TEXT review

Dreams of waking

review by Ruby Todd


etter to Pessoa, by Michelle Cahill
Michelle Cahill
Letter to Pessoa & other short fictions
Giramondo Publishing Company, Artarmon NSW 2016
ISBN 9781925336146
Pb 247pp AUD24.95


In his riddling, labyrinthine story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1962), Jorge Luis Borges imagines a fantasy world of ideas created by a secret order of scholars in which, he writes, it is believed ‘that while we sleep here [on Earth], we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men’ (Borges 1962: 8). In this image of alternate dream-lives and divided selves, Borges speaks to some of the most pervasive themes in Letter to Pessoa, the first collection of lyrical and inventive short stories by Indian-Australian poet Michelle Cahill. The significance of dreaming in this collection – as a practical and metaphorical means of escaping, extending or interrogating reality – is also premised by the book’s elusive epigraph, an excerpt from Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet: ‘I feel as if I’m always on the verge of waking up’.

In Cahill’s story, ‘The Lucid Krishna’, a psychoanalyst experiences a lucid dream in which she ‘is half-aware that her curved body is dreaming the excerpts in which she is a fragment’ (31). From her position in the dream, the psychoanalyst ponders the origins of Krishna, her dream companion, and suggests that the borders between waking life and dreaming are more ambiguous than they might first appear:

Was it yesterday they met in the other life? Was he the guy in the elevator, talking all the way up to the twenty-third floor? These days she pays increasingly less attention to her waking hours. (35-6)

Dreaming, as a mode of experience and as an idea, recurs in this collection as a wild, disruptive force which troubles distinctions between not only reality and dreams but also more broadly, between objective and subjective experience, fact and fiction, action and ideas, and life and art. In ‘Borges and I’, arguably the stand-out story in this collection and certainly the most ambitious, Cahill offers an impressively intricate Borgesian pastiche which is also metafictional – the narrator Wesley Burns, a physicist breaking new ground in spacetime theory, becomes obsessed with Borges’s stories to the extent that he begins to cede his own identity to that of the author. At the same time, Borges’s fictional reality – specifically that of the abovementioned story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ – begins to infiltrate Wesley’s own life and research in Colorado, including his dreams. Cahill creates an absorbing philosophical maze in this story, with multiple uncanny resonances between the narrator’s reality as a physicist exploring the limits of time and space, and his gradual possession by the Borgesian universe. As Wesley explains of his experience in reading Borges, ‘[i]t was as if the secret apertures of time had unlocked, as pages within pages tunnelled through ancient and obscure worlds’ (121).

As writers whose work shares many of Cahill’s own preoccupations, it seems fitting that both Borges and Pessoa are among the authors who, in various iterations, haunt these stories. As the book’s title intimates, the central literary conceit which connects many of Cahill’s stories is of a first-person narrator who addresses a diverse cohort of literary luminaries in the form of letters or dramatic monologues. For this reason, Letters to Pessoa as a collection is not only unashamedly literary in nature and style, but also assumes and demands a similarly literary audience in order for many of its allusions and framings to translate. Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, Jacques Derrida, JM Coetzee, Jean Genet, Tadeusz Rózewicz, and even Neil Young are all addressed in letters, their ghostly presences invoked in the second person ‘you’ by a succession of confessional voices – some of which impress as versions of Cahill’s own. In ‘Letter to J.M. Coetzee’, it is the voice of the living version of Coetzee’s own character, Melanie Isaacs, that is heard. For the most part, the performative first-person mode of address in these pieces lends immediacy and urgency to Cahill’s lyrical prose, when searching, fervent narrators speak of their ordinary lives and of their lived experience of literature in the same breath. In one such piece, ‘Letter to Virgina Woolf’, Cahill writes with intensity as her narrator imagines Woolf’s final moments:

Dear V, / Some mornings the light burns a hole in my eyes that I call living. I think of you filling your pockets with river stones, one for every unwritten book, one for Vanessa, one for Leonard and one for Vita. This happens when my daughter is away and the whole house swells like a tidal shore. Through the plate glass windows leaf shadows flicker on the shiny parquetry floor. (25)

These narrators who address living and dead writers across continents and decades testify to the capacity of a text’s felt life to enter the nervous systems of its readers, of authorial personas to inhabit the living, and of literature to alter reality in personal as well as public spheres. Other writers inhabit this collection without being addressed in this epistolary style, appearing instead as characters or as reference points within a wider narrative. In ‘Chasing Nabokov’, an irreverent young woman named Lo narrates her sexual encounters with a character named Vladimir Nabokov, who shares striking similarities with the real Nabokov despite the fact that both he and Lo live in Sydney. To my mind, despite the initial intrigue of its premise, this story falls short of its surreal, satirical promise, betraying too often its contrivance. Elsewhere, the poets Philip Larkin and Federico García Lorca are recalled in suggestive references throughout ‘Aubade for Larkin’ and ‘Duende’ respectively. Both are carefully-measured third-person narratives which explore themes of love and mortality in the lives of two gay couples. 

For many of Cahill’s first-person narrators, reality is experienced as tenuous, ambiguous and shifting – precisely because they are also writers, who create alternate realities as well as commune with the created realities of other writers. For these narrators, the experience and concept of objective reality is complicated by their inhabitation of created worlds that so often feel more vivid that the concrete external world. Similarly, in a gesture common to both Borges and Pessoa, Cahill frequently troubles the notion of a stable, continuous identity or self, specifically the notion of a writer’s identity as being comprised of two selves by no means at ease with each other – the one who ‘lives’ and the one who writes. As Borges writes in ‘Borges and I’, the famous short text whose title Cahill borrows for one of her own stories: ‘I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me’ (Borges 1964).

This sense of a divided self, allegorised in the multiple literary personas of not only Borges but of Pessoa and of Cahill herself, speaks of the conflict between life and art, and converges with the question, implicit in many of Cahill’s stories, of the costs and justifications of creation. In the journal-like ‘Letter to Tadeusz Rózewicz’, a melancholic first person narrator, whose life appears to parallel Cahill’s own, confesses to the Polish writer her ongoing struggles with living and writing: ‘…I discovered I was little more than a wreckage of three manuscripts, each one craving my attention, devouring me’ (224). ‘Is it real, this work?’ asks the narrator, ‘[i]s all my labour wasted, a prostitution, a slow destruction? Will I be set free?… Is it unassailable as death then, this fate of being a slave to signification?’ (230). In ‘Duende’, this monstrous potential of art to entrap and devour its creators is intimated when one of the characters, upon learning of his lover’s apparent drowning, tells his friend, ‘I’m convinced Carlos, there’s a mutilation to art which can’t be named’ (53).

Despite this apprehension of art’s danger and constriction, Cahill also continually attests to the ways that the urge to go on creating, and the joys in doing so, persist regardless – as implied in ‘Letter to Virginia Woolf’: ‘But maybe I cannot live without words. Each one maddening as a stone thrown into the river … breaking the mirror of this world before it remakes [it] and I see with clarity’ (29). Throughout this collection’s evocative and wide-ranging stories, Cahill reminds us of the visceral ways in which experiencing the world through its recreation on the page – be it the literature of other minds or the literature we ourselves strive to make – is itself a means of dreaming, and a way in which (to recall Borges) we might each be granted access to life through a lens of many selves.


Works cited



Ruby Todd is a writer of prose and poetry, with a PhD in Creative Writing and Literary Theory from Deakin University, where she teaches. Her current research investigates the connections between elegy, ethics and ecology.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste