In the space between dark and light, in a liminal realm of Other, there exists a duality, a comingling of seeing and unseeing, drifting there in an untouchable otherworldly fabric of fantasy. The multiformity in this realm is curious; a spectre of undreaming, this tapestry of unearth lives somewhere unfound by many. Reaching this Otherworld can only be achieved by those minds — and eyes — open to such unreality. The strain of crossing the fabric of light and dark overcomes the hoi-polloi — those few disbelieving men that rebuke the existence of such realms. This elusive Otherworld, while it can be visited by expert use of guile or flattery, otherwise can be sought only by those broadminded few “within a dream without a dream”, as Clay Franklin Johnson explores in his poem My Mélusine Illusion.
Johnson’s My Mélusine Illusion was published within a book of collected poetry, the poems of which indubitably collectively fall beneath the thematic umbrella of its eponymous poem A Ride Through Faerie, and his Mélusine poem is no exception. A Ride Through Faerie skilfully explores the Other realm of Faerie, and is a fierce comingling of the folklore of Faerie, and a narrative criticism of deforestation. Whereas in A Ride Through Faerie tells of Lord Ortho travelling to the land of Faerie by way of the Faerie Queen herself, My Mélusine Illusion explores a different perspective, in which the poetic voice discovers this Other realm by way of unravelling the “unawakened senses” and “awakening from an Orphean dream.”
The themes explored in the poem are of a multiformity themselves, and Johnson uses the myth of Mélusine, along with allusions to Greek mythology, to weave a narrative not only painting an artful tapestry of this Otherworld, but also yet commenting upon social issues by way of Mélusine’s mythos. While the feminism within this poem is not of topic in this essay, it remains a calculated element within the narrative, going so far as to connect this “unseeing” (i.e., the inability to traverse this Other realm) with that of misogyny and oppression. One cannot see having not opened their eyes, yet, as Johnson explores, this seeing comes by way of more than just mere looking, for only in a “dream without a dream” can one awake to this enlightenment.
Johnson uses the duality of light and dark precisely to allude to both enlightenment and ignorance. The opening lines read: “Awakening from an Orphean dream / Unravels the unawakened senses.” This allusion to Orpheus describes an awakening from darkness, as Johnson deploys the etymology from the Greek órphnē, meaning “darkness”, to emphasize the awakening taking place after drinking the “Waters Lethean”: forgetting his prejudices, his “mortal fear” and opening his eyes to this new world. Johnson describes this change as a “self-eclipse”. This self-eclipse reveals to him an enchanting realm, filled with “ambrosial melodies”, “aery echoes of bubbling honey”, and an “idle high of Faerie imagination”, along with, as the title alludes, a vision of “darling faery Mélusine”. Within this unseen realm is a light, a tempting synaesthesiac melody that drowns the “shadowed phantom world” to which he had clung.
The narrative goes on to admonish those others that have yet to awaken, calling them “hoi-polloi” whose “ignorance is ceaseless / To the voices of natural magic”. While this immediately connects to this exploration of the ignorance of man, in terms of feminist ideals, it also is a criticism of people disbelieving in Other, inclusive of ghosts, faeries, and magic. Johnson illustrates that not only are these hoi-polloi ignorant to higher levels of thought, but their unseeing also leaves them unable to travel to this Otherworld until they “awaken”. Only in a “dream without a dream” can they find this light.
Delving deeper into the mythology of Orpheus, Johnson seeks to establish a metaphorical duality between seeing and unseeing, both being inherently valuable in this sense of “awakening”. Orpheus travels to the Underworld, granted by those in his favour, to retrieve Eurydice. However, Orpheus cannot look upon her face until they both reach the upper world. This concept of not seeing, preserves them both; only when he looks upon her face does she vanish. Superficially, this idea seems to contradict the allusions Johnson deploys in his poem, however, it connects most scintillatingly to his concept of unseeing between the duality of light and dark. Orpheus cannot look upon Eurydice’s face until they reach the light; meanwhile, as they traverse the Underworld (dark), towards the upper world (light), he cannot see. Once Eurydice reaches the light, she will renew life, and Orpheus can at last gaze upon her face, and finally see her.
I seek the spirit of her own unseen,
Between the dream of Life and Death
I find her most singular light
What Johnson describes is a type of awakening. Driven from the dark caves of the Underworld, the poet seeks the light. In so doing, he finds himself in this “dream without a dream”, seeking the light between Life and Death. But this awakening, as Johnson describes throughout, is not only an enlightenment of profound understanding. Deeper, within this metaphor, is the concept of immortality. Just as a paradisial afterlife is filled with light, this light, as Johnson alludes, is also that of an eternal life
And yet I am still between
This world and the unseen,
Let me learn this dark secret
From Your immortal kiss,
Your amaranthean kiss,
Show me this Luciferous light
Of my own self-eclipse,
Ascending deep into chaos
That existed before darkness
This “dark secret” is one of immortality, which he pleads to Mélusine to grant him with her kiss. Once he is consumed by this “Luciferous light”, he says:
Let me become Your mystery,
Let my mortal fear die,
Wither, show me Your light,
Goddess divine, show me
What waits on the other side
The poetic voice explores, for some time, the realm between light and dark, this “dream without a dream”. And begs Faery Mélusine to bring him to the light, this immortal light, this place on the “other side”. Only when he is “awakened”, and can see, can he become one with the light, and, as the closing lines reads:
I follow Her into eternity,
And, as I return to whence we came,
I become what She once became
Mélusine, who has, for some time, been characterised as a monstrous figure, a “coiling Lamia”, as Johnson describes, is, in his poem, flipped on the head of the usual characteristics she is given. While many have in time believed her to be a number of insidious creature, Johnson narrates her as an immortal figure who has ascended far above the chaotic unseeing of the men who tell her tale. She is encompassed in light, though her Other connotation is that of wickedness. Johnson’s poetic voice accomplishes the enlightenment Mélusine arrives to install him. He becomes her, takes her upon his bosom and kisses her, taking her light and becoming her in the end. What Johnson depicts is a methodical metamorphosis into something rich and strange, decadent in an ambiguous light. Neither is he encompassed by darkness than he is in this realm of light and dark. Instead, he has ascended out of this realm between light and dark, this Otherworld, becomes immortal, and is finally one with the light.
Johnson, by way of a “dream without a dream” traverses the ream of Other and ascends farther, becoming immortal and otherworldly like his Faery Mélusine. He deploys the metaphor of light and dark to emphasise a profound understanding, far beyond just the societal understandings of women and their role, but also the understanding of what lay beyond the corporeal, what stretches between the fabric of light and dark. This Otherworld that Johnson describes is a poetic sensorial realm, a realm greater than that of the tales of the hoi-polloi. And not just anyone can find it, can traverse it with open eyes. It requires an awakening, an appreciation, a broadmindedness, to find it. Once he does, he becomes far greater than just himself. He becomes “what She once became.”
[Olivia Claire Louise Newman is a writer, poet, and traveler. Her literary interests range from the Gothic to the Romantic, and she even finds herself indulging in the curious realm of fantasy. Her first short story “It Will Come” was published in 2021 in Quill & Crow Publishing House’s women’s horror anthology Ravens & Roses, and her debut novel is anticipated in the Fall of 2022. You can follow her on Twitter @OliviaCLNewman and visit her website at oliviaclnewman.com.]