Will Harris on dream-talk and a white jumper

Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights.
Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights.

The simplest way to explain my poem ‘The white jumper’ is to say I had a dream – one of those dreams that sticks with you not because it’s shocking or prophetic but because… you don’t know why. It just keeps bobbing up to the surface. Early last year, I dreamt I was running through a green space – a forest less foliaged than pixellated, like a level from Sonic the Hedgehog or Crash Bandicoot – and after hopping for hours (or seconds) from one grassy platform to another I came to a gap, a dark plummet beneath me and on the other side a white jumper spot-lit by the sun. Maybe I could’ve reached it with a running-jump but I didn’t try. The last thing I remember is staring at it.

No one sets out to write a long poem about a white jumper, and it hung uselessly at the back of my mind for months. And then Melanie Abrahams of the literary organisation Renaissance One asked me to write something in response to the work of Emily Brontë. Reading Wuthering Heights for the first time, I stopped at the passage where Cathy is trying to describe her feelings for Heathcliff. She finds them hard to put into words. “Nelly, do you never dream queer dreams?” she says. “I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.”

In the past I’ve probably been the kind of person to dismiss dream-talk, or to think of myself as somehow capable of controlling the strange cranks of my subconscious. But some ideas – some dreams – have gone through and through me like wine through water. And I’ve felt things which, however small, have altered the colour of my mind. It’s not always clear how, or not until later, but I felt that dream about a white jumper change me. By day I saw its glimmering whiteness loom in front of me, just out of reach; it entered my memories and shifted how I read. And midway through last year, when my grandma died and my mum whatsapped me photos from the funeral in Jakarta, part of me wasn’t surprised to see her lying in a white coffin, dressed in white, surrounded by white flowers. I know this doesn’t really explain the poem, but maybe it explains why I wrote it.

An excerpt from Will Harris’s poem ‘The white jumper’ is published in the Winter 2018 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 108, No. 4.