We only get the dreams that we deserve—
or so a girlfriend once said when I complained
the only dreams I recalled weren’t worth keeping.
And yet, waking in Krakow, I’m somehow
disappointed that—the night
after visiting the death camps—no dream
has come to help me comprehend.
Even in sleep my mind refuses to take them in.
Yes, I dreamed of a late night knock on the door—
a moment’s terror, as if being summoned—
but it was only a kid I knew,
or half-knew, from high school, decades ago,
appearing on a stormy night in Donegal
and wanting to talk about poetry.
In that gale, he wanted to talk poetry!
He’d driven there on a Harley—he was what
my friends called a Cutter—and we spoke
in the doorway, sizing each other up.
At last he said, You’re not going to ask me in?
I was appalled by my manners, though he laughed;
I didn’t expect it. But listen, I dare
you, follow me once around your house.
Then he stepped beyond the corner and vanished.
The front of the house was sheltered from sea wind,
but standing there alone, I listened
as howls broached the roof. Feeling foolish
and terrified, I crossed myself and began.
Around the bend, the first gust hit me hard.
Along the west wall, a gust hit me so hard
I took two steps back. No sign of the kid
(writing this now, I realise his name
is Virgil Kowalski, and I admire
the dream’s logic, telling me I’d need Virgil
to guide me around my own house.)
The sea wind suddenly grew worse,
forcing a retreat indoors. My wife
called from the living room, Who was that?
and my dream self answered No one, really,
a boy I knew in high school, he’s dead now.
I didn’t tell her I’d panicked in the dark;
instead, I stepped outside to look for Virgil.
Near the door, I listened to the wind shriek.
The wind shrieked and I braced myself,
then rushed around the first two corners and passed
the living room window where my surprised wife,
floating in lamplight, looked up from her book
and waved the sort of wave one might offer
a bewildered ghost. I pushed on, eager
for the east wall, which I thought
might be protected, but when I reached it
the darkness seemed impenetrable
and the wind was at my unprotected back.
This is where I woke, baffled
at finding myself in a hotel room in Krakow,
realising I’d hoped for some profound dream
yet couldn’t complete a walk around my house.
Unable to walk around my house
in Donegal, I woke in Poland. Snow
fell as I recalled the long gas chamber,
the prayer candles, the chrysanthemums,
and then the twin ovens in the next room.
Even asleep, something had resisted
what I’d seen that day. I closed my eyes,
hoping that if I couldn’t make sense
of Auschwitz and endless Birkenau
I could will myself to take up Virgil’s dare.
But when I slept again, the night’s last dream
was an unconnected fragment: no wind,
no howls, just snow in a medieval street
and wet cobblestones shining in lamplight.
The short street shone faintly in lamplight.
Near the corner, a sign gave the lane’s name
but I couldn’t read it in the slow snow.
Still, it seemed this silent street must be the one
where the musicians who brought this town fame
once lived. Then I was in a café.
On each table, yellow mums and candles.
I ordered a double espresso
but the small girl who took my order
brought me hot wine and a square of apple cake
that was Free, taste it! I tasted the cake
and wept. My little waitress watched me
and nodded. Everyone in the room
was weeping. Tasting the cake and weeping.
And Virgil Kowalski—was his family
Polish, then? Stonecutters, perhaps, but they must
have loved poetry to name their son Virgil.
Dangerous as a young Elvis, he smoked
and raced stockcars, and once, because I’d won
a prize, he approached me to talk poetry,
which we did, in the high-school parking lot,
awkwardly, almost in different languages.
And now, when I call friends and ask after him,
no one’s quite sure. One classmate thinks Virgil
might have gone to Viet Nam. Another thinks
it was Milwaukee. Virgil, last night we might
have talked, but I failed to ask you in. It must be true.
We only get the dreams that we deserve.