November 6, 2008

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Dreams of the Presidents, by Charles Barasch, North Atlantic Books, 2008, 86 pages
By Dan Szczesny dszczesny@hippopress.com

With the grueling neverending election finally behind us, Charles Barasch’s magnificent book lets loose one last broadside at the insane zoo that is American politics. The conceit is simple: 42 poems, one for each president, in the form of a possible dream that president might have. The result is surreal, funny and even poignant at times.

Dreams of the Presidents is not a great book of poetry, but that’s not really the point. Nor is it a great work of history —political wonks will have to look elsewhere for presidential factoids. What it is, however, is a bizarre dream world filled with uncomfortable sexual imagery and laugh-out-loud Freudian symbols made all the weirder by tying them into these monsters of our historic and cultural imagination.

The collection starts strong in “George Washington’s Dream.” In a ballroom, surrounded by founders, George dreams of Martha giving birth, not to a baby but to the United States itself. Then, as Washington is given the responsibility for this infant, he watches as the wet nurse creeps out of the room with Ben Franklin. Obvious? Sure, but funny.

There’s William Henry Harrison dreaming about tipping over in a canoe and getting soaking wet in the freezing water. There’s Andrew Johnson getting shot at by Thaddeus Stevens. There’s Gerald Ford running past Reagan on his way to the end zone. (If anyone doesn’t understand the imagery of those dreams, Barasch gleefully includes footnotes at the end of each poem with explanations.)

And then there’s sex, and here Freud himself would blush. Woodrow Wilson sees Lilian Gish floating naked in the river. Adams finds himself in the embrace of a French prostitute. And in the funniest and coarsest dream, Ronald Reagan dreams about Marilyn Monroe, “She grinds her hips against mine, and, god, there’s so much more to her than Nancy.”

Politics have become overblown and exaggerated in their scope and importance. Barasch takes that down a notch. Here, the presidents are just guys, more often than not dreaming about anything but being president. Dreams of the Presidents is a strange book, but exactly what we need right now. A