On the first reading
A locomotive rhythm propels me through the lines driving me from one syllable to the next. A hunger in the sounds claws at the words to reach deep in my mind’s eye conjuring images of a man standing at a microphone eyes closed coughing line after line into the air falling on ears drowning thoughts out of blank stares soaked with yesterday’s tears. I’m left wondering when this force shoved my head into its vise grip.
Who gives way to what. The Fates are there. A god appears. Denver takes a beating. Sex’s scent rides high over the pages. There is dirt and anguish and women and men.
Was there laughter?
There was pounding sound. There was a beat. There was a need to move on on on.
I do not sense a wood fire. This is a modern, internal combustion. Sparks ignite gas, and a thousand intimate hopes burn through the paper and drive the pistons to push and pull on on on.
There were commas. Were there periods? Did anything stop? I don’t remember rest. I remember need.
The second reading
There was one period. And I’m out of breath! The words! They come relentlessly driving me over the cliff.
The rooms are unshaven. Purgatory is not a place but an active force. The ashcans scream. And what is a “kind king light of mind”? How does a mind illuminate? “Grandfather night” smiles on us all and gives us just a line or two of rest. “Hotrod-Golgatha jail-solitude watch” reaches in and twists me.
The commas are not punctuation. The lack of commas speaks of need to make language.
“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” Oh, God! What sphinx indeed?! I am laid waste. My breast is open, and my beating heart is there to be eaten.
I have so many questions. Why does this make me want to rush to the corner to buy a pack of cigarettes?
Need. Hunger. Want.
Breath. Sound. Rending.
I forgot how to read. I must learn again.
Today’s the day! Over the next two months, I will be co-directing a play with a seasoned director, and the auditions are tonight and tomorrow night. I have done my homework by reading and re-reading the script many times. I’ve studied the characters and their motivations and come up with a list of verbs describing each one. The theatre’s designer has come up with a beautifully simplistic set that will give the actors a space in which to explore their various roles and actions and emotions.
The play is The Spoon River Project, which is made up of poems excerpted from Edgar Lee Masters’ early twentieth century American classic Spoon River Anthology. Citizens of the fictional town Spoon River speak from their graves, remembering, inspiring, preaching, ruing, accusing, and confessing. There have been numerous adaptations of the anthology for the stage over the past hundred years. This one is by Tom Andolora. He chose a representative sampling of the graveyard’s characters, and importantly, he researched and included some period songs that the actors will perform.
Mr. Andolora also uses one of my favorite theatre techniques. Each actor plays multiple roles. They do three or four, in fact. By careful use of small costume pieces and physical changes, the actors will have to differentiate each character, and they will have to make it believable.
The space will be bare, befitting a graveyard, with a few movable benches, and room is even being made on the stage for audience seating. There will be a small ensemble of musicians to accompany the cast in the songs. The only props will represent what the individuals have taken with them to the grave. They will make use of shawls, vests, and other small items of clothing.
The process of directing is not absolutely new to me, but I am a novice. I have directed before, and in that play, the actors were also called on to delve into different characters. I revel in seeing a good craftsman make the necessary adjustments in a second to change from one role to another. When it’s done well, it makes me squirm in my seat.
I have already mentioned reading the play multiple times to really feel it. I searched and found what I believe may be a through line or what’s also called a plot line. The great twentieth century American director Harold Clurman dubbed it the spine. It’s a simple word or phrase or very short sentence describing the central theme of the piece. I like to pick words from the actual script for this note when possible. The through line does not have to be communicated to the actors, but it informs all the director’s choices.
This script is full of wonder. The poems are alive with active verbs that make imagining staging it a joy. The anthology is a pleasure to read for its own sake. Mr. Andolora did not choose my favorite poem, so I will include it here.
I WOULD I had thrust my hands of flesh
Into the disk—flowers bee-infested,
Into the mirror-like core of fire
Of the light of life, the sun of delight.
For what are anthers worth or petals
Or halo-rays? Mockeries, shadows
Of the heart of the flower, the central flame
All is yours, young passer-by;
Enter the banquet room with the thought;
Don’t sidle in as if you were doubtful
Whether you’re welcome—the feast is yours!
Nor take but a little, refusing more
With a bashful “Thank you”, when you’re hungry.
Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!
Leave no balconies where you can climb;
Nor milk-white bosoms where you can rest;
Nor golden heads with pillows to share;
Nor wine cups while the wine is sweet;
Nor ecstasies of body or soul,
You will die, no doubt, but die while living
In depths of azure, rapt and mated,
Kissing the queen-bee, Life!
The speaker, Edmund Pollard, wishes he had dived into all that living had to offer, and he implores the hearers to do so. He speaks of flesh, alluding to bees’ stings, and fire and light. To those of us above the graves, he commands we attend the banquets and feasts that lie before us. Let us feed! Love and intimacy take their places, too. Finally, he returns to bees and their kissing sting of life.
I am living today. I am excited at my new adventure in theatre starting tonight. Life moves me, and I take joy in it.
When most I wink then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected,
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou whose shadow shadows doth make bright
How would thy shadow’s form, form happy show,
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would (I say) mine eyes be blessed made,
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade,
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
Shakespeare’s sonnet 43 instructs us to see best with eyes closed and to ignore the objects of the mundane day, for it is in sleep’s dreams that light shines, eyeing love.
Shadows brighten at the passing of sightless eyes.
The poet breaks the fourth wall. and he questions the wide world to instruct on how to see by day what lies heaviest on sleeping lids.
While others spend their days as others might, the man waits for night’s bright dreams to see his beloved.
I bought Anne Carson’s newest book the other day. She is one of two authors alive today whose works I will buy at the drop of a hat. (The other is Thomas Pynchon.) It’s called Nox, and it is a beautiful piece of literature. Physically, it is a beautiful book.
It’s more of a box than a book exactly. The box opens like a book, but the pages come out in accordion-like fashion as one long strip. It is one piece of long paper. At first, it’s difficult to decide how to handle these odd pages. I assumed the thing was fastened into the bottom of the box-book somehow, so I carefully held it in my lap and gently turned the pieces over revealing one page at a time the words.
Then came a section that ran on for several folds in the manuscript and made me look at the thing in a whole new light. I could lift out the front part and stretch the words out over several pages and take in a larger section than is normally afforded to the reader with the average book.
Finally, came the realization that the back of the manuscript was free of the bottom of the box-book. I could lift it entirely from its case. So, I did. I spread it out before me on the bed where I sat reading and took in the beauty of the lovely words that lay before me.
Nox is the Latin word for night, and the manuscript is a long, loving translation of Catullus 101. The pages alternate between dissertive translations of the poem word by painstaking word and fragments of letters from Ms. Carson’s deceased brother and her thoughts on their life and relationship. The manuscript is a facsimile of something she created for herself in memory of her brother.
There are old photographs and copies of handwritten letters. I should say that there are copies of torn pieces of letters from her brother. We are left wondering whether we have all to go by to decide what we should think.
But isn’t that life? Aren’t we in a constant state of wondering whether we have all the information we need to think?
The physical manuscript itself calls out to me and begs to be handled. It implores me to stretch it across the floor to try to piece it together.
Beautiful. Simply beautiful.
Never, never may the fruit be plucked from the bough
And gathered into barrels.
He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs.
Though the branches bend like reeds,
Though the ripe fruit splash in the grass or wrinkle on the tree,
He that would eat of love may bear away with him
Only what his belly can hold,
Nothing in the apron,
Nothing in the pockets.
Never never may the the fruit be gathered from the bough
And harvested in barrels.
The winter of love is a cellar of empty bins,
In an orchard soft with rot.
In this poem, four lines are almost repeated save one or two words. Importantly, those changes are verbs. There is something in the action that the poet wants us to look at closely. In the lines beginning “never, never…,” plucked becomes gathered, and in the lines about the barrels, gathered becomes harvested. The ideas in the words rhyme. It’s interesting that she chose only 3 verbs to play with. Plucked. Gathered. Harvested.
Plucked has joy in it. Spring laughs.
Gathered begs multiplicity. It is full.
Harvested is final. Ripening completes.
And in the end, in love’s winter, nothing is stored but rots where it hangs or lays. The ripe, full joy comes to an inedible sour sweet stench.