The Designated Mourner

For the last year now, I’ve been working on the first production of Denver Poet’s Theater: Wallace Shawn’s chamber tragedy, The Designated Mourner. Tonight, Aaron Angello, Elisa Gabbert, and myself are mounting the first performance at Dianela Acosta’s house in Boulder.

I’ve wanted to direct this play since the first time I read it, somewhere between the spring and autumn of 1997. I remember buying my copy at Rizzoli books in the Copley Mall, then walking home and reading it in one fast, chain-smoking, sunlit sitting. I don’t smoke anymore, thank heaven, but the play is going to be real, at long last, in only a couple of hours. I’ll try to make a few notes on this blog, here and there, about how the production is going. To reserve your own show, drop me a line or contact Denver Poet’s Theater:

I’m pasting my director’s note below, because why not. But host us, and by gum you’ll get a real paper copy of your own:

Director’s Note

It’s appropriate that writers stage The Designated Mourner—it’s a kind of outloud novel, one that eschews stage props and customs to take shape in the theater of the mind. Indeed, the show’s first New York performance featured New Yorker short story writer Deborah Eisenberg in the role of Judy. (Eisenberg played for creeps – her Judy told a ghost story, pitched low, as if from beyond the grave). Writers first, we took on the text as a complex literary work and talked together about how much was packed into it, how to pull that out. Although I call myself the director here, the production was thoroughly collaborative, with lots of rehearsals indistinguishable from study groups. We spent a year like this before inviting anyone to watch. By then, of course, we’d made our choices. I don’t remember who suggested performing the play for small groups in private homes, but we all latched onto the idea once it was in the air.

There’s a primacy to an individual speaking voice encountered face-to-face: Homer by torchlight, speaker’s corner, bedtime stories. As so much of the play takes the form of a series of confessions, a lot of our early conversation had to do with who the audience was intended to represent. Are you interrogators at our famously cold, famously damp local prison? Are you old friends in a bar? Are you the generation who succeed Jack and Judy, smugly incurious about the time of the upheaval, when the dirt-eaters finally rose up and the new government set them and all of their sympathizers firmly to rest?

Were the characters ghosts? It didn’t matter that not all of them were dead. A ghost isn’t someone who has died, at least not necessarily. A ghost is someone you can’t let go of, who follows you and badgers you, who you talk to when they aren’t there. Those mistreated and lonely people who walk the streets shouting are talking to ghosts. They’re who we talk to when we talk in our heads. Perhaps the audience are ghosts as well.

John Donne is a ghost here, one losing his power to haunt. Marxism is a ghost—beaten down by authoritarianism. (“It’s like the play takes place in Pinochet’s Chile,” one of us said in rehearsal—I can’t remember who, “but Chile is a part of New York City.” That’s probably as good a description as any of the inside of Wallace Shawn’s mind). Jack and Judy are ghosts to one another.

This, to stretch a metaphor, makes the actors a kind of medium. So: a table for a stage, writers to act, and neighbors—fellow citizens!—to behold our shared dilemma.

… making the world safe …

As I read all these pieces about Jeff Koons online lately, particularly the obligatory descriptions of that amiable idiot as the new Andy Warhol, I think of this passage from Gary Indiana’s (bowdlerised but still excellent) Andy Warhol and the Soup Can that Sold the World:

The single most devastating lesson of the 1960s and early 1970s was that progressive institutional change in American society would not be permitted to happen. It took a long time for the lesson to sink in everywhere, and whether or not it has bearing on Warhol’s eventual embrace of “Business Art,” his work became the mirror of an unameliorated capitalist ethos, at ease with portrait commissions from the Shah of Iran and taped reflections of Imelda Marcos; making the world safe for Andy Warhol involved making Andy Warhol safe for the world.

Conduit 24 Through The Greek Anthology

Like all real readers, I always have more than one book going at a time, and of course they converse. So from now on, here and there, I’m going to post a few notes, in no order, about the experience of reading one through the other.

For years I’ve owned a falling-apart copy of Kenneth Rexroth’s translation of The Greek Anthology, dipping into it here and there. Whatever ill-defined force conscripts us to re-open books made me take The Greek Anthology down from the shelf and carry with with me for the last week and a half. Like Spencer Tracy in the final moments of Inherit the Wind, I left every room with two books in my hand.  I was also carrying and reading a Conduit #24, a new issue of one of my favorite poetry magazines. I’d switch of between them, depending on my mood — did I want something 2,500 years weathered or something written by the people I knew?

So what’s the difference between them? It sounds like a specious question, but it’s worth asking plainly. The Greek poems, like anything ancient, have had their allusions worn smooth by time. When Sommer Browning in Conduit makes a poem full of proper names (e.g. “When you were with Emily I was with Matt and when you were with Sarah I was with Paul”), the people she mentions may be as unknown to us as Eumelos and Smerdies in The Greek Anthology. Then again: the last line in that long list reads: “and when you were with Eliza I was with Noah.” As up until now, the poem has followed a set pattern (when you were with X I was with Y) the reader has come to imagine that it might be a poem to Sommer’s current partner. But in this case her current partner, her husband, is Noah, and so there’s the joke. She’s writing to someone else entirely, their relationship entirely unclear. But what happens when 2,000 years go by, and we don’t know anymore who Noah is? What weight does the poem still swing? I love Joshua Ware’s new poems (from his Impossible Motels, which are exactly what they sound like) but how would my experience of them fare if I didn’t know who and what had inspired them?

That was the question Cephalas had to contend with when he assembled The Greek Anthology in 10th Century Byzantium out of a whole millennium of short poems in the language. The poems had to stand regardless of who they were about, or who wrote them. And what’s surprising is how reliably they do:

Here is Klito’s little shack.
Here is his little cornpatch.
Here is his tiny vineyard.
Here is his little woodlot.
Here Klito spent eighty years.

It’s silly to pretend that if these English version were to appear today, in the pages of Conduit 24, shorn of all context, that they’d be a tenth as successful as they are now. But that’s not the point. The jokes you share with the very young or the very old may not be as funny as the third round of belly laughs with your good friends the night before, but you enjoy them more because you’re connecting across a chasm, and those connections feel wonderful. They treat our generational loneliness.

So many of the Greek poems sound like interrupted conversations (“Good God, what a night it was…”). Some feel far away and oracular (“Time’s fingers bend us slowly / With dubious craftmanship, / That at last spoils all it forms”) but some are painfully  immediate. That sense of immediacy across time is what people mean when they speak of a classic. When I lived in Cambridge and I was making poor life choices I used to wake up at 4am and walk the streets of Harvard Square barefoot. The narrator of this Petronius poem says it’s lust that wakes him and that’s good enough:

First I ran, and then I lingered,
And at last I was ashamed
To be wandering in the empty streets
The voices of men,
The roar of traffic,
The songs of birds,
Even the barking of dogs,
Everything was still.

Contemporary poetry, or at least the poems in Conduit 24, aren’t like that. Generally, I’m sympathetic to lamentations about the state of new poetry: the bland jumpiness, pseudo-naivete, in-gaming. But there plenty of exceptions, and there are times when, god help me, jumpiness and in-gaming work. (And the thing you always hear about rhyming and memorization is a canard: I have plenty of these Greek poems by heart and their language couldn’t be more plain; as Clive James once rightly pointed out, the real tribute of memorization is that it’s an artifact of extended engagement). This, by the late Kevin Joe Eldridge, the second poem in the magazine, is as plain and haunting as anything in the Greek book:

An Indian gives me a ride in his Datsun.
For 200 miles we say nothing.
I can’t help feeling our silence
is like the silence between old friends.
He lets me out for no reason,
no civilization in sight.

And it goes on like that: a series of short, probably true events that, now that he’s died, read like an epigraph.

Daniel Tiffany from a poem called “Ondine” (named for the Neil Jordan flick?) does something entirely different from the Greeks, and completely worth doing:

Here’s the start of it:

At the subway entrance
a frighted woman appears.

Behind the guide,
tinted by the Earth’s

oblique veins
a starlet appears.

People crowd into the automat on the corner.

The flanking and flirting is that of many flags
at the gate of a monastery in flames.

Protected by a nebulous god
she crosses the street.

Here we have a lot that’s great about new poetry. First: old poetry is there. The heroes crowed each other at the gate. There’s Trojan mayhem in a Hopper painting and Helen walks away free. But then there’s the beautiful indeterminacy of new poetry. Do the two stanzas at the start of the poem refer to the same woman or to different women? This kind of indeterminacy is valuable and it is unknown in The Greek Anthology.

On further reading, correspondences between the two books multiply. Paulos Silentiarios’ lament could be the masculine call to Paige Taggart’s response, both in a kind of passionate extremis (his mind is on her, her mind is elsewhere). Let’s skip 1,500 years in a few lines. Paulos first:

Eros has changed his quiver
For the fangs of Kerberos,
And I am hydrophobic.
The sea smell of her body.
Her skirts rustle in the stream.
I go blind staggering drunk
With the very taste of wine
That calls back her sleep drugged lips.

Now Paige Taggart (beginning midpoem in “And beyond thought and idea”)

… you are young thoughts
there are bills to pay and fire-escapes
to climb without reason into the
brass night, whatever, when you ring
my neck with anger it’s also just
the weather being cancelled from
continuing, I know as much as you
know that there’s no void to turn against
and with free will, it will keep turning.

But whatever their harmonies, death is the discord between the little books.  Maybe death was closer to the Greeks — they routinely came into contact with it an we really don’t. Still, they often lived into their 90s, and we see more death on TV in a month than the average Athenian saw in a year. So why is death seemingly everywhere with the Greeks and seemingly nowhere with us? It’s the dark background between all the soft skin and the rustling money and the red wine, but it isn’t here in Conduit (neither, oddly, is there much love or money, illustrations of dollar bills between the poems to one side). So many of the poems in Conduit seem to be about negotiating the haunting but decidedly minor vicissitudes of modern life: arrangements of light, the touch of trees, pop songs, déjà vu. Passion is muted, made pocket-sized, as if in deference to the insignificance of a single person’s emotion in such a loud and crowded world. (From Elisa Gabbert & Kathleen Rooney’s “The One About Spit Takes”: “A little misdirected fury walks into a bar. It’s a little furry. The misdirected furry rolls a peanut across the bar with its nose”). It’s genuinely funny, but the Greeks could be funny too (the Emperor Julian’s poem “On Beer” reads, in its entity, “You call that wine? / I call it mush.”) And they didn’t mind getting personal  There are insults in these poems I cannot repeat without incurring misdirected wrath (they were not politically correct, those Greeks). And they knew dark humor long before a bunch of late-1960s novelists discovered it:

Dead, they’ll burn you up with electricity,
An interesting experience,
But quite briefly illuminating–
So pour the whiskey and kiss my wife or yours,
And I’ll reciprocate. Stop fretting your brains.
In Hell the learned sit in long rows saying,
“Some A-s are not B-s, there exists not a B.”
You’ll have time to grow wise in their company.

Of course the Greeks had no pop songs as we know them or nature poetry as we know it post-Petrarch and of course poems of pure longing or pure passion or pure dread are often laughed away by contemporary editors (and would have been laughed away by me, when I was a poetry editor for a couple of years) but the Greek poems lose none of their power for all that, indeed they gain from it.

Childhood is also present in the new poems as it wasn’t for the Greeks, perhaps because we have a different conception of it now: childhood is more relevant, perhaps because of our endless adolescence. The Greeks wrote about children, but never as children. Conduit 24 like a child’s bedroom, comes with winsome clocks and the tiniest earthquake. “My parents have never told me / one dream they’ve had,” writes Joe Colburn, in an absurdest poem about a dog in the shape of a dog (this is one of the more aimless and drifting poems in the mag). Perhaps we simply have more neurosis (a holdover from Christianity, that) and knick-knacks and ego-states. So do the Conduit poets put themselves in danger of missing the forest for the trees? Most certainly. But the trees are worth seeing on their own.


“Of course it means you are going away from us for good,” she said with a sigh. “But that don’t mean I’ll lose you. look at my papa here; he’s been dead all these years, and yet he is more real to me than almost anybody else. He never goes out of my life. I talk to him and consult him all the time. The older I grow, the better I know him and the more I understand him.”

My Ántonia

A Gallery of Commonplaces

"Pretty Ladies" by Eric Fischl

“He had a lot of funny stories to tell her about their old Paris chums. all of them in loony bins or sanitariums, the ones who weren’t on Nembutal.
‘I used to look for my friends in the society columns,’ he intended to say tonight. ‘Now I look for them on the barbituary page.'”
— Dawn Powell, “Every Day is Ladies Day”

“Her smile, not permanent, expressed many complex feelings and was the cause of much debate. Her smile is “‘ know what’s coming’; her smile is ‘I love to acquiesce’; her smile is ‘On the verge of tears’; and so on” — Adam Golaski, Color Plates

“The first non-farmers were probably craftsmen producing pottery, tools and other specialized items for the community. But ruing groups, probably religious at first and then political rapidly took over the distribution functions. Societies emerged with large administrative, religious and military elites able to enforce the collection of food from peasant farmers and organize its distribution to other parts of society. In parallel, unequal ownership of land, and therefore of food, rapidly changed.
In its broadest sense human history in the 8,000 years or so since the emergence of settled agricultural societies has been about the acquisition and distribution of the surplus food production and the uses to which it has been put.”
— Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World

Madame Berthe Bady by Toulouse-Lautrec

“I am trying to make the past interesting to you. I am trying to make my own life seem real to you. My father was unable to make his own life seem real to me. When, finally, the important question about my father arose: is my life like my father’s, I found no answer. One day–how can you imagine this?–you’ll ask the same of my life. I want you to be able to picture my life. To lay that picture upon yours, two texts on tissue paper. When you come to ask the question, you will see me as very old, a skull above my shoulder as clear a death-portent as any death-portent could be, and you’ll wonder, how could that man have been a man? However could he have gone to work and married and had a son? You’ll wonder, have I been different enough to avoid his fate?” — Adam Goalaski, Color Plates

“Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that in effect there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draft, who had a whole river of the same water left to him to quench his thirst; and the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government

“He could pass for thirty-five as long as no one that age was around.”
— Dawn Powell, “Every Day is Ladies Day”

The Policeman's Daughter by Paula Rego

“Some of the West’s best writers, from Dostoevsky and Conrad and Malraux to Mary McCarthy, Heinrich Boll, Doris Lessing, Alberto Moravia, Nadine Gordimer, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have tried to read the minds of what Don DeLillo in Mao II called “men in small rooms.” All they’ve done is make those minds seem almost as interesting as their own, which of course they aren’t. The kamikazes of Kingdom Come – the skyjackers, land miners, thumb-screwers, militiaman, death squads, and ethnic cleansers; the bombers of department stores, greengrocers, and abortion clinics; the Pol Pots, Shining Paths, and Talibans – have stupefied themselves. To imagine otherwise is to be as ethically idiotic as Karlheinz Stockhausen, the composer who told reporters in Hamburg on September 16 that the destruction of the World Trade Center was ‘the greatest work of art ever.’” — John Leonard, Reading for My Life

In a role reversal, the dramatis personae
are left to the end of the book. Nameless
shadows and no signifiers, no different
from what you ear each day while
strolling around the pier, where the orphans,
also nameless, have discovered a new racket:
inspirational sayings carved into clam shells.
— Maureen Thorson, Applies to Oranges

“[on common land] the rational heardsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his heard. And another; and another … But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational heardsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his heard without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”
— Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”