The Certainty Dream

The Certainty Dream

By Bert Almon

A review of The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall

Published on March 1, 2010

The Certainty Dream
Kate Hall

Coach House Press
$16.95
paper
79pp
978-1552452233

The great Italian poet Eugenio Montale once said that “poetry is a dream dreamed in the presence of reason.” Kate Hall’s brilliant debut draws on René Descartes to dream such dreams. The French philosopher brooded on the nature of knowledge and wondered in the Discourse on Method if we could ever be sure that our knowledge is reliable or merely a dream. He seems to take the side of reason, and he is usually described as a Rationalist, yet he discovered his vocation as a thinker through three dreams he had on the Vigil of St. Martin, November 10, 1619. In The Certainty Dream – a title that is itself ambiguous – Kate Hall exploits the ambiguous epistemological and rational status of dreams in her poems. As in the Odyssey, it is difficult but essential to distinguish the true dreams that come through the Gate of Horn from the false dreams that issue out of the Gate of Ivory.

Hall’s spirit guide in the realm of dream is the mynah bird, a brilliant choice as Descartes differentiated human beings from animals on the basis of language. But mynahs can learn to talk, making them a borderline case. Hall’s sympathy is with birds, and some of her most memorable poems are about them. Images of containers – boxes, glass jars, vitrines – also run through the book, the sorts of constraints (and by implication, categories) that the mind imposes on reality; dreams subvert rigid orders.

The tour de force in the collection is “Suspended in the Space of Reason: A Short Thesis,” a poem cast as subversive inquiry into reason. It is delivered in a parody of an academic thesis on whether we see things or only our own minds, and Descartes provides the epigraph, a claim that what he thought was seen with his own eyes was grasped only with the mind. The subversion in Hall’s pseudo-thesis comes from the eruption of contingent facts into the mind of the narrator, such as chipotle-lime mustard, elephants (of course: they’re always in the room), Mars rovers, and game shows. The Mars vehicles are good examples of surprises that ambush reason: they are products of science but have long outlasted their projected period of use; the prediction failed, the mission more than succeeded. Hamlet’s epistemology comes to mind: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

It is bracing to read a poet who can engage with the ideas of G. E. Moore, Ronald Searle, Blaise Pascal, and Daniel Dennett. In his third dream on the Vigil of St. Martin, Descartes saw a dictionary and a book of ancient Latin poetry. The dictionary he saw as the “sciences gathered together;” the poetry as uniting philosophy and wisdom. Kate Hall unites philosophy and wisdom – without forgetting the chipotle-lime mustard. mRb

Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.

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