IN HER DEBUT volume of poetry, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void, Jackie Wang presents a collection of poems interpreting the surreal cinema of dreams. The poems are accompanied by hallucinatory drawings by Kalan Sherrard, which complement Wang’s interest in how dreams might be shared. In the poems, characters wear the faces of others. Settings transform and disintegrate in shifting dioramas. The speaker-dreamer wanders through absurd scenarios that unspool in their own eccentric logics. It’s not always clear how she has gotten from one place to the next or who her companions are. The dreamer holds it all together in the gauzy net of intuition:
All I remember is the coppiced terrain I crossed to find a house to rest
in. Who is the woman lurking in the woods? A fellow traveler. I’m not
used to seeing others. She is lost and I am lost but the difference is she
is a novice at being lost, whereas I have always been without country.
Each poem is a miniature world of the familiar made strange, calibrated to the uncanny tempos and extravagant imagery of a lucid dream. On these dream stages, bizarre encounters unfold. As in “The Future Is Between Us,” in which the speaker-dreamer arrives at a “dollhouse” where an old friend lives. She asks to use the computer to check her email and discovers:
The whole room is the computer — a retrofitted machine whose proces-
sors are concealed in the furniture.
The entire north-facing wall is taken up by an LCD screen that runs
You are there when I log onto AOL Instant Messenger.
After all these years, how do I remember the password?
Because the body of our book has been incinerated by the judgment I
have to transmit consciousness diagonally, through the coiled spine of
the immaterial nexus.
Through this fantastic array, the speaker attempts to connect with someone that they’ve lost or simply lost touch with. But, is anyone who they say they are on the internet? There is uncertainty about the true identity of the person on the other side of the “coiled spine” of tech both nostalgic and futuristic: “But are you you? I am uneasy about the fact that I cannot verify it is you / on the other end. You are writing to me with uncharacteristic effusiveness.” Meanwhile, the connection is unstable:
But the mainframe between us is wilting, everything starts to break,
the satellites are crashing into sad lights
And then it’s just me alone with your poetry in the life-sized dollhouse,
no way to respond.
The “there” (of “you”) was both the ocean and the state (of divine
Before the technological catastrophe of separation I felt excited that
there was at least one person with whom I could share the urgency of
THINGS MUST BE DIFFERENT.
As in: after such an experience, things can never be the same.
Would having someone to travel with allow me to take it all the way?
These poems of intense longing articulate the dream as a space of social planning at the end of the world. The “satellites” crash into “sad lights,” infrastructure and language are breaking down into a rubble of feeling. Throughout The Sunflower we sense that something irrevocable has taken place. As in “The Future Is Between Us,” the desire for what might come after the catastrophe grounds the poetry. Social rhythms bring a sense of order to disorienting randomness, though the occasion of being together is often muddled. As Wang writes,
Yes, we are all living by three tempos: party, catastrophe, and limerence.
Sometimes tempo wires get crossed and the party feels catastrophic or
the longing, a party of expectation.
We don’t even know which tempo rules us —
We are just called into presence by it.
Amid this syncopation, the speaker-dreamer struggles with others in the conviction that “THINGS MUST BE DIFFERENT.”
The dream as a space for social signification, planning, and reinvention is not new. Dreams have been interpreted as religious messages, prognostications, portals, and instruction manuals for social transformation. It’s been theorized that we dream in order to prepare ourselves for future dangers — playing out imaginary scenarios so that we’ll be ready for the real thing when it arrives. While psychoanalysis and cognitive neuroscience tend to emphasize the dream as an expression of individual consciousness, even these fields attend to the social dimension of dreaming, troubling the boundary between the external and internal stimuli which provoke the wildness of the dream. Wang’s poems center on the sociality of dreams, not only the shattering tenderness of being with others, but also dreaming as a response to endless crisis: techno-dystopian surveillance, policing and prisons, the threat of climate change and total war, supercharged diseases, the brutal exhaustions of racial capitalism.
On such topics, Wang is hardly a dilettante. In addition to being a poet, she is also an assistant professor of Culture and Media at The New School whose expertise lies in the study of prisons, policing, race, and surveillance technology. The Sunflower may draw readers who are more familiar with Wang’s scholarly work, particularly Carceral Capitalism, than her poetry. Carceral Capitalism updates theories of racial capitalism (a concept developed by Black Studies scholar Cedric J. Robinson) to account for our contemporary debt economy, its entanglements with policing and incarceration, and gratuitous anti-Black violence in the contemporary United States. While mostly a conventional work of academic scholarship, the core research elements of Carceral Capitalism are punctuated by poetry and personal narrative.
As a work of poetry, The Sunflower is quite different from Carceral Capitalism in form, tone, and purpose. In particular, Wang’s focus in The Sunflower on the social promise of queer eros and the role of sexuality in building radical communities, as well as her capacity for warm absurdism and comedy, are welcome demonstrations of her flexibility as a writer and thinker. While some readers may be wandering in from the realms of political economy and abolitionist critique, it is certainly not necessary to have any familiarity with Wang’s scholarship (or any other academic research) in order to enjoy and learn from The Sunflower.
That said, the unpleasant feeling of being watched which frequently arises in The Sunflower does speak to Wang’s scholarly work. Feelings of anxiety, paranoia, fear, shame, and guilt are common emotional pulses in our dreams (a collection of poems about dreaming would be incomplete without at least one poem on being caught in your underwear in public). However, in The Sunflower these unnerving episodes are more than a manifestation of an individual’s social anxiety, but rather a sense of verifiable and unevenly shared vulnerability. Again and again, the speaker-dreamer encounters scenes of surveillance, outrunning threats of constraint and punishment, trying to head off those who would seek to harm her: policemen peer through the bathroom window, government helicopters watch indiscreetly outside the plate glass of a high-rise apartment building, an ill-tempered neighbor hides in the bushes waiting to call the police, millions of satellites blanket the sky in an impression of stars.
Perhaps we all have a metaphorical “policeman” inside who pops up when we’re feeling guilty, but sometimes the police are just the police. As Wang has written in Carceral Capitalism, we live in a world where predictive policing and a predatory corporate-surveillance state are increasingly shaping conditions of mobility and freedom founded upon anti-Blackness. Thus, surveillance in The Sunflower is not so much self-conscious paranoia as a legitimate concern over our current trajectory toward carceral techno-dystopia.
The ambient threat of the police exists at the precipice of apocalypse in these poems. However, while it may be the end of the world, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The satellites are crashing to the ground. The cities are crumbling. But, on the bright side, the phallic symbols of corporate architecture are being occupied by queer insurgents:
A destroyed pink tower. A monument to mobile commerce.
A priapic shaft that splits the sky like a cut.
Ah but there are young people willing to inhabit the ruin.
To channel their immense energy into terraforming the wreck.
The party queers of New College arrive to throw flamboyant gatherings
in the abandoned pink phallus.
They spray-paint neon stripes on their white clothing and dance until
the island comes back to life.
The poems percolate the possibility of creating something new from the debris. Amid the ubiquity of crisis, we encounter comrades, anarchists, radical feminists, Marxist bros, BDSM devotees, and other hierophants of the world to come. The speaker’s relationship to these factious groups is not always sanguine. In “The Chase,” the speaker is pursued by Baader-Meinhof types who accuse her of being a reformist. In “Wounded Adjudication,” Wang muses on the difference between justice and punishment as she is accused of a crime that’s never named. Yet the presence of a queer and leftward rabble feels hopeful, if fragile. These are the social relations which the poems often seek to work out, sometimes through the parsing of political economy — as in the poem “How to Measure Use Value” — and sometimes through the delicacy of a kiss, as when the speaker-dreamer sumptuously recalls: “You were a snail on my lower lip, my mouth impossibly capacious.”
To this end, a central motif in The Sunflower is the titular plant’s rotation toward the sun, heliotropism and phototaxis, a hunger for light. Images of incandescence reappear throughout the volume. Characters drift toward these bright spots like young plants leaning eastward on their lengthening stalks. For example, in the prose poem “The Coral Tree,” as the speaker wanders through bombed-out buildings and urban decay, she stumbles upon:
a luminous tree — not just any tree but a coral tree — not just the color coral but the stony sea substance—and this radiant tree was growing up out of a little pond that shimmered in the light — and instead of leaves it was covered in delicate glass threads — everything was very bright and I knew that as soon as I exited the dilapidated building and passed through the doorway, the world would really open up, kind of like that rush you get in the morning when you step out of your house and into the sunlight.
With a hesitant optimism, the speaker suspects that the dream of the coral tree represents the social potential of imaginative interpretation — such as one might perform while reading poetry:
I write this because […] maybe I am thinking of what Michael Hardt
says about the imagination being constitutive, the way the imagination
“becomes so intense and embedded that it becomes real through its
intensification and articulation.” So I think […] these flashes of the
luminous world should be shared. I don’t believe the imagination can
fix everything (I am a rigorous materialist!), but it can do some of the
work: the work of creating openings where there were previously none.
What new city might be built around this luminosity? What people would that city hold?
The final and title poem “The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void” invites such interpretive openness. The sunflower, human-sized, with its circlet of golden petals turning toward the sun, evokes a kind of magic. The sunflower’s seed spiral is one of the many natural iterations of the Fibonacci sequence (a consecutive series in which each number is the sum of the last two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc.), a mathematical phenomenon also used by Wang in her generation of the poems. Quotations about sunflowers from Friedrich Nietzsche, Clarice Lispector, and Hélène Cixous provide philosophical intermissions throughout the book. A tantalizing symbolism that is cross-historical and planetary begins to accumulate, suggesting without determining. The title poem unpacks the sunflower as the symbolic image which lies beneath all other dream images:
A new iteration of the dream: “You were never no locomotive, Sunflower,
you were a sunflower!” You were never yourself. You were octopus, you
were the face of a book we won at the arcade. You were sutra, or a social
movement in Taiwan.
You were primordial poultice. You were the composite self, until my
coconspirator and I set out to turn you into ice cream. En route we passed
a village of witches, outran the melting wedding cake. Who was the bride
in the yellow dress from gagatown? The keeper of geological time. People
on the train complained about the slowness of the Chinese Internet.
The poem tracks the sunflower’s movement as a central dream image through space and time, from Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” to the Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan to the poultice that is made from the sunflower’s leaves and applied to spider and snake bites. To understand the sunflower is to find the key to the dream’s cipher.
In each iteration, the sunflower is a sign of hope for a future despite the bleakness of the present. Riffing on the symbolic resonances of the sunflower, Wang offers poetry as method for social invention. The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void embarks on a project of shared dreams. It is not the individual consciousness that needs to be “worked on” through the dream-work of the poems, but a sociality ripe with utopian promise.