Monday, April 16, 2012

Douglas Messerli "Pulling Down the Roof" (on John Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's Dance)

pulling down the roof
by Douglas Messerli

John Arden Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (in John Arden Plays: 1 [London: Methuen Publishing, 1994])

With the death of British playwright John Arden on March 28, 2012, I decided to read his most well-received play, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. Productions of this work have been rare in the US, so I'd never had the opportunity to see the play, and this was my first reading—although I read several reviews of the play when it first appeared at the Royal Court Theatre in October 1959.

      The Brechtian-like work, complete with songs (music by Dudley Moore), is a cry for passivism in a time when British and American society were moving full-blown into more and more international conflicts. The incidents which sparked Arden's play occurred in 1958 when British soldiers killed five innocent people in Cypress. By placing his play in a period of pre-Kipling redcoat soldiery, however, Arden shifted the theme of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance into a timeless statement of anti-war sentiment.

      The four soldiers—murderers, robbers, and deserters—descend upon a small Northern English town with vague motives. The locals, none too happy for their appearance, are in the midst of a mine strike, and are fearful that the soldiers have been placed in their town to keep order should their negotiations break down into riot. The local authorities (The Parson, The Constable, and The Mayor) see their arrival as a chance to get rid of the mining agitators, if only Musgrave and his men are able to get them to volunteer into the army.

      For his part, Musgrave keeps his motives much to himself. Although the three other men with him know that he is vaguely planning to spring his anti-war sentiments upon the populace, they cannot foretell his method. Sparky, Hurst, and Attercliffe are simpler men who enjoy drinking, sex with the local whore, and, although they share Musgrave's sentiments about their military past, a couple are not at all as ashamed by their murderous duties.

     The first half of the play is taken up with the local's suspicions and the military men's attempt to allay them. But Musgrave is not at all easy with his own intentions at creating anarchy. A highly religious man, he believes still in duty—even if that sense of duty has shifted to disobedience. Most importantly, he is man of conscience, horrified by the death of a young friend from the very town which they are visiting, a soldier whose skeleton is among their processions.

     In this atmosphere of suspicion and opportunism, things do not at all go right. The soldiers waver in their obedience to the man they have nicknamed "God." And their own desires, particularly their admiration for a local "soldiers whore," Annie, get in the way of Musgrave's mission. Although Hurst and Attercliffe spurn Annie's sexual attentions, the younger Private Sparky lusts after her, and is even willing, so it appears, to desert the deserters, asking Annie to hide him until they might run off together. The other two, overhearing his intentions, try to prevent him, accidently killing him on the point of his own bayonet.

      Trying to cover the "accident" up, Musgrave hurriedly calls for a town celebration, with bunting, flowers, speeches and all, hoping to waylay any further doubts by the townfolk. After the usual flowery banality of the Mayor and Parson, Musgrave begins his "dance," unveiling the weaponry available to murder innocent folk, setting it out, one by one, so that he might, indeed, kill his very audience. To everyone's surprise, he slowly unravels the tale of the soldier's duties, which involved, after the murder of the local boy, pulling innocent people from their houses into the streets and slaughtering them. The town gentry, Mayor, Parson, and Constable, are horrified by the shift of his speech, while the local miners are confused. While they want little to do with the soldiers and are perhaps ready to go to battle for their jobs, they cannot conceive of the anarchy against government Musgrave is proposing.

      Hanging the local boy Billy's skeleton from a plinth, Musgrave tries, with weapons at the ready, to find volunteers for his anti-army. Annie, however, reveals the murder of one of their own, as Musgrave's lofty intentions begin to crumble, Hurst shouting at him: "You've pulled your own roof down!" Suddenly loyal dragoons, called for in case of a riot, appear, arresting the deserters.

      The last scene reveals the imprisoned men, scolded by the innkeeper Mrs. Hitchcock for their lack of understanding. The men's only hope is that when they are hung, a seed from their actions may begin an orchard, that something might grow out of their ineffective but well-meaning words.

      In many respects, Arden's play is a brilliant statement locked away in its own level-minded cynicism. The values it declares are perhaps admirable—a complete shake-up of the militarist British world—but its hero, Serjeant Musgrave, still a product of that world, is not strong enough in intelligence and will to transform it. Arden may argue for a revolt against the class system, but such a revolt can never occur, he reveals, through the principles on which that system was based—God, duty, honor. Musgrave presents himself only as another kind of God, not a true alternative to the system which destroyed his own faith.

Los Angeles, April 14, 2012

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Douglas Messerli "Living in the Details" (on Beckett's Waiting for Godot)

living in the details
by Douglas Messerli

Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum (the production I saw was on April 7, 2012)

Witnessing the brilliant production, directed by Michael Arabian, of the Mark Taper Forum's Waiting for Godot, I was struck by something that I had not previously noticed by viewing or reading the play. Watching Alan Mandell (as Estragon), Barry McGovern (as Vladimir), James Cromwell (as Pozzo) and Hugo Armstrong (as Lucky), one gets the sense that, except for an occasional overlong pauses which slowed down this production a bit, that the performances were about as close to perfect as one gets. Particularly the long-time Beckett thespians, Mandell and McGovern, spout the often fast-paced dialogue in a rhythm that is pitch perfect, along with bodily motions that reveal their every thought.

     Yet, for the first time in this moving production, I became aware of just how spare Beckett's great work truly is. My companion Howard, enjoying the first act, however commented on the obvious: "Beckett seems to have presented all his themes in the first few minutes. I can't imagine what he might have to say in the second act."

     Well, I mused, "That's true. But his themes are really not what matter most. The fact that we live in a universe promising the return of a missing God, that some men, like Pozzo, are entirely about themselves, mean men of power who do nothing but to rule over other lives—while those themes are certainly there in Beckett's work, they are not central of the play at all. Suffering, despair, pain, boredom, yes, these are the givens of Beckett's universe, but they are not what makes his work so remarkable. It is the various ways, the numerous things we do each day to get through the suffering, despair, pain, boredom, loneliness, etc. that are at the center his plays and fictions. And that is everything, isn't it?"

      By the end of the 2nd act, Howard, who had never before seen a production of the play, understood what I was talking about. Beckett, more than nearly any other playwright, takes chances in Waiting for Godot by so pruning down the play's large themes that the work almost mocks itself. Particularly Estragon, who is always about to or, at least, declaring himself ready to do so—even though his time apart from his long-time companion, Vladimir, results in endless beatings in a ditch—is reminded again and again by his friend that their existence on this bleak plateau with only a tree and a rock is to wait, to wait for Godot. That is their only purpose, despite the seeming meaninglessness of that. Whoever this Godot is, whether he is the personal God of vengeance (if they don't wait, Vladimir suggests at one point, they will be punished) or a New Testament God of love, it is clear that Godot may never come, may never return their patient and often impatient waiting on earth. He may not even be a loving God; after all, so we are told by the messenger boy, he beats the boy's brother. What kind of deity is that?

      It hardly matters, so reverent are these two clowns who represent us. What is important is the waiting itself. But how to survive that? How to live through each day? That is at the heart of Beckett's play, is at the center of Beckett's melodious language. How might these two men, not necessarily "gay" men, but men who have, nonetheless, lived together for 50 years, get on. Fighting, contradicting one another, attacking each other, cajoling, complaining, laughing, watching, hugging, comforting, hating, and threatening to part (particularly Estragon), and even contemplating suicide, they entertain one another, they talk and haggle, and cry and laugh the way each of us does daily. Godot may be what they think they are waiting for, but what these men do with their lives is try to communicate in the hundred ways man communicates with one another and himself. The play is such a moving work of art not because of its over-arching thematics, not through its structure, but because of its presentation of everyday life, its barebones revelation of how mankind converts the emptiness of daily living into something of worth, of meaning, sometimes even rapturous joy, mostly ridiculous acts.

      Living, suggests Beckett, is not played out in the tectonics of great ideas, but in the details of everyday life. In Waiting for Godot it can even take on the accidental encounter, much like that of theater itself, of two ridiculous strangers, Pozzo and Lucky, the second tortured by the first, while the power-hungry man is equally dependent upon his servant, a kind of lesson in Marxist-like theory. Or it can focus on the simple rediscovery of one's own boots. For Didi and Gogo—their personal nicknames for each other—getting through each day is sometimes even centered upon just talking about how they might get on or the contemplation of separating, the observation of tree suddenly spouting leaves. For Vladimir, in particular, surviving depends upon memory, while for Estragon, survival requires sleep. Beckett moves his play forward, in short, through his characters' attempts to move forward, to get on through just one more day and another after that.

      Such a structure, wherein the author reveals the creative act itself, is a dangerous one, particularly for an audience which may desire to be told everything, to be led forward by the author himself. In Waiting for Godot, however, the audience is put on edge, wondering what these two fools will come up with next, how will the plot move forward, how will they get through yet another day? But in that wonderment, the audience members are forced to reimagine their own lives. Even the theater piece they are attending is a kind of way to pass the time, to move forward through the day. They too must go home, eat a carrot, chew on a piece of radish, crawl into the ditch of their beds to be pummeled in lonely dreams throughout the night. Some may even contemplate bringing it all to an end. But most will arise to meet again, to work, to talk and haggle, cry and laugh, just like the two clowns of Beckett's play do through the two days we witness of their lives.

Los Angeles, March 9, 2012

Monday, April 9, 2012


Robert Kelly

a dance play:



Monologues – one voice at a time, speaking – for Orpheus.  For in several senses:  texts for him to speak, saying his piece, his mind, his excuses.  But also texts for him to hear—voices that come out of the wings from all sides, unseen speakers, who reproach him, explain him to himself or to us, even praise him a little.  He needs praise.  He has lost his Eurydice.  In Gluck’s great opera Orfeo, Orpheus sings at the end, Che farò senza Euridice?   What will I do without her?  Which is also:  what can I make without her?

What will any poet do without the love he’s lost?  But how did he lose her?  The myth talks about snakebite and death’s dark palace and Orpheus singing his way down (lordy me, a poet can even bore a dog to sleep) past snarling Cerberus, singing his complaint to King Invisible, who lets him bring Eurydice back to the life world, provided… what?  That he not turn and look at her on the road back.  Or ever again?  The invisible king of the underworld (Hades means ‘unseen’) gives him an invisible wife. 

But we who listen are not Orpheus, or not yet.  So we can still see her.  Imagine that as Orpheus speaks and the voices chide him and comment, we see her silently dancing behind him, around him, in and out of what we call —like innocent children— the visible world. 

Imagine then the silence of Eurydice taking the form of a woman’s body dancing at her own speed, own whim, own relationship to light and dark.  She is in a sense the only actor here, and the words might be an extension of her movements, her meanings, just as they might be the texts the sermon of her body means to explicate.

When you read these monologues, you’ll see that there are no indications as to who is speaking any given passage.  That’s something we (and I include myself, imputed author of these texts) have to figure out for ourselves, on our way to becoming Orpheus.  Or beyond.


                                                   FOR THE PERFORMERS

Every time anyone says ‘I’ or uses any first person singular pronoun, it is Orpheus speaking, and the actor who is Orpheus must say those lines as far as they seem to carry the impulse of that first-person saying…

Orpheus, who spoke it is said for the gods, or for God, curiously disguised the source of what-is-being-said by pretending that he himself was saying it.

This guise is the source of the power and confusion of all poetry—it rouses without settling, illuminates without being clear.  At its best, it brings the hearers to a resting place, a calm desert where they have never been before.  In their ears resound the whining, boasting, wheedling, pleading, smug, delighted, innocent, corrupt personality that calls itself “I”.  But already they know better.

So this Orpheus speaks.  All round his lines are passages of text that can be, must be, spoken by other voices. I do not think any of them are Eurydice’s voice, though a few of them might be spoken by a woman who, in sorrow or bitterness or rebuke, thinks for a moment of herself as Eurydice.

The rest of the voices are who you are.  The director will decide how  many voices are needed, and will assign to each voice the passages chosen for it to speak.

It seems to me that among these texts are voices of scholars, psychiatrists, historians of life and art, young men of no fixed persuasion, experienced urgent women, each saying what comes to mind.  I leave it  to the director to find which actor best embodies each text, both invoice and visual seeming.

And they must move or stand as the director tells.  What (I ask with humility) I’d like is for the actors to do what their bodies want to do as their voices speak the words. 

One thing I do know is that Eurydice herself is always present, always in motion –you decide, actor who plays her, director who moves her, how and how fast she moves.  She has no lines because traditionally and ignorantly poetry construes the beloved as an object, out of earshot, a fantasy of the poet’s wishing.  This silent figure recurs in all love poetry, even, it seems to me, in poetry written by women.  The ferne Geliebte, and she must be far off to be so vocally, wordily, yearningly, gorgeously, loved.

So here I offer a tumult of voices,  some words for actors to speak, finding their way in space and body to what poetry has aimed at for four thousand years—the end of saying.


ORPHEUS was the poet, the emblem of his art, not the first but for the Greeks the greatest.  By the power of his words in music, or the music in his words, or maybe his words as music, he was able to make trees dance, they say,  and boulders skip around in meadows.  The usual myth  (and what other myth is worth the name but the myth that everybody knows?)  tells us that his wife, Eurydice, was bitten by a snake and died.  Orpheus went down to the Underworld to fetch her back, and by the power of his song charmed (song as charm, magic spell, Latin carmen = poem), charmed the beasts and bosses of Hell enough that they let Eurydice return to life, up here, as long as Orpheus did not look at her as she followed him uphill.  Or ever again  But he looked.  And lost her.  The first opera ever composed (another lost art?) was about Orpheus, and the greatest 18th century opera Mozart never wrote, was Gluck's Orfeo

later, in the middle of the play, you’ll hear a tenor sing the most famous line from it.  And Rilke, purest of poets, composed his final cycle to Orpheus, song singing to song.  In  the play,I've tried to understand something about the dynamic of the man and woman in the story.  

[The first public performances were done in the workshop context of a staged reading on 24th and 25th February 2012, at Bard College, directed by Marjorie Folkman, who also moved as Eurydice.  The speaking roles were acted by Thomas Bartscherer (Orpheus), Florian Becker (C), Lynn Behrendt (B), Mikhail Horowitz (A), and Paul La Farge (D).  On that occasion, The prologue continued, adding what follows:

 But first, to lead us in, we are to hear the music of music, the one that leads, teaches, any other kind.  David Adam Nagy will play an allemande by Bach, human breath strumming the lyre, impossible, the wood of the bassoon is the tree, dancing.  Then Péter Laki will sing three Hellenistic Songs by Adrienne Elisha, songs to texts  from the last centuries of that Greek world into which Orpheus, like Apollo, had come from the north.  And finally we go to the outskirts of hell, to hear the voices Orpheus sometimes hears, and how he sometimes answers.]

                                                                                                                        — R.K.


TELL US ABOUT the part they leave out—

what  (or who)

is the snake that bit … or was it killed. . .

or was it carried off Eurydice?


For a poet, so much comes from insecurity,

poetry is the song of insecurity,

litigious Shakespeare—poets own everything—

as persons they’re not entitled to anything, baseborn every one of them,

only by dint of their calling

they feel entitled to all.


For poets, all times are the same time,

so they are poor students of causality,

they don’t know what comes after what


they “count, but not in numbers”

they speak, but too many words, too many words.


Keep talking…


But still too many.


Try to feel from his writing—what is Orpheus.  Or who?


He had no son—that  is of the essence

of his story—no sons, a hundred

thousand daughters


Orpheus?  O[r]phis.
He is himself the snake that bit her foot


Jealousy is not the truth of it—

fear and insecurity gnawed at him
he snapped at her, she died.


And of me, what shall be spoken?

Am I a dead man already?

That patch of sunlight

I keep studying on the grass,

is it under me or over me.

I know certain things—memory’s

make-believe, a crow calling

me to now.  If this you hear

you’re living still.  A crow.

Information of all kinds

from the realms around me

I have never entered.

I have never been born—


that is the poet’s ailment,

constantly picking up this leaf,

stone, touching that hand,

yearning for his own incarnation,

and who can give it to them?


Give it to me.

                            The women

are leaving me now

like the gods who shuffle away from Antony

under the streets of the city

and I have no streets anymore.

They leave me, and that’s why

I stupidly reach out—

because all I know of life is wanting her,

and now when she, the one,

moves away from me

I lose the clue to going on.


He is not fond of these confessions—

that’s not what writing is for.


He is always talking

as if talk had nothing to do

with all that music

they keep calling it,

‘lyric’ of the lyre, words

spun from tones,

tones primed by words,


no one knows which comes first—


in the museum there’s a marble statue of him naked

playing a violin,

and the violin has no strings,

his lips are beautiful

no sound comes out—


no song?  word or tone?

Or none?


He looks out over the summer lawn

quiet as stone.


As if talk had nothing to do with poetry

and poetry nothing to do with going on.


And while he’s pondering and muttering

(hearing himself think, is what we call it)

this voice-over murmurs its commentary,

a nest of rabbis humming over the book.


Voice-over they say in movies,

the voice you hear and think you see.


You cannot see the voice.


You cannot see the voice and live.


And while he stands there and does what he does out loud

and voices fall from everywhere around him


Eurydice also is there. 

Alive and silent

if silent people can be called alive.

Silent in this place and every place she is

because he has never learned to hear her.

But still she moves.

We see her dancing.

We see her move like someone waking up

someone falling asleep someone dying

someone waking up again—


but all the while she dances

he thinks she’s dead

she’s behind him, she dances behind him,

whatever’s behind us we think is dead.


He thinks the snake bit her and she died.

He thinks the snake killed her.


Orpheus sometimes thinks he was the snake, he killed her with neglect, put other women before her, sang their songs, put her behind him and she died.

It is his fault.


Orpheus other times thinks he was not at all the snake, the snake was someone else, a sly adulterer who carried her off to his sleazy realm and made her forget him, made her put him behind her.  It must have been his fault.


And other times Orpheus thinks Eurydice was the snake herself, her own wandering ways took over, so she wandered off, slithered away, and was gone, over the hill, beyond the forest, across the sea, dead to him, dead with distance.


He must have bored her with his endless verbiage, word play, heart songs, or not held her tight enough, or held too tight.  His fault.


Orpheus thinks all these things, and can’t decide.

He can’t make up his mind.


A poet can’t make up his mind—

the poem makes up his mind for him.


Some say Eurydice killed herself.

Some say Orpheus killed her.

Some say she never died.


A myth is what happens to the mind — when it stops thinking.


The orderly wrongness of being me

chided by birdsong

early, the skreel

of night things ever after—

the fault is mine


he is the guilty one,

the pointer out, explainer,

child babbling in the back seat

the names of all the things they pass


how irritating, maddening really

that is, the ceaseless chatter

of a mind trying to confirm

 its own existence by naming

all the things it sees the things it wants


how irritating the ceaseless

commentary of poetry.


No wonder everybody loves me

and nobody really loves what I speak.


broad  Eury-

justice    -dice

what shall we make of her,

an honest broad-faced wench

all too soon promoted to alterity?


it is so hard to be somebody’s Other


meantime in silly urgency

he craves Isthmia,

snake-hipped, virgin-harlot, temple prostitute—


But shouldn’t he be the worshipper?


Endless confusions of Orpheus—

his mistakes interest him, he

finds his starting place

in whatever goes wrong


he makes us listen ever after to what baffles him

happy, humming them under our breath


for it was breath

where it all began

when it was any good at all


Some say art smothers breath,

blinds the eyes, stuffs the ears.


If he thought it into place

it stank like the dead meat

of that turtle whose shell

he lifted so painfully off had

made the first soundbox

for his lyre, because meat

is what thinks

but breath is what speaks


Orpheus sneers at the sophists:  these men

(and it is mostly men, isn’t it,

who do philosophy, alas)

these men are silenced by ideas

as adolescent boys drown

all night in visionary thinking

from which no word can ever speak—


What is vision?

seeing the unseen


This body will not dance

they dance around me

all around me, all

the ones I thought

thought I meant

but they return, they

mean me now

and the dance wills body—

o all these ones

are not the one


che farò senza Euridice?                                


She was the only one

who brushed my words aside

and smiled and loved me

despite my music—

for her I was what so

few poets dare to be,

a human on earth, stuck

here, glad to be,

thick with breakfasts

working for a living

and grumbling at the weather,

nobody special, hence genuine,

I was that one to her,

without her I am not that

to myself, and come

to be like all the other geniuses,

ridiculous and noble,

a marble

                        statue to my own identity…


Writing is his mode of being.


Slow opening of ancient files

police digging in the cellar


all I am is a bone of what there was


Mythology lets you talk about yourself

unashamed, shamelessly even,

like Oedipus babbling in the woods—



lets everybody know

the monster that I am

and what I’ve done

with this body of mine

she gave me


—one last cry, “Mother!”—

I have heard that dying men call out to their mothers—

but my mother told me the last word she heard

her mother calling out was her name, Maggie, Maggie,

and the street was full of snow.  And the doctor

was walking away.  Maggie, for Margaret, from a Mediterranean

root meaning ‘pearl.’


Everything comes from the sea—

the water that snakes its way from the mountain springs

from the monsoon rains from the clouds’ intimate rubbing on the hills,

snakes its way down and fills the sea to its brim,

we are the brim,

the rim

we live on

ill-balanced between the elements



It’s when I feel you so close in dream

that waking I most feel I’ve lost you—

either feeling I could bear but the both

together slay me.  So I tied

a rope around your hips and drew you

to me

            there was not slack left enough

to tie a knot, so instead you looped

the rope over your wrists

held out to me;  this I knotted loosely

and pulled you after me

from the dream.  The stories say

I looked back and lost you –

nonsense:  looking never lost the looked at.

What happened is I opened

my eyes on the hillside up from dream

and lost you in the glare of common daylight.

And when I close my eyes

I swear you still are there,

right here, I mean, between

all my past and that slim

knifeblade of a future, just

as you are in all my poetry.


Orpheus is consoling himself.  He picks up the sheaf of his recent work and thumbs through it, looking for her.  He’s like an old rabbi busy at his pilpul, trying every dodge to find her, Her, in every line. 

Shakespeare put beautiful poems in the unlikeliest mouths; character is his excuse for poetry.  Orpheus, earlier, dared to



                        put songs in no one’s mouth

                        yet we can hear them sing

                        and by such empty song

                        he forced us to pay mind.


But who said that? 

And what mind is it that songs rouse to attend?

At last at least the current runs

after a day or two of pleasing lyric sputter.

Now down your harps, ride the torpedo,

full seed abaft!


For the woman

was always behind me.

That is the secret.  The word,

almost, that I was always

turned away from her

but she was always (I thought)

in my mind.


But she was nowhere

but where she was,

now I know better.

She was my mind.

D. (aside)

With this kind of funereal philosophy

he could almost conquer silence—


When I turned back

that famous day

to look at her at last

I was looking at my mind.

Nothing happened.


Nothing happens.

As the Lamas say,

when your mind

looks at your mind

the story ends.


Narration is confusion.

Nothing happened.


The myth says this, then that—

but you know what myths are,

the lovely lies

that keep us half-awake.

The myth called it death,


as if losing the story was losing the woman.

But we know better—


we never know who is speaking—

who knows?  who knows better?

and what is known,

is that also dancing,

now here and now lost —found—

in some romantic shade?)

but who is speaking?


The woman, even this one,

even the she of all my poetry,

the woman is not life,

she gives it, surely, always,

to everyone who dares to be born,

and sometimes even to his poetry,

and she takes it away, sometimes—

but she is not life.

She is the mind from which life spills,

the matrix from which life comes

as an almost unnoticed consequence

of her awareness.  Of Awareness.


A fall perhaps,

an Eden in the eye,

where awareness seeks

an object to be of,


this goes beyond my element

which is to sing

what I don’t know

and lick my half-guesses

loud enough for you to hear

who are not she,

not Eurydice, are you?                                                           


Is every loss the same loss?

The shadows

into which she falls

are the same everywhere,


that shadow-color

dark lymph of the world

takes her.


nothing is lost from the world

but she is lost,  she

is lost only from you

not from herself

not from everyone.


To be a self is to lose the rest


Be pretentious, little poet,

push your fancy far as you can

be what you pretend to be


then unmake the fancied image

later and go free


you must have a self

before you can abandon the self


there is no self—

only imputation,


indulge the imputation:

be a pirate a little while

a diva, a deva, a boon

companion of foxes and wolves,

even some man’s wife

and then get over it,


the self is a sickness from which we can recover


he sang, but the self he lost

was not his own


the self is a sickness from which no man can recover


The Argument:  Seeking to sing away his Self,
by Distraction & Mischance he sang away the Other.


What could distract anyone from the other?

Isn’t the other all there is out there?


Who are these people reading me

with such big eyes?

The oak tree pierces my song

the birds are busy at it

building and breeding, things


things he knows nothing of,

Orpheus has no children,

only songs, only the sounds

of all the birds, all the people

doing what he does not know.

Did the birds read him?


Did they rend him?

Do we tear apart the mind of what we read,

our fitful eyes and lusts

tear up the quiet suchness of the text?


We always hear that girls tore him apart,

bassarids, bacchae, bacchantes, Aglaonice—


No, he is torn apart by what he remembers,

all the images that crowd his mind crowd out his soul,

his mind was in his eyes and his heart was in his voice,

he watched all of them, all the women

and his voice called out to each of them

as if he meant her and only her,

he couldn’t tell the difference,


and each one heard his song as if it meant only her.

how could it be different,

isn’t that what song is

or does, a singling of out everyone

everyone who hears it

knows it’s just for him


this entryway is meant for you alone

my song’s a door

open only for you


then the women rose

took off their clothes

turned their backs on him

the song froze

in mid-air, some

looked back over

their shoulders to see

whence that silence came

and one alone did praise

him for some new  

trick it sounded like

he’d learned then she

alone stepped near

and closed the door.


Was that your Eurydice?

Already he forced himself to forget

studied instead the woodgrain of the door

behind which she is hidden…


They all hide from me

that’s all the world has in it now

women and the grain of wood—

everything else is marginal.


Imaginal, he means.

Can song sing

what no one sees?

Even if in the shuttered

attic of his thinking he saw,

would we believe?


The wood of the door

she slams in his face

reveals the sinuous

continuous writhing of time

through the matter world

sleek as their hips—

whose?  but they are gone—

intimate as the thoughts

she denies him now



is all the eternity

he ever has


All my poems exist just to find out what she thinks


Why don’t you ask her what she thinks?


She doesn’t know she’s thinking—

nobody does.

Only the language knows.


And when time withers

and the door crumbles,

splinters and honey-colored

dust on the floor of the mind?


But that is not wood’s way

it goes on standing, word’s way,

signifying, its ancient life

still visible.


All such images, lover, are shallow consolation.

The whole world can’t console you

for this one slim shadow

who’s slipped away from you now

as shadows blend into shadows

seamlessly indifferent—

                        so no one hears you


O song,

o sweet interference

with how things are,

I send you to her

to distract her—


Once he started thinking

he stopped listening,


The girl stepped back

into the wood and was gone



The man died into the poet,

the maybe died into the yes.


Yes is dangerous, yes is a vine

grows quick round a young woman’s feet,


she thinks it is a snake around her ankle

then she doesn’t know what to think.


Every affirmation drags her down.

Everything a man says about a woman loses her.


She dances around him,

her hips cry out:  “Your syntax slew me

from what I was to what you saw,”

her hair awhirl between

his eyes and the lamplight cried

“Every image you affirmed

was stolen from my mind,”

you leave me bare,

swept clean by music.


Then her bare feet patted:

empty empty, empty empty.



A girl is need, a man is seed?


In his dream she lay across his knees

like a koto played beneath his fingers

turning contour into tone, pressure,

percussion and no more harp.

Her voice long muffled sang out too:


The time of the lyric is gone past

you need more fire and less air.


Too many words, still too many words.


Just keep talking, maybe it will make sense.

But was he dreaming all the while?


So much for listening.

You need a harp

to hear with

just as you need

(he needed)

a pen to think.


But thought is its own instrument

she thought,

                        and he thought she had learned that news in Hell

where it is too dark to read or write—


and that is why the body is


always we see her moving,

never still,

                        she is the wind

itself through his dying forest,

the drowned pinewoods

alphabetic against the sky,

the waterbrooks trying to bring

his dead soil back to life,

the elements work against

themselves in him—


he thought

such things about himself

when he sees –he sometimes sees—

the shadow of her dancing…


Let me tell you everything I know:

tell everything you know

only after you’ve said everything else—

that is:

tell what you don’t know.

That’s the only thing words are good for.

Or otherwise how will I, listening,

ever know who I am?

We exist at the intersection

of two ignorances,

at the place called Knowing.


For body is the first language

and at last the only one—

we only need to speak

because we’re separate.

Any word is a scar on the abiding silence.


No wonder she’s gone—

she sees that he’s in love with separation,


he thinks she hides in every woman he might meet

stares brusquely through the forest of her eyes

to catch a glimpse of his Eurydice


who of course was never his.

Justice—broad or slender—

belongs to no man, least

of all a man with words in his mouth.

Justice flees when juries talk.


My mother—who was my mother?—

taught me:   Talking is a sin

and writing worse,

                                      she tried

so tenderly to protect her poor son

from what I would say,

from ever believing what came out of my mouth.


sometimes I think that with

the bible already written in the rock

the axes in crystal and the molecules of actual things

maybe every human word is blasphemy


and who is this anyhow man?


Silence is his breath,

he is the one who listens for us,

who listens out loud


Why do we need to hear what no one says?


We listen to him listening,

we help his words to find their silences again.

= = = = = = =

                                                                                                [this version 27 January 2012]