearsome time (especially, perhaps, at this fearsome time). With humor and perspicacity, DeVoogd leads the way, pointing out passages terrifying and absurd, thorny or elegant. She shares chilling horrors and terrifying bad dreams, but also entertains her readers with joys that closely drawn observation and fresh perspective can bring. Claire DeVoogd’s Via delivers bitter warnings — but also holds out real courage — for the road ahead. 



[1] Claire DeVoogd, Via (New York: Winter Editions, 2023), 125.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] DeVoogd, Via, 71-72.

[5] DeVoogd, Via, 76.

[6] Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (New York: Grove Press, 1961), 325. “All my Calvaries were rosy crucifixions, pseudo-tragedies to keep the fires of hell burning brightly for the real sinners who are in danger of being forgotten.”

[7] DeVoogd, Via, 70-71.

[8] DeVoogd, Via, “Blazon,” 27.

[9] DeVoogd, Via, “Dream (as Jonah reincarnated in 2022),” 66.

[10] Marie de France, The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London: Penguin, 1986), 16-17.

[11] Ibid., 8-9.

[12] Ibid., 105.

[13] Ibid., 97.

[14] Claire DeVoogd. Interview. Conducted by Chris Hosea. November 7, 2023.

[15] Ibid.

[16] DeVoogd, Via, “Small Talk,” 28.

[17] DeVoogd, Via, 19-20.

[18] Ibid., 21-22.

[19] Jack Spicer, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008), 105-154.

[20] Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, trans. Richard Howard (Boston: Godine, 1982), 15.

[21] DeVoogd, Via, 32. 

[22] Claire DeVoogd. Interview.

[23] Ibid.

[24] DeVoogd, Via, 46.

[25] Claire DeVoogd. Interview.

[26] William Shakespeare, The Sonnets, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1996), 97.

[27] Claire DeVoogd. Interview.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.