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Ancient Dreamer by Elizabeth Cunningham

Elizabeth Cunningham, BEI Emeritus Fellow, recently wrote a piece on feminism and religion. Read the original article here. 

The poems below are excerpted from my new (I hope forthcoming) collection, Tell Me the Story Again.Ancient dreamer’s voice is one among many voices including sorrow singer, temple sweeper, sword woman, morose fool, merry drunk, grey cat and mouse, stone mountain, skeleton woman, mother rain and many more. The voices speak from a time perhaps just after (or long before) our time, in a real and magical world.I chose to excerpt ancient dreamer’s poems because winter is the time, in Celtic lore, of the Cailleach, the old one, the divine hag.  When I began writing the poems in 2014, my mother-in-law, then age 101, was in the last stages of her life. She slept and dreamed most of the time, and I would sit and daydream with her. She died two months before her 102nd birthday. When I took up the collection again in 2018 to complete it, ancient dreamer remained a strong presence and has the last word.  

ancient dreamer’s song

you don’t need open eyes to see,

you don’t need to be awake to wander.

the mountain thinks it’s old

but I am older. if you see me,

and maybe you won’t, don’t

tread on my mossy bed, don’t disturb

my fine-woven cloak, fresh flowers,

fallen leaves, don’t disturb my powers,

bound and freed by dreams.


you there, lovers, I see what you can’t,

how you cast dreams like nets

each over the other, never knowing

one day you will reel them back.

one day you will be small and real,

long shadows fallen into flawed flesh,

not eternally one but two for a time

with just a chance to learn to dance

until you lie down like me to dream.


ancient dreamer’s question


life is short, time is long,

a thread spun out and out

and reeled back in.

you’re caught,

day flower, hatchling, human.

time exists for you

because it ends.

for me time is motion,

circling, cycling

expanding, contracting.

time has a pulse,

but does it have a heart?

where is time’s heart?


song to the ancient dreamer


your face a dry leaf,

your bone made of stone.

ancient dreamer, take me down

to what you know.


unknown, unknown

hear the wind moan

what I know cannot be known

only dreamed, only dreamed.


your hands trailing tendrils,

your feet made of moss,

ancient dreamer, lead me on

to what you know.


unknown, unknown

a knife edge to be hone,

what I know cannot be known

only dreamed, only dreamed.


your mouth a hollow,

you belly a mound,

ancient dreamer, take me in

to what you know.


unknown, unknown

all life is on loan.

what I know cannot be known

only dreamed, only dreamed.


the man who does not speak watches the ancient dreamer sleep


her hands move like sea fronds,

slowly up and down on some current

I cannot see. where has she gone?

where does she go? can I go, too,

beyond, between, to a place

where memory doesn’t matter anymore?

her words are slipping down a stream,

yellow leaves, fallen, forgotten, their

green life only a dream.


the ancient dreamer hears sorrow singer’s song and remembers


what does it matter to a mother?

hero, martyr, villain, victim,

they called him.

he was my son, he was mine.

I was young and he was younger.

they cut him down before his time.

time took me far from him and farther, his

falling body, there in the distance, that shadow,

here in my heartbeat forever, that horror.

him underground and me under leaves,

years and years of fallen leaves.


ancient dreamer turns her eyes to the beyond


who knows what your eyes see now,

drifting toward your crown,

lids, leaves falling slowly down,

restward, rootward.

your mouth moves, no words,

an almost smile, a sigh again

too small to hear, then back to sleep,

dreams that have carried you

this far, this long.


ancient dreamer’s long last dreaming


bone and breath,

a little skin stretched thin,

wounds that won’t heal.

mouth a dark cavern,

a few brown teeth.

I can see the skeleton

you will be, I can see

the woman you were,

the power and beauty almost

finished, undiminished.


song to the ancient dreamer


ancient dreamer, you are the boat

and the oars and the sail,

you are the wide, slow river, too.

let me ride awhile with you,

let me remember your dreams.


ancient dreamer, catch the current,

follow the tide to the wild wide sea,

the plains of your face a shore

where I wait and keep watch,

awash on the shoals of your breath.


ancient dreamer, there is a rim

where the sky and the ocean meet

and the moon and the sun disappear.

if I don’t see you when you go,

I will dream of you when I sleep.


ancient dreamer awakes


I dreamed I was a tall tree,

mightier than most.

I gave shelter to many.

my shadow was very long,

like my almost eternal life.


now I wake to an empty sky.

when the mighty fall,

the world must shift.

what will grow, I wonder,

in all the light I’ve left?


the man who does not speak mourns the ancient dreamer


she is the dusty path,

she is the shard of moon,

just out of my reach.


she has sloughed

the skin that still chafes me.

she is the disappearing flicker


of a snake’s tail. there is nowhere

far enough to go. there is no

dreamlessness deep enough.


ancient dreamer dreams on


the mountain thinks it’s old,

but I am older.

I am stars and dust and ocean.

I am the lap

that will hold you all

in the end, beyond the end.

oh, my children, my wilted flowers,

my fallen trees and heroes,

my scrabbling, swimming creatures,

my crying, flying winged ones,

come home, come home

all is lost and never lost.

come home to me,

come home.



Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her classic feminist novels The Wild Mother and The Return of the Goddess have both been released in 25th anniversary editions. Elizabeth is also the author of Murder at the Rummage Sale. The sequel, All the Perils of this Night, will be published in 2019. She has published three collections of poems and trusts that Tell Me the Story Again will be the fourth. An interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.