There is a disorienting quality to Dream of Me as Water, David Ly’s sophomore poetry collection. The ethereality of water and blueness permeate Ly’s poems, which resist cohesive thematic groupings, although each section does have a sense of adding to what came before, as evident by their titles: “Dream,” “Dream of Me,” and “Dream of Me as Water.” Yet it is not a building-up per se. With each section, Ly is not just peeling back layers of the speaker but dispelling the idea that as more gets revealed then the more clarity there will be, a form of slipping-as-descent. The sense of disorientation never completely reaches the state of being lost, both for us but also the speaker. To be lost, Ly’s poems suggest, is not the same as to surrender. Ly’s latest collection is a dreamscape that disrupts our expectation of what it means to dream and what a dream looks like, the difference between the two being about process and form, respectively. At the same time, Ly challenges the idea that tranquility and the satisfying sensation of floating is not always as neutral as it may seem, at times invoking a sense of mellow purgatory.
It is therefore fitting that dreams and water are the two spaces in which the speaker frequently finds themselves in, given how little is known about the bottom of the ocean as well as the human brain. Yet Ly is not one for neat boundaries. As a result, the watery quality of dreams, rather than simply water-related imagery, often bleeds over into the real world, where it becomes hard to tell whether the spaces that feel like they belong in “reality,” the waking world, are located there. Most often, this occurs when the speaker reflects on their life. In “Seas of Origin,” Ly filters the speaker’s conflict about their identity and perceived responsibilities as a writer through third person. Located at a distance from us in a rare case of opacity, the collection’s speaker-turned-personage “spirals in guilt when he wishes to simply / recount feeling at ease after re-arranging / the décor in his fish tank” rather than feeling pressured to constantly interrogate themes of race and queerness in their own work. And yet, another poem, “Same Ocean,” suggests the seeming impossibility of such a task as thoughts about familial history lap at the speaker’s mind like the tide, impossible to control.
Another point of tension for the speaker is their romantic relationship, which appears to have gotten rocky. The speaker’s partner is a ghost that haunts the pages of the collection, to the point where the speaker “still can’t explain why you can’t exit / this dream with me.” In “Two Truths and a Lie,” the speaker’s ongoing questioning of their partner reaches a peak when they say:
I write with you in the room
across from me
and the space between us
tells me it’s safe to keep
daydreaming through poetry.
While uncertainty is integral to the premise of the game referenced by the title, the poem is also emblematic of Ly’s resistance to a single, linear narrative. While the “you” and “us” suggest the speaker is referring to a specific individual and a possibly romantic relationship, this sensation is never quite consolidated. Instead, these poems form a contemplative sequence that never stands still. It feels as if Ly’s speaker is journaling, or “dreaming” through poems. Dream of Me as Water is an exploration of weightlessness, which most often ends up being more emotional than physical, a floating not only in body but also in identity, in one’s sense of self. This sensation hangs over the collection in a kind of iridescent film as the poems follow a natural progression known only to the speaker.
In this environment of disorientation and surrender, there are moments when the speaker is shown to feel an increased affinity with water and aqueous inhabitants. Cephalopods have a particular appeal for Ly, kindred beings that help the speaker better understand themselves. In some cases, this entails the speaker literally taking on the form or mannerisms of an octopus, as in “Ask and Answer,” where the octopus is at once a potential new form but also a defense mechanism for the speaker, “emerg[ing] to embrace him.” In “Somniloquoy,” the fact that octopi change colors when they sleep is a more than source of fascination for the speaker. The octopus in the poem takes on an almost prophetic role, someone the speaker wishes to speak to directly and learn from. She becomes a model of a particular type of surrendering, where malleability becomes the truest form of self. Aqueous inhabitants become sources of admiration, even aspiration, not because of their connection to water. Rather, it is their freedom of movement and being, a water-like honesty, that draws the speaker in, to the point of describing themselves as a quasi-aquatic life form, “toxins / released whenever / I feel threatened.”
For those who might feel compelled to search for continuity between Dream of Me as Water and Ly’s debut, Mythical Man, the connection is certainly there. However, the former is by no means a direct continuation. The mythical is still very much on Ly’s mind, as evidenced by the presence of the imaginary (Godzilla), extinct (the Spinosaurus), and even downright surreal, the “[o]rchids of / all colours [that] had taken root in the tree branches, even / though they’d never been see in the area before,” or the nudibranchs crawling through the speaker’s hair and “kissing my scalp / with tentacles to feed / on the doubts I / brought to the water.” In this last category, the surrealness stems not from the impossibility of what is seen but from how unexpected the encounter is, the speaker’s waking, rational mind constantly finding itself challenged, placed into a state of unravelling. Ly also references his debut collection in “Walking Alone in Another Dream,” where the speaker refers to “mythical men” as the form given to expectations and failed hopes in a relationship. Unlike in Ly’s debut, the mythical is no longer the framework in Dream of Me as Water, nor is it the driving force behind the poems. Dream of Me as Water can be described as “mythical” insofar as it is concerned with hidden states of being, hidden not always just from sight but sometimes also from comprehension. The poems in Ly’s classification-defying second collection propose that suspension is just another place of possibilities, whether to continue in the same direction or to begin anew, rather than to resign oneself in defeat. It is in this state of letting go that that freefall-induced clarity, rather than answers, begins to emerge.
Dream of Me as Water, by David Ly. Windsor, Ontario, Canada: Palimpsest Press, September 2022. 80 pages. $19.95 CDN / $18.95 US, paper.
Margaryta Golovchenko (she/her) is a first-generation Ukrainian settler-immigrant, poet, and critic from Tkaronto/Toronto. She is the author of two poetry books, with a third, Daughterland, forthcoming from Anstruther Press. Currently, she is a PhD student in the art history department at the University of Oregon, located on the traditional homelands of the Kalapuya people, where she is working on a project about the representation of human-animal relationships in art.