Ancient Dreamer by Elizabeth Cunningham

Raised view fallen autumn leaves deciduous trees

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.

Author: Elizabeth Cunningham

Author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one's disciple. I am also interfaith minister and a counselor in private practice.

27 thoughts on “Ancient Dreamer by Elizabeth Cunningham”

  1. Wow! I cannot help thinking that you published this a day or so after Mary Oliver died. Your words have a similar power to express deep ideas and connections in words that can be understood by all. Blessings on your work.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much, Carol, I love Mary Oliver, an inspiration and comfort to me and so many. May she rest in peace and power. Her poems live on.


  2. After reading “Ancient Dreamer” I find myself on the verge of tears. This poem crystallizes thoughts I have as I’ve entered the autumn of life: what lies beyond? We don’t know, we can’t know.I don’t believe in the Christian concept of heaven, nor in any afterlife, but of course, I don’t know for sure—any more than anyone else does. It is somewhat comforting to think that we return to the Earth our Mother in the form of dust.

    I do wish I could believe in the afterlife of an eternal family reunion, it would be so comforting. I would love to see my parents again as well as friends I’ve lost over the years. “Ancient Dreamer” is freeing in this way: it directs our minds to a Consciousness beyond the Self. Thank you, Elizabeth!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much, Carol, I love Mary Oliver, an inspiration and comfort to me and so many. May she rest in peace and power. Her poems live on.


    2. Thank you, dear friend. Since what lies beyond is a mystery, I think we can believe whatever brings us peace and comfort, whatever gives us courage when we need it. Here is Mary Oliver’s poem about death.

      When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

      When death comes
      like the hungry bear in autumn;
      when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

      to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
      when death comes
      like the measle-pox

      when death comes
      like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

      I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
      what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

      And therefore I look upon everything
      as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
      and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
      and I consider eternity as another possibility,

      and I think of each life as a flower, as common
      as a field daisy, and as singular,

      and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
      tending, as all music does, toward silence,

      and each body a lion of courage, and something
      precious to the earth.

      When it’s over, I want to say all my life
      I was a bride married to amazement.
      I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

      When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
      if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

      I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
      or full of argument.

      I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

      ~ Mary Oliver

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, such beautiful words strung together like pearls…
    I lost my brother 43 years ago and when I read these words I wept:

    “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.”

    The only part of this that I cannot identify with is the horror of being underground… I was 32 years waiting to bury my brother’s ashes and when I did the nightmares about him stopped and I finally found peace. Earth takes us back home to herself.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Sara! I think the horror the ancient dreamer means in the death of her son, not him being underground. There’s a period after horror. I chose to keep everything lower case, but I might need to rethink that. Thanks for pointing it. The ancient dream finds no horror in the earth. She is the earth. Thanks again. And I am so sorry for the loss of your brother.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So very beautiful!! I was thinking the same thing as Carol – that like Mary Oliver your words touch us deeply with the truth of eternity embodied in the natural world. I love, love, love it all and in particular resonate with “unknown, unknown – hear the wind moan – what I know cannot be known – only dreamed, only dreamed.” Can’t wait for the release of “Tell Me The Story Again.”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Oh Elizabeth, How evocative! How lovely! “ancient dreamer turns her eyes to the beyond” and “song to the ancient dreamer” reminded me of a chant I wrote 20 years ago that expresses the same understanding in music. The lyrics are “Rest, rest in you, Mother,/Homeward we wend./Earth at the beginning,/Earth at the end.” Thank you for beginning my day in beauty.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. So beautiful and such an amazing connection between the most profound moments of your 21st century life and the ancient spirits we need so much to enrich our modern lives and make ourselves whole. I cannot wait for the full volume to come out and to be introduced to all the other voices you mention.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Your writing is magical, Elizabeth. These poems create images and emotions that in the moment evoke both past and future — ancient dreams and creative fantasies.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Judith! Electric power went out in a winter storm yesterday afternoon through midnight, or I would have responded sooner. Yes, moments that evoke past and future. That’s my hope. Thank you!


    1. Thank you! And I love your post today about the warrior archetype and am so grateful (and outraged) to know about Sabina Spielrein. Then you!


    1. Oh, Barbara, thank you! Coming from a poet who writes with such power and beauty your words mean so much. All the best to you and much love!


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