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]

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