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Poetry Soup - Ep. 14

Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Have you ever been halfway between being awake and dreaming? If so, you’ll like “Dreamocracy,” by Matthew Rohrer.

Matthew Rohrer was born in 1970, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His first book of poetry was “A Hummock in the Malookas,” which was chosen for the 1994 National Poetry Series by Mary Oliver (one of her poems was featured in this podcast). Among other poetry collections, Matthew Rohrer wrote “Nice Hat. Thanks.” with Joshua Beckman, another poet I enjoy, and the collection “Satellite,” from which I’ll be reading today. He is known as a surrealist poet. 

The most terrifying sound—

an ice cream truck

in the middle of the night.


I’m perfectly flat

feeling my fingerprints.

It occurs to me that

the answer to our childhood questions is:

we’re being tortured.


When I’m with my thoughts finally

I’m someone else, I am

driving an ice cream truck though the night

with no lights, pulling on the string that rings the bell.

I am the unwholesome whippoorwill trilling in the moonlight.

I am awake late defending the campsite against elves.

I am tortured in a sandbox at the army base.

I am throwing sand in a little boy’s eyes.

I am getting very sleepy.

“Dreamocracy” explores the state between being awake and sleeping. This is a state where poems can come to us, where your subconscious produces the weirdest images in your mind that you are too sleepy not to believe but too awake to fully feel yourself in the dream. In an interview published in “The Adroit Journal,” Rohrer talks about the value of this state for the creation of poetry. He says, “I became fascinated by how you sort of lose control of your body and your mind, and begin to hear voices and you think, 'What was that?' I began paying attention to the voices and the phrases and sentences I heard, and realized they were weird—and not weird in a dreamy way or surreal; they were sort of boring. In fact, they were mostly boring.” 

In fact, this poem is a visual representation of falling into dreams. As the poem goes on, the stanzas get longer (the third being the longest and the first being the shortest). This shows the long metamorphosis that you undergo when you do fall asleep. Starting with a very New York image, of an ice cream truck driving in the middle of the night, the poem slowly moves into the feeling of falling asleep and beginning to dream. Throughout the poem, Rohrer undergoes many transformations and becomes many things, from the ice cream truck driver (or the “unwholesome whippoorwill”) to what could be a reference to the Sandman, a figure in Scandinavian mythology who throws sand in children's eyes to make them fall asleep.

In the second stanza of the poem, Rohrer writes, “...the answer to our childhood questions is:/we’re being tortured.” The word “questions” is plural, meaning that there are so many queries that could be answered this way, such as “why do we die?” and even “why do we sleep?” – why are we forced through this day and night routine every day? This realization, that we’re all being tortured, that it’s part of the core of every human being, is what allows Rohrer to become all of the different people in the poem, such as the one “defending the campsite against elves” and the boy tortured in the sandbox. By being all these people and embodying all these personalities, he is able to form a democracy, but of dreams – hence the title of the poem. 

In dreams, you might wonder who you are. Are you really you, or are you someone else? Are you two people, stuck in the same body? And do you even notice the details of that body or are you too busy being lost in your own head? When you finally really fall asleep, when you are no longer aware of what is happening, it is a relief. It is the assurance that there is only one final transformation before morning.

“Dreamocracy” uses astonishing imagery to pull readers into the realm of dreams. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one!


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