The Intertwined Fiction and Nonfiction within Jenny Johnson’s “In the Dream”

In her poem, In the Dream, Jenny Johnson intertwines the fictional aspect of events as experienced while dreaming with nonfictional events of the speaker’s past. The opening line of the first couplet of In the Dream, “I was alone in a dyke bar we’d traversed before,” gives readers an immediate sense of the speaker’s tone and attitude, using dyke as a not entirely socially-accepted form of lesbian, and places the poem within a seemingly realistic setting. “I was alone in…” represents both the dreamlike-state titling the poem and a realistic life event, perhaps experienced by the speaker.

The speaker’s time spent in the “dyke bar” begins to shift from realistic and believable to the fictional state of a dream, as it states, “or maybe it was in a way all our dives/merging together suddenly as one intergalactic composite,/one glitter-spritzed black hole,” presenting the poem with its first dip into an outer-space, fantasy like fictional setting. Readers’ time spent within the “intergalactic composite” begins to intertwine the dream’s setting with imagery of a nonfiction experience, “managing to forever stabilize in space/ without a landlord scheming to shut the place down,” claiming the speaker’s time in the bar is at a standstill, particular and characteristic of dreams, yet being identified as landlord-less, tying a nonfiction aspect to the standstill within the speaker’s dream.

The aspects of the bar begin to present the most recognizable dreamlike features as the poem continues, “but the room/ had no end and no ceiling.” “Maybe the tables were spinning, too. I can’t be sure.,” but are yet again accompanied by aspects of true-to-life experience at a bar, “I could see all of our friends or exes” “three people on bar stools, who were straight/ or closeted? but more importantly angry,” continually intertwining and blurring the lines between the poem’s fictional and nonfictional elements while beginning to prepare the poem for its return to an outer space imagery and setting.

The “three people on bar stools” begin to exhibit unfriendliness, as they are “not here to love/with jawlines set to throw epithets like darts/that might stick or knick or flutter past/ as erratically as they were fired./ You could say their hostility was a swirl/ nebulous as gas and dust,” yet again intertwining a realistic exhibition of “hostility” with a dreamlike-outer space feel and setting.

In the Dream begins its conclusion with perhaps the most obvious nonfictional element, a description of an elementary school event as a comparison to the “hostility” of those on the “bar stools,” “Like how when I was shoved in grade school/ on the blacktop in my boy jeans/ the teacher asked me if I had a strawberry/ because the wound was fresh as jam, glistening/ like pulp does after the skin of a fruit is/ peeled back clean with a knife,” recounting specific details and dialogue and furthering the speaker’s inclusion of nonfiction.

In the Dream strays from its use of couplets in one instance where the speaker asks, “I said: Do you realize where you are?,” a question enhancing the intertwining nonfiction and fiction ideas present within the poem and suggesting that the element of confusion regarding the factual basis of the poem provides a question of location touching on both the retelling of a childhood event and the setting of the bar within the speaker’s dream.

Elements of both fiction and nonfiction are evident within Johnson’s In the Dream, and work to enhance the intertwining of a dream and factual events experienced by the speaker.

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