Who Am I (To You)?: A Review of David Bradford’s DREAM OF NO ONE BUT MYSELF | By Deanna Fong

Dream of No One but Myself
David Bradford
Brick Books, 2021

David Bradford’s Dream of No One but Myself sifts through fragments of memory, imagination, and documentary debris, trying—and necessarily failing—to answer the subject’s driving questions: “Who am I (to you)?” and “What do you want (from me)?” At its core, the book is a project of self-articulation: what it means to be oneself, especially in (through) the aftermath of grief, loss, and trauma. The text formulates and reformulates these questions across form: terse couplets, scattershot free verse, sprawling prose stanzas, and visual poems. Its registers shift from the documentary to the musical avant-garde, using its many hard-won linguistic feats to speak around the impenetrable core of selfhood. We can imagine poetry’s most important function as giving voice to facts that are unsayable in language—those things “Never // to be negotiated out loud.” We can only contour them through the formal relations between linguistic elements, and in Bradford’s text these relations are manifold, varied, and complex.

Appropriately to the task, the speaker of these poems is not a wholesome lyric “I,” but rather a subject split and redoubled through footnotes and subtly shifting pronouns that complicate and sometimes undermine the poems that form the body of the text. These strategies formally emulate the erratic pathways of memory: The time-stilled recollection of a mother’s “white PVC Woolco soles stained a permanent turtle green from mowing the lawn” attaches itself to a young child’s intervention in a scene of intimate partner violence. Likewise, the clarity of certain facets of memory—especially those visual and sensory—crystallize while others recede. The speaker recalls: “And me, about ten, inching down the staircase, my size-27 aluminum in hand—Flite in an italic glide, a dynamo sky-blue swing, its cursive length—crying. // At least I think I was crying.” The precise visual description of a baseball bat stills amidst a maelstrom of emotional chaos: “The front door, I think, wide open. Me flanking it from the inside? A little hidden? Crying?” The emotional truth of these recollections is not in what they manage to express, but rather what is absent, indeterminate, or suspect. The struggle remember, make sense of, and bear witness to the past gives this text its powerful emotional resonance: While the details of the speaker’s lived experience are singular and specific, the book’s formal enactment of remembrance strikes an eerily familiar chord.

In the wake of memory’s inherent unreliability, the text reminds us that any inquiry into oneself necessarily involves the interpolation of an other—never just, “Who am I?” but, “Who am I to you?” (dear mother, father, grandmother, friend, lover). Throughout the book, the speaker configures himself in relation to others, using memories and flights of fantasy as reflecting pools for interior selfhood. Imagining his mother’s accidental death brings the speaker to tears in the shower, this starkly imagined chain of events prompting the admission in a footnote: “I just want her to read me.” The desire to be known as through the eyes of another resonates deeply throughout the text, as the speaker wonders “how much of what is decent in [him] is hers” or imagines his childhood self through his father’s eyes as “just a kid to impress on weekends.” The desire to know oneself through the eyes of another takes on an additional valence in this book as the speaker’s negotiates his own relationship to Blackness and mixed-race experience. W.E.B. DuBois’s text The Souls of Black Folk wends its way into the poem “New Here” by way of a line from Arthur Symons’s “The Crying of Water,” placed as an epigraph in the book’s first chapter. DuBois’s notion of double consciousness—”this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”[1]—edges into the speaker’s personal history through intergenerational violence and systemic racism, noting the ways that, for racialized folk, the personal is always to some degree articulated through the structural. “The things he never failed to declare cultural,” the speaker remarks of his father in a footnote.

Backchatting the ways that structure pronounces its subjects, the poems declare that “everything now / is language,” and voices its own irruptive selfhood in the suite of poems that revel in sonorousness and sensuality. Poems like “Barns Are Painted Red Because of the Physics of Stars” flirt with narrative connotation while deliberately obscuring it through language play: “Stay Focusd  Bishop sequins / Ship Hitachi to girlfriend / Say rue full   not rue flay.” These poems, written in free verse, butt up against the backward-glancing narrative prose poems, drawing on, and improvising with, traditions of Black linguistic innovation. Similarly, the book’s visual poems waver between legibility and artful obscurity. Text is redacted through impasto; smeared, scribbled, and erased. We encounter language as though through the strangeness of a dream: the known unknowns of the unconscious surface just enough to signal their unyielding presence before fading into obscurity upon waking. Photographic pieces are cut into shards, shuffled, overlaid, and interlaced, evoking the dream’s shuffled, cryptic imagery, composed in equal parts of memory, invention, and symbolism. Here, Bradford’s text uses visuality as another vehicle to represent experiences that are beyond linguistic articulation: love, loss, grief, isolation, and longing—all the markers of selfhood.

Dream of No One but Myself leans into the places where personal and cultural histories clash and combine; its variety of formal tactics are keen to the task of contouring a subject that is inexorably multiple, spoken through contradiction and indeterminacy. Its triumph is its ability to frame its own particular, irreducible narrative within a form that resonates deeply within all subjects: the strangeness of selfhood, the curiousness of a dream, and the desire for connection.

[1] Dubois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2007: p. 8.

Reviewer’s Bio

Deanna Fong is a Postdoctoral Fellow in English and History at Concordia University, where her work focuses on the ethics of listening in the context of literary audio. With Karis Shearer, she is the co-editor of Wanting Everything: The Collected Works of Gladys Hindmarch (Talonbooks, 2020). She directs  fredwah.ca, a digital bibliography and textual repository for Canadian poet Fred Wah. She is currently working on a new book that collects poetry, art, and oral histories with seven Vancouver avant-garde women, which is scheduled for release with Talonbooks in 2023.