Sunday, September 7, 2014
Bibliotekos is honored to be the first publisher of Tongariro in the original Bosnian by Milorad Pejić, translated into English by Omer Hadžiselimović.
The English translation first appeared in Guernica on 2 June 2014 and can be found here, with biographical information about the poet and translator.
O oblak okačena kabanica Vulkana Tongariro
zakopčana je uz vrat jednim jedinim okruglim
dugmetom: Plavim Jezerom. Na dnu jezera,
u visini srca, kuca paklena mašina. Pokušavamo
da ne mislimo, pokušavamo da ne znamo ali
nam njeni damari ko žmarci uzlaze uz kičmu
i znoje se.
U plavom jezeru na vrhu Vulkana Tongariro
nema ništa za jelo, sâm kamen. To znaju
čudne ptice dugih vratova ali ipak, na svom
putu preko okeana, slijeću na njega. One su,
leteći visoko, nadživjele svoje neprijatelje
pa sada odmaraju krila na valovima kao na
I mi smo, ti i ja, čudne ptice dugih vratova
koje su nadživjele sve svoje neprijatelje.
Dolazeći izdaleka spuštamo rance i zalazimo
u mrtvu vodu Vulkana Tongariro. Odmaramo
se od svoje hrabrosti.
Copyright©2014 by Milorad Pejić, All Rights Reserved
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
|Used with Permission|
STRANGE INTERLUDE by Eugene O’Neill; National Theatre/Lyttelton[i]; Southbank, London; July 2013, closed September 1, 2013; directed by Simon Godwin.
Strange Interlude is an implausible play that somehow manages to reach believability by its final tableau. The convoluted story of a mother-in-law haranguing her pregnant daughter-in-law (protagonist, Nina Leeds) to abort her baby in order to impede the hereditary madness in her family ascendency, and, following that abortion, be impregnated by a clandestine surrogate—with the upshot of weaving a new life with her unwitting puerile husband and their out-of-marriage baby, seems so far beyond any believable consideration as “story” that for the first hour or so the event at the National Theater (NT) has no real basis in reality. Then the controlled, heavy-handed dramaturgical engineering of Eugene O’Neill starts to disengage and the play—the Pulitzer prize-winning play—alights. Across this redacted production on the Lyttelton Theater’s neo-Greek-proscenium stage, the play finds a creaking momentum that teases out the particularly craven aspects of the drama including promiscuity and nymphomania, celibacy, paternity, illegitimacy, and congenital family insanity, among a few other O’Neill standards. Eventually the Interlude “plot” delivers steady, unremitting levels of shock and awe, genuinely lyrical romance, and cleverness and jocularity; there’s even uproarious hilarity in this forbiddingly gothic drama. Beyond the slightly clumsy effects of quotidian dramatic exposition at the onset of the play, the story ultimately reveals itself as a “noir” tragicomedy of power if somewhat unwieldy proportion. Strange Interlude is a mammoth 5 hour, 9-act play, boxed and compressed by director Simon Godwin to 3 hours and 20 minutes at the Lyttelton; but regardless of the show’s abridged length, the information load is onerous.
As we learn of the tragic death of Nina’s heartthrob, Gordon, a “doughboy”[ii] in the trenches of World War I (Anne-Marie Duff as Nina) and her ensuing sexual proclivities with a slew of wounded-warrior lovers, the coil around this confused Yankee girl’s heart begins to tighten. In her enduring grieving for her dead, but eternally lingering fiancé (a spiritual doppelganger of sorts) Nina’s emotional state deteriorates to what is amateurishly diagnosed by her father as clinically-defined anti-social levels. Nina, fundamentally, has the debilitating symptoms of classic, heart-broken, disconsolate youth: she’s neighbor hostile, belligerent, loud, weepy, and on certain occasions at her infirmary work-site, sexually explicit and even predatory; and sadly, her well-meaning, but somewhat conniving bookish father (Patrick Drury as Prof. Henry Leeds) plans for her rehabilitation with the honest, but equally unfulfilled and sexually inhibited suitor, Charles Marsden (Charles Edwards). Slowly, weirdly, the nexus of pious academic father, the dutiful suitor, Marsden, and (eventually) a slightly sinister, but incongruously funny family physician, Dr. Edmund “Ned” Darrell (Darren Pettie) bring meaning and reparation to the wobbly and spiritually mangled Nina. And collaterally, with the successful execution of Nina’s fetal-switching ruse, her doltish, toe-headed, piddling future husband “Sam (Jason Watkins) is snared from crippling insanity and spiritual calamity as well. As always, O’Neill’s persistent leitmotifs of awesome but verboten sex, underground abortion, medical ethics, and psychologically violent parental bullying vanish and resurface throughout the play until the exhaustive drama is spun-out over the three decade period between, and immediately after, the World Wars. Now, ironically, the euphonious title, Strange Interlude, has two connotations: the tumultuous years between the Armistice and Pearl Harbor; and the inner-voices that conjoin characters and audience in O’Neill’s sluggish, but eventually transcendent play.
Strange Interlude, as revived at The NT, and cautiously, painstakingly directed by Simon Godwin, is a fulsome event that takes us from a leathery office-study in the Leeds family’s upscale college-town home to a depressing New England summer house (with a deranged, Jane Eyre-type relative squirreled away in the attic) and, eventually, to an elegant pre-war Park Avenue apartment replete with nouveau fixtures, pristine accoutrements, a fascinating, if scene-stealing translucent tubular staircase, and Nina and Ned’s toy-smashing, pre-pubescent, biologically engineered child.
Fortuitously, the emotionally healthy “kid” is named after Nina’s deceased boyfriend and preternatural countenance—“Gordon.” The symbolism of a new and resurrected Gordon is a tad obvious, but O’Neill, an inelegant poet at times, would have it no other way—Gordon is now amongst the living. The intermittent scenes of Strange Interlude are set on the aft’ deck of a sea-worthy cruiser where family and friends drink, fight, shriek and rally at the finish line of the now grown-up Gordon’s prep-school regatta, and (lastly) Sam’s post-funeral gathering at a harbor terrace that calls to mind the final wrenching tableau of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. I was mystified by the ethereal mood and location of this final scene so I returned to the Interlude text for clarification. In his Act 9 stage notes O’Neill identifies the location of this scene as “a terrace on the Evans’ estate on Long Island,” and further: “In the rear the terrace overlooks a small harbor with the ocean beyond”.[iii] This design choice probably had tremendous significance for O’Neill in his inception of the final tableau, but I can only respond to what I see on the stage, not (necessarily) what the author directs me to see. For me, the locus—the “feeling”—of this quixotic long-goodbye scene is a small, private airfield or dockland—a hidden highway, so to speak, for the mobile rich. I had no sense that the “terrace” was proprietary and felt that it was much too airy and commodious for what O’Neill defines as a “pretentious villa”. Ultimately, the final frenetic scene involving Nina, Ned, Charlie, Gordon and Madeline (Gordon’s girlfriend) is quite rousing, but with an aftershock: Gordon (now a “sun bronzed” and “extremely handsome ‘collegian’,” “with the figure of a trained athlete”) bitch-slaps the cuckolding Ned for his lifetime of boorish behavior and exits from his life—forever. Effectively, with the dissolution of Gordon and Ned’s detestable and suspicious bastard/father relationship, Nina’s gnawing paternal secret is buried forever. Now, with her husband committed to the grave, her cloying boyfriend beyond Gordon’s reach, and her sexless life with Charlie imminent, Nina is free to kick back and enjoy the empty moment. Ms. Duff’s rendering of this pitiably restored Nina is credible and quite compelling. And design quandary aside, Eugene O’Neill was (and remains) the seminal modern-American set designer.
Strange Interlude is somewhat of a Jungian theatrical experiment. Embedded in the action are innumerable stream-of-conscious asides that comment-on, paraphrase or interrogate the motives, needs and passions of the relevant characters. These “inner-moments” are the context of the play’s mellifluous title and are proffered as secretive interpersonal consultations that allow the characters to continually second guess one-another as well as update the audience. Occasionally they’re delivered in various circumstances as afterthoughts, epiphanies and mini-soliloquies. At the time of the original 1928 production these “asides” probably seemed au currant or even daring, but now, in an electronic storytelling era, are graceless narrative devices. As a separate dramatic formula the asides are funny, dream-like, informative and even gossipy; and in certain places they offer the performers a ballsy panache—a kind of impulsive directorial authority that allows them to step out of the O’Neill box and pontificate on a given or developing situation. And weirdly, with certain asides, it seems as if a given performer just decided on impulse to stop the play and recite O’Neill’s stage directions or rehash the play’s subtext. Sporadically, the Strange Interlude performers seem secure and self-possessed with O’Neill’s method of paraphrasing and commenting on-the-fly, but overall, they’re never completely relaxed or in charge of the moments; and the audience isn’t always sure if the asides are intrapersonal or reciprocal. The plays “asides,” as textual commentary, are showstoppers—curious persisting showstoppers, but not enormously vital to the moment or the event; and as an adjunct to an already hulking stage play, O’Neill’s “interludes” become formulaic and redundant.
The sets by Soutra Gilmore are spot-on to the time and circumstance of each new scene and decade, and the costumes are impeccably chosen right down to the laughable argyle socks of the cuckolded husband, Sam, and the nifty leather grenadier jacket of the duplicitous, but again, eminently funny Dr. Edmund Darrell. Every care has been taken by The NT design team to find historical authenticity in the production values and the effort has paid-off in visually coherent ideas. Even the arching stern of the cruiser in the very shrill regatta scene is credible in both design and purpose; as such, we believe that the characters at some point actually inhabit the boat rather than just “act” on it; and with the exception of an over-orchestrated transition scene near the end of the production, the mood, atmosphere and setting of Strange Interlude is enhanced by drifting melodies, odd sonic effects, gothic lighting and a turn-table installation for quantum scene changes. And as striking and choreographed as the awesome set changes are, it’s never a high-tech show. As a matter of fact, considering the reach of the play’s geography (New England library, New England cottage, a Jersey shore summer home, Park Avenue apartment, cruise deck, and ocean harbor terrace) it’s somewhat of a measured and deliberate, low tech show. In all aspects, the production values of Strange Interlude never exceed the dramatic values.
The National’s Nina Leeds is carefully rendered by Ms. Duff; she suffers and almost cracks early on, then lapses into a ghostly despondency as her genderless, erotically- dispossessed marriage, creeps by; in her eye-popping, abortion-plotting scene with her mother-in-law, Ms. Duff is appropriately dumbfounded as she learns of the terrifying congenital psychosis in the Leeds family tree, then near comatose as she accepts and acquiesces in her mother-in-law’s very bizarre fetal-engineering strategy. O’Neill demands a gamut of bewilderment and hysteria in the “Nina” role and Ms. Duff unpacks and interrogates every nuance in her character’s border-line lunacy. Paradoxically, as things get worse for Nina, things also start to get better, and we see this struggle in Ms. Duff’s watery eyes, her sorrowful mask, and her nervous, reed-thin hands and arms. Gradually Nina’s mood swings are less fraught and the arc of her “craziness” is (seemingly) less hysterical. Here’s how O’Neill describes her unsettling serenity in his Act 5 preamble: “one gets no impression of neurotic strain from her now, she seems nerveless and calm”). Ms. Duff not only inhabits and anchors O’Neill’s “nerveless and calm” Nina, but nails the instable role to the floor.
Beyond the deep denial of her bogus housewife role, the prognosis for a reasonably sensible home life seems to be “improving” for Nina. Now, with her Faustian fetal-bargain fulfilled, Nina can rest easy and move on with her restructured and secretly extended family. Equilibrium settles in until Ned, recovering from a serious bout of Euro-wanderlust, resurfaces, and a whole new set of erogenous circumstances kick in. When Ned morphs on the doorstep of Nina’s suburban summer home, she hears his mating call and responds with vigor. Unabashedly, Ms. Duff, in her indelicate, Shameless[iv] television-acting mode, quickly and laughably flips Nina’s disposition from smiley-face and wispy-“Mom” to hot flashes and then sexual beggary; she baldly dishes-up Nina’s erotic impulses through horny billing and cooing, panting, whimpering, and then weepy-hysteria. (This ecstasy-dance all happens with Nina’s cipher-husband, Sam—under direct orders from Nina—shaving upstairs.) As Ms. Duff construes the sexually thirsty Nina, any assignation with Ned, be it a wistful night at home with Sam and Charlie, or a birthday party for their son, Gordon, can trip her insatiable appetite for the leering, philandering, part-time micro-biologist who “scientifically” fucked her as a favor—a moral imperative—to her unknowing husband and mother-in-law.
Unraveling and rewinding “Nina” is a roller-coaster ride for Miss Duff; and how she sustains her quirky emotional beats for three hours-plus is mind-numbing. O’Neill demands an unmanageable expedition for his volatile character, but Ms. Duff, a luminary and workhorse at The National Theater is a faultless choice for this unremitting and draining role. Equally, Ms. Duff has a risk-taking supporting cast that provides a few deft, howling turns by Darren Pettie (particularly in his interludes with the audience); a repressed and slyly fay performance by Charles Edwards, and a blubbering, baby-Huey performance by Jason Watkins as the witless husband, “Sam.” (As a measuring-stick of Sam’s early arrested development, in his first entrance in the play his trousers are hiked up under his arm pits and he wears a nappy varsity sweater tucked into his waistband.) This is the man that wants to remake the world with the melancholic, passively suicidal Nina? Again, as is his proclivity, O’Neill demands an inhuman performance from his performer and he gets it.
“Sam Evans,” as interpreted by director and performer, is not an easy character for actor or audience to get a handle on, but Godin and Watkins put their imprimatur on the bumbling role and the audience responds to his goofiness and his hidden frustration with measured sympathy. And thanks to Mr. Watkins’ unswerving focus in this unattractive and debilitated role, he is not a weak link in the cast when he undoubtedly could have been. The artistic choice to interpose Sam as a juvenile bumpkin was a sticking point for a few critics of this NT production, but, to their credit, director and actor made a deep-rooted, uncompromising decision with this complicated (but hardly complex) character and saw it through. With Watkins’ and Duff’s impressive character-work the performances could have shouted “tour-de-force,” but fortunately they never rise above the ensemble. The jittery, skittish performance of Miss Duff, the fresh-faced character of Watkins’, the urbane snootiness of Edwards (an Oscar Wilde prototype), and the very funny blustering and waffling of the blow-hard Pettie are honest, consistent and thoroughly in synch with director Godwin’s melancholic, but humoring vision.
As the surreptitious scheme of Strange Interlude coils and uncoils, the needy “claim” that Nina and Ned have on each other becomes obsessive and then overt. The sexually thirsty Nina and the ne’er do well Ned begin to “act-out” their proclivities in plain sight until the intellectually curious (and suspicious) Gordon makes a shocking discovery: “Sam,” his ham-fisted and hopelessly gullible “Dad” might not be his biological father; and Ned, the cloying, overstepping, so-called family friend is every bit the cuckolding prick Gordon thought him to be. When this discovery happens (he catches Nina and Ned purring and kissing at the warm-up to his birthday party) the old Gordon, the spectral Gordon that we only knew as Nina’s spiritual countenance, is vanquished, and the new Gordon, the covertly conceived, in-your-face Gordon, is activated. And like his namesake, the new and wily Gordon has liminal power over the indivisible troika of Sam, Nina, and greasy lover “Ned.” Uncannily, the consummate dramatist and story-weaver, Eugene O’Neill, by way of this abbreviated, precautious and clearly delineated NT production, has flipped the primeval tale of paternal discovery on its head. That is, instead of the cuckolding mother concealing the devastating secret of false paternity from her cherished son—the son (Gordon) will forever conceal from his naïve, bungling father, the devastating secret that he might be his best-friend’s bastard kid. Slowly, miraculously, this elephantine production of Strange Interlude, under the watchful, controlled stewardship of director, Simon Godwin, is lifting its large, ungainly splayed feet and lumbering forward. And the flabbergasted, almost disbelieving National Theatre audience, are too wide-eyed and incredulous to look away.
Strange Interlude, like many erstwhile O’Neill prize-winning “blockbuster” plays, has a vainglorious production history on the New York stage and in Hollywood. The central role of Nina was made famous by none other than Lynne Fontaine on Broadway[v], and the roles of the Nina and Ned were recreated by Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in an incredibly redacted Hollywood scrunching of the play[vi]. Hollywood marquee names and adulterated script aside, O’Neill couldn’t have cared less. He just wasn’t terribly impressed with movie stars or the movie industry in general. Considering the illustrious if troubled O’Neill family history on the American stage it’s not totally surprising that a future Nobel Laureate[vii] would be indifferent to truncated rehabilitations of his plays for the still emerging tinsel-town. Essentially, the screen adaptation of Strange Interlude, as O’Neill rehabs go, is interesting but not provocative or impassioned. And with the exception of John Ford and Dudley Nichols’ wraithlike screen adaptation of O’Neill’s short sea plays, The Long Voyage Home (which O’Neill consulted on) the O’Neill oeuvre in Hollywood is underwhelming. Yes, in a few places, the O’Neill film archive offers hauntingly beautiful and indomitable performances: Sophia Loren in Desire Under the Elms; Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra; and a dapper, suspendered, silver-haired, Shakespeare-quoting, card-playing, heavy-drinking Laurence Olivier as James Tyrone in a small-screen, production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night[viii]. Inarguably, O’Neill is in the pantheon of Hollywood film lore, but compared to his artistry on the stage, the O’Neill film oeuvre is canned mediocrity.
My only struggle with the gargantuan Strange Interlude is the idea (or gist) of the play itself, namely, the fetal-engineering trickery that sets the stealth events in motion. This “text” bashing is, perhaps, an unfair and unsurprising assessment considering that O’Neill’s work is forever judged against his seminal masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night. His earlier, less mature writing suffers under the strain of comparison and, essentially, is read and discussed by O’Neill doyens, but rarely produced by O’Neill “doers.”
As a result of that comparison Long Day’s Journey has become an extraordinary one-play canon much like Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, and Our Town, are one-play archives for Williams, Miller, and Thornton Wilder (in my careful opinion). But regardless of its girth, its insensible premise, its dormant production status, its rickety critical reception, and its middling place in the O’Neill compendium, the largesse of this NT production of Strange Interlude—by sheer fuerza bruta— will augment the O’Neill canon in the lending library, countless acting classes and auditions rooms, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.com.
The National Theater’s production of Strange Interlude is approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes long; at the final curtain there is heavy applause, a partial-standing ovation and two curtain calls. The ovation of the elderly, theater savvy, matinee audience is generous and heartfelt, and the actors reciprocate with subtle, un-rehearsed, bowing and glad-handing. Obviously there is a formidably high benchmark for standing ovations at The NT considering that founding member and artistic director Laurence Olivier has a resume that is titled and matchless. As Steven Berkhoff[ix] (a Shakespearean director and actor, a great admirer of Olivier, but a bellicose critic of the Olivier-as-Hamlet statue at Theatre Square[x]) so aptly and unwittingly understates him: “He [Olivier] is the greatest messenger of Shakespeare of his generation.” “Generation”?—how about his millennium? With the august theater lore of Eugene O’Neill and Laurence Olivier weighed equally, by the final bell of Strange Interlude—by the final lap through the NT lobby, café, wine bar, archive and website—it almost feels as if we’ve survived Olivier/O’Neill boot camp. Lastly, the decision by the artistic elders at The National Theatre to produce this inimitable, but leaden American classic was a plucky, but manageable project, and exactly what an austere, royally endowed theater is built for.
Following their production of Strange Interlude, The National Theater of England produced a quasi-musical production of the early and obscure Pirandello play, Liolà. The NT house literature boasted of a native-Irish cast, tinker music (Irish gypsies) and an olive-grove folktale setting. For me, a Pirandello devotee, the musicalized tale of a wandering Latin lothario who sells his numberless children as if they were exchangeable car parts sounds like a very brassy venture, perhaps an Oliver! or Annie waiting to happen. Arguably, you won’t find this level of theatrical provocation in contemporary American repertoire because contemporary American playwrights are immersed in “character revealing” plays which address incessant family “issues” and intramural squabbling; hence, over the last half of the 20th century, American repertory has been stocked with plays about “relationships” and “conflict.” Antithetic to this prevailing logic are iconic artists such as Eugene O’Neill and Luigi Pirandello (and de facto, the National Theatre of England) who are driven by cultural memory and reparation. Accordingly, as an instructor in a Communication Arts department in a Brooklyn/Franciscan setting that offers all aspect of performance, it’s my right and responsibility to witness this monolithic, prize-winning, three or four hour O’Neill production (or alternatively) musicalized tales of rustic Italian olive farmers, and bring their prevailing logic back to my students.
[i] The Lyttelton Theater is the second largest of three theaters at the NT and has a capacity of 890 seats which qualifies it as a legitimate, but smaller, “Broadway” sized venue. The other venues at the NT are the Olivier and The Shed. The Olivier, named after the NT’s founding member and artistic director Laurence Olivier, is, essentially, the main stage at the NT with a capacity of 1125 seats. The Olivier is comparable in size to large capacity theaters in New York such as The Majestic Theater or The Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. The Shed, the smallest and most intimate of the three venues is an experimental theater that can be defined in theater vernacular as a “black box” theater or simply an “empty space.” The NT web site defines and explains The Shed as a “temporary” space that produces projects that are “original, ambitious and unexpected.” Lastly, as a performing complex The NT can be compared in size and artistic temperament to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City which houses numerous venues such as The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater; Avery Fisher Hall; the Vivian Beaumont Theater, and their flagship venue, The Metropolitan Opera House. For more on the NT facility and artistic mission go to nationaltheatre.org.
[ii] “Doughboy” is the moniker for the hoard of boyish American soldiers that fought in France in World War I. O’Neill’s youthful character, “Gordon,” is a classic doughboy. I think the idiom is clarifying and appropriate in this context because it very accurately defines Gordon’s status in the America military.
[iii] Strange Interlude, Second Part, Act V. For all stage notes and line quotations from Strange Interlude I consulted the Boni and Liveright Trade Edition as posted on Project Gutenberg Australia.
[iv] Shameless is an explicit, vulgar British television production that follows a dysfunctional and decrepit borderline lower-working class family day to day, moment to moment. Ms. Duff plays a brash, sexually casual “sister” who is a central character on the show. Shameless has been reinvented for an American cable audience with a grimy Chicago-Irish family that is equally “shameless” in their slovenliness.
[v] Strange Interlude opened on Broadway on January 30, 1928, at the John Golden Theater with Lynn Fontaine in the role of “Nina.” O’Neill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (one of four) for this play.
[vi] Strange Interlude, MGM, 1932: directed by Robert Z. Leonard, with Norma Shearer and Clark Cable. O’Neill and Bess Meredyth are credited on the International Movie Database (IMDb) as “Writers.” Meredyth is credited as “dialogue continuity”. O’Neill is credited as: “from the play by.”
[vii] The 1930’s was an august decade for dramatists. The Italian novelist, playwright and scholar, Luigi Pirandello was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934. On November 13, 1936, The New York Times reported that there was no prize awarded in 1935; accordingly, when O’Neill won the prize in 1936, he received financial remuneration for both the 1935 and 1936 awards. The Times noted that the sum total of both prizes was a windfall “$45 000 dollars.” For more on this see the official website of the Nobel Prize: Nobelprize.org.
[viii] For a cursory look at the O’Neill filmography see the International Movie Data Base/IMDb. For a thorough discussion of the entire O’Neill canon see the Gelb or Sheaffer biographies.
[ix] Berkhoff was a very vocal and acerbic critic of the recently erected memorial statue of Olivier in an area adjacent to the National Theater known as Theater Square. The London Telegraph reported that Berkhoff ranted that the statue was a “… load of crap.” Olivier’s son, Tarquin Olivier, an advocate and fundraiser for the statue, led a counter-attack against Berkhoff’s pedestrian criticism.
[x] Olivier-as-Hamlet: bronze statue, Southbank, London, by Angela Conner. Unveiled September, 2007.
Timothy Dugan, D.Litt.
Department of Communication Arts
St. Francis College
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Flash Fiction from
Disturbed Sleep (FutureCycle Press, 2013)
By M. Kaat Toy
Parading Without a Permit
On the world stage, Ophelia wore a lavender gauze gown in a shade pale enough to see through to let people know she wasn’t all there and no longer cared to hide it. Its lightness used to weigh on her as another unforgivable trespass, but now, drifting on its wings in between to be and not to be, it is a blessing like everything: Hamlet’s feigned madness, her own madness unavoidably sincere, the branch she laid herself to sleep on breaking over this shallow brook, its escape opening up.
The angry differences eroding a chasm between her and everyone she had ever known or was likely to had changed from a river of bitter rue to this sweet, floating violet repast: Bathing herself in others’ pain, she experienced the wonder of their having survived it, a glut of gratitude filling the span inside her where, judging others lacking, a strait had opened up.
“I stopped you because I was wondering if you were all right,” the policeman said, growing larger the longer she stared toward him. “Did I mess up somewhere?” she asked, touching the wound on her forehead and examining the blood. Nodding, he answered, “At least we know you’re alive.” Searching for some truth in this, she enumerated to herself all the arrests that had impeded her character development. “Parts of me anyway,” she replied.
St. Sebastian, his head in a horned helmet, rides through the woods shooting arrows at believers tied to trees. They are there to learn to forgive him. His is the harder task. The narcoleptic nun’s head droops as he pierces her heart. All night she prays in her sleep; all day she sleeps during prayers, so her Mother Superior assigned her to beg for attention. Her punishment is to accept rejection. She tells herself to smile as St. Sebastian shoots her again. “Most of your audience will not be able to grasp what you are communicating,” her Mother Superior has said.
On this eve of the Blessing of the Animals, the nun offers stories at supper to amuse St. Francis: of Great Rabbit who made the world of mud that Muskrat brought from the bottom of the sea and of Wolf who stole the sacred sack of Death and unwittingly released it into the world. St. Sebastian and his followers demand she present a PowerPoint of pictures. When she cannot produce this, they forbid her to speak. She would like to scream, but there’s no point in being histrionic, she reasons. Excusing herself, she walks down the hall to begin the long night’s work she dreads. Oh dark horse, not yet, not yet, she counts on her rosary beads.
“I hope none of you are foolish enough to believe in a Creator,” St. Sebastian, forked through with feathered arrows, announces at the morning service. St. Francis nods noncommittally as he brings forth a lone, lowly sparrow abandoned in the Garden of Gethsemane. St. Sebastian signals to begin a long hymn to insincerity. They should really get rid of St. Sebastian, the nun thinks but, remembering the power of thoughts, asks for forgiveness and blessings for this spiritual centurion of subtle understandings.
A young woman brings her cat to the altar. “Don’t let my kitty die. Don’t let my kitty die. Don’t let my kitty die,” she pleads. “I’ll be a good girl.” St. Sebastian stares skyward from his martyr’s tableau, not looking at the young woman, the nun observes, realizing she will have to be the one to lead her to the grieving room.
The Tower Beyond the Wall
Love is always increasing or decreasing, she reminds herself as she takes the first step up the gritty wall she has encountered in the dark. Its length is immeasurable, but she can reach the top with her extended hand. With each step, the wall dissolves beneath her and rises above her as she reaches again. “Blessed are they who persecute themselves,” the Ancient of Days said, “for they cannot escape.” The wall is made of letters her disapproving sister slipped her in Bibles, now covered in elemental mud.
“One thought of light balances a thousand thoughts of darkness,” she recalls. She pictures light, and the wall is gone. Before her unfolds a plain filled with women washing dead babies, baptizing them. This is what they disputed before her sister departed, her sister who thought only washing could save her. “Doesn’t each soul determine its own fate?” she asked. Now the answer comes: Her fate was to accept or reject her sister’s faith and negotiate the passage that ensued. Crossing the plain where each woman is her sister, each infant’s name is Loss, she improvises--I am the Fire cast upon the world; as above, so below, a twin flame blazing as the Indivisible One--and holds thoughts of white light above her head so another wall won’t block her.
Before her, four triangles converge in a pinnacle of power: the Tower of Babel where the world’s people explore their voices on this ziggurat oriented towards Orion’s Belt. God never said, “We shall confound them,” but freed us to scatter and confound ourselves as she and her sister have done. She enters the Tower labyrinth. At its core she finds thirteen fast friends playing at the mystery, shuffling slates of knowledge lost and yet to be discovered, time having collapsed around them. “The yield will be vast though the workers are few,” they tell her as the walls shift into new configurations that ring out higher, new gamelan chords. These are my people, she perceives; thus, she will wait here for her sister to arrive beyond the bang and pain of words.
Copyright©2013 by M. Kaat Toy. Reprinted with permission from FutureCycle Press. All Rights Reserved
Sunday, August 18, 2013
A fifth-year senior nine credits shy of graduation. I was attending a free yoga class on campus and was distracted by the young woman near me, who was practicing in a pair of floral-patterned jeans. I wanted to scoff at her for wearing tight jeans to yoga but found myself mesmerized instead. I was down and out and couldn’t afford to take her on a date, so I wrote her a poem, an affected pseudo-surrealist love throb complete with my phone number. The poem was magically effective at gaining her affections. I kept writing her poems and she kept asking for more. I was delighted and decided to try and parlay those poems into three credits of poetry workshop.
I had no idea that the poetry professor on campus at Northern Illinois University, Lucien Stryk, was what he liked to call “internationally famous locally” as both a poet and translator of Japanese Zen Buddhist poetry. All I knew was that the poems pleased their intended audience to an extent I found giddily delightful and so, I thought, should earn me three credits. The first of the love poems I turned in to the workshop he judiciously critiqued. I deemed him incapable of recognizing my genius and planned to drop his course when the next student poet was cautioned against using the word caress in her poem. Stryk pointed out that it was an overly poetic word and should be avoided. I immediately dashed off the following, which I handed in as my next poem for the workshop:
Just a Feeling
I’d just rather jack off
or caress your teeth
with a ballpeen hammer.
It’s nothing personal
just a feeling.
I intended the poem as a dismissive gesture on my way out the door, but Prof. Stryk liked it, found it funny. The young woman who had used the word caress the week before was peeved, questioned why I could use the word and she couldn’t. Prof. Stryk gave us a lesson in the importance of surprise and the unexpected with my poem as the example.
I stayed in the class. I wrote more poems, following his admonitions to use fresh and unexpected language and images, to trust the language to guide the poem and not our will or what we thought we wanted to say. Two of my poems, including “Just a Feeling,” appeared in the student literary journal that semester, and I was hooked. I read Stryk’s poems, his anthologies of Midwestern poets, his translations of Basho and Issa and Shinkichi Takahashi, the poets in Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry (our class text in which Stryk was included but never discussed). Among these books I found poets and poems whose language I understood, or wanted to understand, and admired, poems whose imagery and metaphors I found luminous. More than words on a page, I found in those poems a way of being in the world that I recognized in a nascent way as my own.
This has to be the difference between a calling and a career. I didn’t choose to be a poet because I was appreciably better at it than I was at being a journalist or a philosopher, a ballplayer or a library assistant, nor because it afforded me social mobility or financial prospects. Being a poet chose me, found me just when I most needed to be found, when I was broke and listing, rudderless and ready to go down, dragging out my undergraduate education because I had no idea what to do next. Poetry afforded me a way of being in the world, offered me a life I knew I wanted without being able to explain precisely why, knowing only that it was the only life I had found worth living well.
Inspiration from the beginning has been a moot point. At first I wrote to get the girl and keep her, since I write to converse with those I most admire among the living and the dead, the poets I read and read and read, and the only way to have a conversation with those close friends I know through their poems is through poems of my own. The magic of inspiration is no more than filling my mouth with the words of others, with poems I unreasonably love and admire, or poems that vex and trouble, only to find that new words come spilling out of me sometimes of their own accord.
The trick, the craft of the art, is how well I dance between those words that arrive from a second voice and the form they take as they enter me. Years ago, from the get go really, I learned not to lead. The poem would be what it would. The more I tried to assert my will, the more it fell to rhetoric or dullness or the nonsense of cleverness. The work for me was and continues to be to listen, to hear what the poem wants to be and to allow it to take me where it needs to go.
The personal result, not surprisingly now from a perspective a quarter century long, is that I no longer trouble over who I am, no longer seek to discover my self as if that self was not what was made through being and doing. I define myself as a poet and just as my art and craft as a poet is to offer shape and form to those words that find me so too does that work shape and form who I am. The process is not willed or intended nor is it the goal. The goal is to make poems as good as I can make them and in the process such making makes me. That is the paradox and metaphor of this life; I become who I will be through doing what is given me to do with as much grace and attention as I can muster and learn. How can I offer form to the words that visit me unless that form is born of my self, the form of me? My self is far less the personal and so much more the form, the home I shape for my life, through what I make and how I make it.
Sometimes it comes all in a rush and I am lucky to catch nearly all of it, perhaps a few cuts or adjustments to language or line, but largely born whole. Often those are the special ones, the poems that carry the greatest energy, magic, music, and surprise. Most of the time my mechanism, my ability to listen and hear not only the words as they come but also what form they offer in terms of line, stanza, and overall design, is not as quick as I would like, as quick as the poem needs, and the poem, like any living thing that has not found its natural shape, its proper form and place in the world, becomes ungainly or stops before it is complete because I am unable to keep up, unable to discern the form required to hold the energy it brings. Then I can only count on patience, the hope that if I stay with the words given me, find for them their right form, the voice or its kin will return while work and move that poem to its conclusion. Sometimes this happens within minutes or hours or over a few days. It has taken as much as fifteen years. Often it doesn’t happen at all.
As a young poet I was loath to accept poems that arrived fully formed. The poem that has in many ways been my most successful—well-published, anthologized, performed on BBC radio, and available at poets.org—I wrote in fifteen minutes in my late twenties while helping to facilitate a writing exercise for high school teachers. When my professor asked me to share what I had written in response to his exercise in order to grease the skids for the others, one teacher was indignant. I could not, she said, have written that poem just then, in such a short amount of time, but I had. I took the cue given me, heard a line that I muttered to myself, kept muttering and writing as the poem came and when the time for the exercise was up, I wrote my last line. Later, I showed it to my wife before dropping it in the trash. She called me an idiot and fished it out. I didn’t trust the poem. It seemed too easy and how, as an egotistic young man, could I take credit for a poem that came so easily. I preferred the tortured poems I slaved over, thinking those the ones I’d earned. The truth is, a good poem is a gift. And the parallel truth for me has been, the more I consciously listen, as attentive and open as I can be to the world of the life given me, the poems I read and hear, my memories, fancy and imagination, the more likely the unconscious floods me with poems that don’t require my anguish and ego.
When I first began to write in the late ‘80s in DeKalb, Illinois, I lived on the second floor of a converted nineteenth century carriage house with huge and abundant windows and a tremendous claw foot tub. When a poem would come to me I would chant the lines as they came, but I found that I couldn’t do so standing still or sitting. I had to move, but if I walked randomly about the apartment, the energy would dissipate. If it was late enough so that no one was around, I might head to the small park nearby and pace its single block. But more often I’d hop on top of that tub and pace its rim, chanting the poem as more lines came. My memory could usually hold four or five lines until I’d have to come off the tub and write the lines before I lost them. Sometimes I’d write awhile and when I got stuck, hop back up and resume the tub-top pacing and chanting, beginning with the last line or two I’d written.
Then the personal computer came along and spoiled me. I could type fast and see the form as it appeared. I could cut, paste and maneuver the text so easily. My poems grew longer and more polished in appearance. Everything came faster when it came and I was better able to keep up. Imagine though the difference between reading letters and hearing a loved one’s voice. Both have their advantages but when I miss someone I love, little affords more solace than their voice. Now I’m trying to learn how to compose aloud again, to hear my poems before or as I write them.
Many people I admire insist on a set routine. How can the muse find you, they ask, unless she or he knows where to look and when? This never worked for me. I can’t show up at an assigned time and expect to write, perhaps when I’m revising but not when generating new work. When the poems come, everything else has to go. This is probably why poets and other artists are so often difficult creatures. Anything short of my wedding or my son’s, a poem takes precedence. Even on such special occasions, I take a notebook and pencil from my pocket and duck into someplace discrete as soon as I believe I can get away with it. My sense of when and for how long has improved over the years as has my ability to give myself permission and to surround myself with those who understand. My wife and I loved the choreographer Pina Bausch, but my wife knew that I couldn’t make it through an evening with Bausch’s dance company without retreating to the lobby to write. Rarely was I beside my wife when the curtain fell.
As a poet, I’m always reading poetry, often a variety of poets at a time, other times sinking into the work of one. Not to do so seems to me akin to a musician not listening to music or the devout ceasing to worship. One of the joys of poetry now is the range of contemporary poets available and the range of fine translations from so many traditions and ages. The mercantile among us argue that poetry is a dying art because sales of individual books don’t compare with bestsellers. That’s like arguing that mulberries or truffles are outmoded foods because Monsanto can’t find a way to harvest them: best sellers iceberg lettuce, poetry a wild root. Right now I’m discovering the poetry of Paul Blackburn, settling into A.E. Stallings’ new book Olives, rereading Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, and working my way through reprints of Robert Bly’s magazine The Fifties. I recently finished Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.
For many years the most damaging myth I held to about writing was that true poets and writers work independently: the garretted artist, the lone wolf. As such a poet, I learned to write good poems. Many people can write good poems, but without the attention of a community of readers, I didn’t learn how to make those poems better. Art and poetry of the best quality, the poetry I aspire to write, rarely happens in isolation. Poetry requires a community; people invested in helping each other make their art better. The trick is finding and sustaining that community of poets and readers invested in the art and craft more than the mutual care of each other’s egos.
My latest book, Mass of the Forgotten, is a collection of poems, some of which are more than twenty years old and others which I wrote last year. Finally, with much help from others, especially Owen Lewis, I was able settle on a form for the collection that not only cohered but also allowed the poems room to speak to one another and across themes. In many traditions, the work of becoming an adult is taking the dead from your back and through praise and truth telling help them to leave the world of the living to the living, to show them you don’t need them to take care of you anymore, that you can take care of yourself better now without them, that you thank them and need them to leave so your life can become your own, so they can breathe life into the living from a home of their own. That’s what this book is about.
The next collection is for my son Junuh, who’s ten now. He’s always asking me for stories, so this is a collection of largely narrative poems for him. It’s called Raveling, and I’ll begin circulating it among friends for suggestions and revisions next year. With Mass of the Forgotten out soon, I need to focus on keeping that work fresh when I read from it and to continue to write new poems because unless I’m creating I don’t feel like a poet and can’t read my own work without feeling like a fraud.
Copyright©2013 by James Tolan
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Four (additional) Poems by Milorad Pejić
Hyperborea (Aula, Prague, 2011) / Hyperborea (Fondacija Mak Dizdar, Sarajevo, 2013)
Translated from the Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian
by Omer Hadžiselimović
And every time in the anemic month of April when
the city parks, weary newborns, are recovering from
the wet winter and when stone dominates on both
sides of the Rhine. Nowhere are you so faceless
as by the Rhine, a businesslike river that makes no
distinction between corpses and torn-off trunks
that it keeps rolling northward.
The first year we examined the underground treasuries,
blood and sweat conserved in gold. Strict guides strove
in vain to conjure up the power of the all-powerful,
to bring to life greasy bishops’ staves in showcases.
Another time we climbed up among the bell towers
to feel the loftiness of the lofty, but the magic was
gone when we saw a dove’s nest in a dragon’s jaws
and a facade washer with a stereo hung
on a lightning-rod spike.
Thrice have I gone to Cologne to marvel at the Cathedral.
To ask and not be answered. And every time
in the panicky month of April, when ant people
dominate the squares. Don’t ask why and wherefore
such a glorious edifice! You won’t be answered
until you yourself, an anemic ant, stand in front of
those four-sided doors. Nowhere are you so puny
and insignificant as in front of Cologne Cathedral,
with the German God.
in the black holes on the slopes of Ahkka, and where
patches of snow dry on invisible clotheslines.
In the evening, tents mill around on reindeer pastures
like turtles. That sight will stay with you for days,
whenever you look back. As will the suspicion that
you are at the end of the world.
Everything here is in its right measure, but the terrifying
roar of the waterfall does not overwhelm the squeak
of a grouse. Vast is everything and inaccessible along
the path through Padjelanta, but the codes of strength
are in the rolling of tiny stones or in the helicopter attack
of a mosquito.
It ends nowhere. Wash your face therefore in a handful
of the cataract from which, little by little, an ocean will hatch.
If at night while you are sleeping on the rocks the scent
of ironed pillowcases comes into your dream, pack up your
vitamins and soups, go home – it’s late. From Padjelanta
you will not take anything else but the knowledge
that you live in the wrong way and in the wrong place.
* A national park in northern Sweden, with a 160-kilometer-long hiking trail.
Summer’s last days: the color of my tanned skin is
finally reverting to the color of snow. The body forgets.
But the camera lens remembers. For months not a drop
of rain on the Pakleni Islands*. The oldtimers sit among
beer bottles and stare at the open sea through a curtain
of rhododendrons. They no longer recall what they miss.
But we, who are foreigners everywhere, have not lost hope.
We climb at mid-day up the town’s dorsal fin, on narrow
steps, like mercury in a thermometer, to the top of the
fortress. We then go down into its bowels, saved in the
The small dungeons are built in the shape of horizontal
cones, narrowed down to points of light in the rampart,
tiny windows through which the prisoners, as through
a peephole, peer into the world. They crave for a bunch
of mandarins on market stalls, for the cry of a seagull
between the two blues . . . Through the peephole of the
dungeon, as if under the microscope, the longing for
freedom grows manifold.
* Islands located off the southwest coast of the island of Hvar, Croatia, opposite the entrance to the Hvar (city) harbour.
homeland, I came as a man in his prime.
The long days of summer were drying strung
on the nail of a calendar like tobacco leaves,
smelling sweetly, but my thoughts were still
roaming far away, in the basements of Gradina
Hospital, where I’d left my father behind, alone
in his last night. I know that shells were falling
on the city all night, on the living and on the
chestnut allée, and that they stopped at dawn,
but to this day that night’s shrapnel seek me out:
the peeling underground shelter’s ceilings in which
no one is sitting by one of the deathbeds.
Before I arrived in my reserve homeland, I’d only
heard of it from a Greek myth. That it’s a lonely
island where no one dies a natural death, but when
the time comes and children grow older than their
parents they go out on their own and throw
themselves off a cliff so they won’t be a burden
to anybody. I’m fifty now and time and again dawn
finds me as hoary as a birch tree under frost.
In a couple of years I’ll be older than my father,
who is no burden to anyone. Who knew a lot about
Copyright©2013 by Milorad Pejić
The Vase for the Lily Plant (Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1985)
The Eyes of Keyholes (Bosanska riječ, Tuzla-Wupertal, 2001 and 2012)
Hyperborea (Aula, Prague, 2011)
Hyperborea (Fondacija Mak Dizdar, Sarajevo, 2013)