Sunday, July 29, 2007
SUMMER POETRY CHALLENGE - 27 Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit - Timothy Donnelly
Here it is, I'm so excited, my first entry in the Summer Poetry Challenge. Please make a point of checking out my fellow participants - Imani, Sheila, Dewey, Siew, Loose Baggy Monster, and Eva. There is a directory on my scrollbar - to the right. Click on their names to link to their sites. They might start posting as early as today, in fact, Imani has already been posting on Paradise Lost, or they may begin posting on August 1 - the official starting date.
Fellow participants, I've linked to each of your names in the directory in my side bar rather than trying to link to your individual posts, since some of you have already done multiple posts on a single poem. I would suggest labeling each entry with the title of the poem. I've indicated on the side bar that we would do that. Please link back to me so that interested readers can find the directory of the other participants and their poems! I can't wait to hear what you all have to say.
Here's my first entry, it's the title poem from Timothy Donnelly's Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit written in our current century.
Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit
Let there be lamps of whatever variety
presents itself on the trash heaps. Let chance
determine how many, but take pains
to use only low-watt bulbs, and keep the lion's share
flickering throughout the performance.
In particular, one gooseneck should pulsate religiously
on the leeward corner of an escritoire,
which is a writing table, or an unhinged door
suspended on sawhorses. These will be spattered
in a clash of pigments, signifying history.
Dust is general over all the interior.
You are very tired. You are very weary.
On the floor, one carpet, its elaborate swirling
recalling the faces of wind on old maps.
And let there be maps, at least half reimagining
the world according to a scattered century:
a shambles, patched. Now for the wall-clock
which hangs prodigiously over every act. Let's rig it
so the hour revolves in a minute, the minute
in a blur. Grab hold of an enormous mirror
and mount it divinely - that is, too high to bear human relfection.
And what do you call it when you can't endure
the scraping of the blades of all creation?
There'll be a bucket of that, another for the suet,
a third marked SESAME but filled with sand.
Place this last a judicious distance
from the bamboo cage in which one ostrich, plucked,
stands Tantalus-style, its beak eternally
approaching the rim of the third of the buckets.
Does the bird want seed, or is it onto the trick
and terrified, frantic, to bury its head in the sand?
Will it never end? But look who I'm asking!
Take your worry to the sofa, lie there.
There's a pillar of books and a French periodical
on either side. Before you know it,
it's always midnight. Now the owl of Minerva
takes its flight down the nickel wire.
Now a dampness pumps from the tightened fist
of a cold contraption, a sort of inverse
radiator, and you can't control it, and it isn't pretty.
Tell me you love me. There's a severed hand,
or is it a fruit peel? Tell me you love me
and I make it mild. Take your panic to the sleigh-bed,
slump there. There's a snatch of heather
and a cracked decanter on the starboard side.
Before you know it, it's always never.
You know I hate it when you whimper, don't you?
Now shut them big ambiguous eyes.
Now shut that cavernous cartoon mouth -
and here's the sock to fill it, periwinkle!
You know I hate it when we don't coordinate.
Now what's that rapping at the shattered window?
It's only the egress, I neglected to mention.
But here's a rope with knots to help you shimmy down -
a dozen square knots, the last a hangman's.
Now take your heaving to the curtains, part.
They're dove gray, dolly, and fall like art.
I like starting with this poem because of its loopy, erudite, manic quality. The voice sounds to me like a crazy theatrical star designer that can demand anything he wants - and as he's dreaming aloud the props fall from his lips and, of course, other people have to run out and build them or find them in junk shops or school prop rooms or friends' attics. And he's ranting to the star, an experienced actress, who he can nevertheless reduce to tears if he wants to. Except, this designer's play is eine Lebenszeit - a lifetime.
There's a rhapsodic quality and many of the lines are long - like Whitman's (or maybe that's just because I'm reading Leaves of Grass too, they do both favor long rambling lines over compact ones). But Donnelly's rhythms are more formal, and in that playful contemporary way he breaks phrases up not only between two lines but also between two stanzas - adding to the number of ways you can read them. He's also playing lots of games - I loved that each prop is italicized - just begging you to count them (and to interrupt the flow of holy poetry) and that one of them is dust and another dampness! He is designing a lifetime after all, so there would have to be dust. And he is beginning a life so the first line is "Let there be lamps of whatever variety," in other words - let there be light! It took me a couple of readings to get that joke, but when I did I really thought it was funny.
So the lifetime "play" starts with light, which must be kept flickering throughout the "performance," a clock hangs over every "act" and it moves quickly, a mirror is mounted but too high for the performer to see a reflection of himself, there's suet and seeds for nourishment (but the seed isn't real), there's a sofa to lie on and books and a French periodical to pass the time. His set for life seems like an old Parisian apartment - dusty but also a bit damp, furnished with sleigh-beds, an escritoire, wall-clocks, and a decanter. I'm reminded of Eric Fenby visiting the aged composer Frederik Delius in his house in France (Delius As I Knew Him). I've always envisioned the old recluse composer, blind, sitting in a house like this one. It also makes me think of the city of Bruges in Belgium (have you read Bruges la Morte - it's the basis for the wonderful Korngold opera Die Tote Stadt - that's what made me go and visit. Big tangent, anyway...)- A dark sepia, medieval town, filled with lace, and canals, as I walked its old streets I had the feeling of eyes following me from behind the doors.
Finally this poem's long, breathless lines created for me the feeling that I have when in a nightmare, I am handed a script while standing in the wings of a theater, and I'm told that in a minute I'm going to go on stage and do the play. "Now don't be a big baby about it," says the director. So here is this mad director who should be telling me something concrete about what to do, but instead he's just going on and on about the props and how lovely it will be. In this poem, the wings of the stage is the womb, and the play the life I'm about to enter. Notice that the window is the only exit, and that it ends with the hangman's noose. And the director or stage manager or whoever is screaming "oh it will be gorgeous! (Tell me you love me)."