Award-winning writer, poet and podcaster Derek Owusu moves between waking and dreaming in this personal snapshot of a year spent in lockdown. Through the cycle of the seasons and a new relationship we come to understand the slippery act of trying to capture a feeling or experience through writing.
Read the commission below, and enjoy a conversation between Derek and poet, lecturer and literary critic Seán Hewitt on The Writing Life podcast.
I accepted and began jotting down my dreams in a notebook my girlfriend gave me. It wasn’t just so I would have material for my writing, it was also so she could try and interpret what was going on in my unconscious and desires. She’s really into all of that, a childish enthusiasm, Jung especially, though I see it ultimately as philosophy for the imagination that happily filters through your fingers. Mumbo jumbo without much body, essentially. But still, I don’t hesitate to hand her my latest dream from the top of my pile of night-time reads, the foundation of which is a bible my mum gave me when I moved out.
Some nights, I’m scared to go to sleep when it’s raining. I don’t really have nightmares, though this may be down to interpretation and semantics, as what I have are troubled dreams that could become dark. I say ‘become’ because I always wake up when the abstractions begin to take shape and hold. So I guess the dreams I sleep all the way through, as we’re told we do several times a night and never remember their content, could be nightmares that refuse to release me until they’ve extracted everything that holds the light and it’s time to open my eyes again. Which, to be honest, I prefer. I’d rather see it through to the end and then forget it ever happened.
So far all the dreams I’ve collected in my notebook are either too odd to be abstract, are sexual, or those that suffuse your body with a forgotten emotion, formless, set aside that then take shape in a dark room, those sensations you try so hard to sustain once you’ve woken up during its intensity. It’s so easy to fall in love seconds after waking during a dream which glided into a reverie and suddenly you had the control and confidence to approach the girl with no face but with incandescence swimming off her soul. I wish I could shut down those fancies because come morning the faceless feels like an ex-lover, unsure which, and you’re trying to figure out which numbers to scroll and pause between — And all of this seizes upon the first few seconds of waking, blinks as the sun’s hazel finger begins to strokes your sight back into the day.
Usually, a dream diary is to be read by you or someone else, to probe with a finger, make sense of the compounded contours and combining colours. But, for me, each morning, blinking to catch and solidify one or two frames behind my eyes, I’m combing the faint memory of my fata morganas for what I might be able to contort and cage with language, make more beautiful and strange than it already is. Helpful for me, when I get it right, but useless for my girlfriend. Honestly, once I know I’m going to write it down, I’ve already killed it. It’s useless and once again creativity and putting things into words has done the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to. But I carry on writing and she carries on reading. I have about 10 dreams so far. Though in terms of the science of my search engine, I’ve had many more than that. And I’ve only picked out the ones I think would be interesting to write about. Even though I know that the more mundane dreams probably hold more insight and intrigue.
I’m combing the faint memory of my fata morganas for what I might be able to contort and cage with language, make more beautiful and strange than it already is.
Currently, the last dream I had, or remember, was about writing the pages of my mind. Thin strips of sentences spilled from my thoughts like a Ticker Tape and a hand I knew was my own tried to transcribe the small text onto endless sheets of paper. There was no sound but I could hear my eyelids fluttering and then suddenly became aware that I was asleep. I let things continue as they were. I thought maybe I would remember what I was writing and this would become some inspiration that carried itself through to my down pillows and cream sheets. Each word came from the deep ridges of grey matter, an alphabet soup passing through the rivulets of my straining organ. Slipping more into lucidity I decided to wake up so I would remember all of this. That was the dream. Typing this up feels like I’m rewriting something I rewrote and embellishing it some more. Sounds meta but I suspect this is how all writing works. And there’s not much meaning to be gleaned from the unconscious of a writer.
I think it’s a recurring dream. I vaguely remember the first time my thoughts opened up. It was the start of something else, though, and what it quickly morphed into I would have rather slept through.
When I woke up it was raining. I couldn’t hear it but focussing through my swift blinks I could make out the transparent outline of plunging water soon subsumed. My heart was racing in a way that felt like a valve had ruptured and pressured blood to rain down the inside of my chest. I put a hand to my heartbeat and removed a clammy palm. I wasn’t scared but I was paranoid and kept trying to force the shapes in my room into something that would justify my heart’s incessant desire to pass through flesh. I balled a fist and knocked it back, then lay flat on my pillow and looked at the room from a recent memory, bright, me in a towel and music like air from my phone speakers. I fell asleep again.
It was my girlfriend’s idea that I keep a dream diary. I don’t talk much about myself in casual conversation and tend to withdraw if topics become too personal. And she believes that rather than the truth coming out when we’re drinking, which I tend to do a lot, it comes out when we’re dreaming. She says my deceit begins the moment I mix my gin and cranberry, that the smell of alcohol instinctively makes me defensive, and omission level lies are my safety blankets against people who would like to take the glass out of my hand. What she doesn’t realise is this omission carries on into my sleep because when I’ve had enough of my blood chalice I’m incapable of dreaming, or more accurately, remembering them, whether I wake up or not. But I’d never tell her that.
Her name is Flore. We’ve been together since the beginning of the second lockdown. We went on a few dates when the country was testing its tiers – she didn’t drink much on these occasions so I couldn’t either, so in her mind, she got to know a certain part of me, the dryness of personality, very quickly. Not the intimate details but the surface level intricacies without sickly satellites feeding back the truth.
What I actually mean is I couldn’t drink much on the dates themselves, dates I can’t really remember, but I know we had a lot of dim sum and laughs and onanistic talk about black revolutions and family and friends and non-fiction (she hates ‘story books’). I told her that I write fiction and she said she knew that but it didn’t matter. I think she would have responded in a worse way if I had told her I was a poet. People seem to cringe at that description, even though our lives begin as poetry, I think, challenging then rendering the piercing, flat tone of life with the slippery substance of beauty – voluminous silence or refrains shaping and making sense of the world to onlookers who ordinarily would be called optimistic. One thing I can recall about our first few dates is that I was wearing socks and sliders. I’d been going everywhere in sliders since I was allowed to leave the recovery house I was staying in and I didn’t see any reason to change them just because I was going on a date. I wasn’t trying to sleep with anyone or find love. I craved company, though another reason I said yes, we can meet up, was because she was so kind to me online, checking in with my mental health and trying her best to keep emoji conversation to a minimum even when I employed them to minimise her perception of my suffering. She put her personality across to me so poignantly through our direct messages that her pictures seemed to be in motion whenever I looked at them. I believed the person behind the stills, frozen but melting. And at the time I was thinking I wanted to try and describe what I saw and felt in writing. I could be touched by her from a distance. But that thought lasted only a few hours and in the middle of our meal I was already nervous about the first message I would send her once I got home. The pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausages tasted like a starter.
Thin strips of sentences spilled from my thoughts like a Ticker Tape and a hand I knew was my own tried to transcribe the small text onto endless sheets of paper.
But even though my desires had changed, I still wore the sliders on our second date. A summertime spray ended up soaking them to the point we had to walk around the City of London looking for an open clothing store, or supermarket that sold the essential material, so I could grab a pair of socks. She didn’t mind she said, patient in that way people are during the first few dates because understanding is now a quality endorsed by shares. Cool, I said. We eventually found an M&S along Old Street and I added a pair of cheap shoes to my purchase of socks. But, again, on the next date, I had my recovery house exit wounds back on my feet. Though this time with shoes packed in my bag tap-dancing against my bottle of gin. And imagine, once I changed into them, they let in as much rain as the sliders.
And a couple of dates is all it took to sweeten me up. I left London for Liverpool and a girl who believes that secrets lay low in the unconscious, and, also, that we faked the moon landing — ‘there’s no atmosphere so away from home.’ And I’m happy, I can’t lie. And she is understanding. Which to me is her being okay with me needing to drink before I can write anything, being cool with me farting in my sleep, no qualms with me doing the dishes all the time even though she feels like I’m a guest in her house and politeness dictates that I sit and eat then watch her scrub and dry, but always keeping her company in the kitchen while she does so. Her only issue is that I don’t open up enough, or that I omit too much, that if I learned to stop doing one thing and exercised the other, I’d be able to write better poems and have a better relationship with her and other people in my life.
So, Flore is a ‘dream interpreter’. She believes that all the information we take in during the day dissolves itself into a kind of multi-coloured liquid which splashes onto the subconscious, thoughts and feelings, which can be painted into coherence if you know how to touch it. I dunno. But it’s because of this theory of hers that we tend to go on walks a lot.
It’s March 2021 and the conservatory is fully lit up without a floor lamp though it is still cold. Flore and I had breakfast in the back garden this morning, coats on, but the sun was tempting the daffodils from their shell so we had to make the most of it. I asked her why, since I’ve been here, it seems her grass doesn’t grow. She points to a tree at the back of the garden and says, It’s a privacy tree. If it were smaller people on the hills in the park would see into the garden. But it also blocks a lot of light. So the grass grows slower than it normally would in autumn or winter. Almost fully turned, I looked over my shoulder, through a hole in her fence and noticed broken blades of grass lying beside their other halves. She got up and walked over to a long and flaccid green stem struggling to blow a yellow bubble. There were only two labouring, the rest resisting the sun’s stroking fingers daring them to rise and bloom. She turned to brown veins reaching for the sky, multiplying pythoness fingers struggling to the light. This, she said, is called clematis varicella. Oh, I see, I said. Yes, she said. When it gets to summer, it’s completely purple. I come out here all the time and enjoy the weather on those days. I take pictures sometimes too. New phone, though, so I can’t show you how beautiful it looks. You’ll have to wait and see them for yourself. Oh, swear, I said. Yup, she said. I got up and kneeled by a bush laying low. And what about this here, I say. Unlike the daffodils, the malnourished twigs had no desire to change anything about themselves. They even seemed confident the season wouldn’t goad them to. I think those are called honeysuckle when they blossom, she tells me.
There are many places to walk in Liverpool, many places to fill the mind and find inspiration, Flore tells me. Inspiration to dream or write, I don’t know, what’s the difference, she doesn’t care about the latter, even though it informs the former. But anyway, we’ve only managed to walk to a few places, one being the petrol station, where the late shift assistant know recognises me and has a bottle of gin at the till before the door chimes my entrance. Another is a moderately sized supermarket called Jacks, which I’d never heard of, but she tells me it’s owned by the owner of Tesco’s whose name is Jack and this is a supermarket for people on low incomes. All the food in Jack’s turned out to be Tesco’s brand, so I wondered if, to Jack’s’, the man’s, standards, they were defective in some way and that’s why they’re here and not in Tesco. You’re overthinking it, she says, and rubs her hand on my back like smearing colours. I warm to her some more and tell her she’s as sweet as the store strawberries. Only other place we walk to is The Dream. Yup, it’s called the dream. Look it up. It’s known for an art installation, a sculpture of a long and oblong head looking into the sky with a curtain cut hairstyle that gives the impression of a helmet. We’ve been many times but it’s never featured behind my eyes. I’m comfortable with that. I’m hoping Flore will be too.
The sky was clear and I could feel the air in my lungs and breathed it out with the expiation of the first menthol of the day, tonguing what remained tied to the lie of blowing smoke through one’s nose.
So far, Flore and I have never been for a walk without tip-toeing over the other’s boundaries, bickering or arguing during some point in the excursion. Somewhere within the air surrounding our interactions lies the explanation as to why this only happens outside the house. Perhaps, being outside and experiencing the dissolution of lockdown begins to smother the novelty of fearful bonding, growing close within the confines of perceived danger and a semi-detached house. I would like to know. One of the most memorable moments of conflict was her seeing my woolly hat fly off my head and me chasing after it, ignoring oncoming cars, one in particular about to reverse over my outreached arm with my hat hiding beneath its muffler. Once I had it back on my head, I raised my hands, performance over, the trees behind her swaying their applause, taunting this pissed off spectator, the only sentient life it seemed. Then she snapped at me. She said I was an idiot and a few other things and then turned her back on me and carried on walking. With my woolly hat back on I felt nothing but the urge to shrug. She should have understood since she’s the one who tried to cut my hair with Argos clippers, cheap, many of its feet angled in the air, the exposed metal seemingly on its arse sliding across my head, sometimes lowing itself enough to cut to my desired level but without much stability. Nah, if wouldn’t let myself be shamed by the wind, ephemeral, and quite possibly, honestly, sometimes it seemed so…numinous? What chance did my girlfriend, with me unmoved by these ‘spiritual’ gusts, have with insults? The hat in question was bubbling with white cotton, frozen in a blizzard because she’d been putting it in the washing machine too often, fading material once confidently black.
The last time she threw a strop, and hopefully I can say that years from now, was because I returned her hardened balls of snow and didn’t miss. I was still laughing as she wobbled her head to get the flakes out. She said I was taking the fucking piss. A sore loser in shows of dominance. But almost side by side we carried on walking to the dream, snow underfoot setting my teeth on edge but seeming to relax her – her jaw was no longer clenched. Today seemed different — her slipping on icy ground and stopping herself by knocking the outside of her boots together like a saluting camo-clad coryphée, and blackbirds, propelled into the air it seemed by the small clusters of flakes that dropped with their arrhythmic ascent, was no longer beautiful or inspiring. At this point, I was only interested in trying to convince her that Freud was the inspiration behind the dream and it was a phallus reaching to the fucking sky and only the illusion of eyes. But I became bored as soon as she rolled hers, seeing there was no chance. I told her so. Whatever, she replied, and muttered something about the number of people gathered around knocking her sick. So we went home. And we haven’t argued since.
I was on a mountain top, looking over the edge, groping at the feeling of intransigence, so intimate, that spread itself through my body. The sky was clear and I could feel the air in my lungs and breathed it out with the expiation of the first menthol of the day, tonguing what remained tied to the lie of blowing smoke through one’s nose. I heard steps from behind me and as I turned, slowly, I saw an angel looking down at me. I was bending over, knee slightly over the edge of the cliff. I got to my feet and turned around, fighting back that urge to lay back into the intangible bed forever warm beneath the precipice. The angel reached out for me but I recoiled, stood back a step and shook my head. God, he said, God, they, want you to apologise. I blinked and let the sunshine work to burn my retina as I was now racing away from the twilight. The angel had stitched wings to my back and as I flapped to escape what chased me, beatitude trying to swallow me whole, I sensed no light in the spreading dawn. I flew forward unable to rise with the returning dust beneath me and eventually the inverted shadow of what smoulders in the sky alighted, stroking the soles of my feet and filtering through my body, touching euphoria, pins and needles without pain as I rose to the sky, penumbra penetrating my soul before I woke with a shock and lingering entanglement, expecting to find ejaculant in my briefs. I sat up and crossed myself to get my bottle of water. I gulped it down seven times. Then I leaned back on my elbows, cratering the mattress, looked to my left and saw the dry spittle of someone who now seems so little, so comfortable without having to comfort the one who they implored to enter their house, squeeze into their dreams. I put the water, half-empty, between my legs and picked up the pen and the pad from the floor.
Flore and I broke up the day of my last noted dream. She tried to interpret it and concluded that I didn’t really want to be with her, that I was running from something that would be good for me and that eventually, once things were near perfect, I would hold my breath and induce apnoea, hypnagogically jerk myself out of it. I shrugged and agreed, though I didn’t — I just didn’t want to argue and I had to write. The deadline would be missed if I took on the stress of trying to maintain a relationship – or, in other words, try to prove I wanted one and knew ‘the worth of anything that blossoms’. The book I was trying to write could take weeks or months to finish, and sitting for hours in front of my laptop would mean, to her at least, that I wasn’t interested in making it work, that my writing was more important. My meagre advance we had blown together.
But months later, we still live in the same house. She is happy for me to stay until the end of the pandemic. In fact, she’s looking over my shoulder right now, on her tiptoes even though I’m sitting. She walks with her heels off the floor for some reason. She calls it remnants of ballet, dancing to everyday life. This is a friendship I’m comfortable with, though I don’t think I’ll remember much of it when I leave. It consists of coffee, writing and sleeping. And those two might rotate until they disappear. But yeah, it’s all good. She’s doesn’t distract me, or weave diverging narratives into ‘debate’. Her course now runs concurrent with mine, one side sympathetic when raindrops ripple on the other. She just lets me write, and comes to check on my progress every now and then, nose on my shoulder because she thinks it’s memorable, inhaling my smell of the day because it’ll carry her in a few weeks. So the dream diary is no longer necessary. She’s no longer interested in what pleases and petrifies me at night, and for now, I’m happy for my dreams to develop and decay as they wish. The only thing that really distracts me now, which has been ongoing for the past couple of days, is the scraping at the kitchen window, hail trying to come in, the urgency like each piece is under threat of being ripped apart by the outside. They don’t tap at the window, they hope to escape. I’ve tried to ignore it but Flore says it doesn’t bother her. Nature makes things this way. I wonder where else it is hailing too? Crystalline tears trying to break in.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer.
Derek Owusu is a writer, poet and podcaster from north London. He discovered his passion for literature at the age of twenty-three while studying exercise science at university. Unable to afford a change of degree, Derek began reading voraciously and sneaking into English Literature lectures at the University of Manchester. Derek edited and contributed to Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space. That Reminds Me, his first solo work, won the Desmond Elliott Prize 2020. Image (c) Josima Senior.
Seán Hewitt was born in 1990. His debut collection, Tongues of Fire, is published by Jonathan Cape. He is a book critic for The Irish Times and teaches Modern British & Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin. He won a Northern Writers’ Award in 2016, the Resurgence Prize in 2017, and an Eric Gregory Award in 2019. In 2020, he was chosen by The Sunday Times as one of their ’30 under 30′ most promising artists in Ireland. His debut collection, Tongues of Fire, was shortlisted for The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, 2020, the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize, 2021, and a Dalkey Literary Award, 2021.
His book J.M. Synge: Nature, Politics, Modernism is published with Oxford University Press (2021). His memoir, All Down Darkness Wide, is forthcoming from Jonathan Cape in the UK and Penguin Press in the USA in 2022.
Weather With You is part of Open Doors: a series of commissions and open submissions programmed by the National Centre for Writing, with support from Arts Council England’s Ambition for Excellence programme.