Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fables For A Puppet Theater by Kenneth Gross

A man is pursued by his shadow.

A child picks up a tiny stone and kills a giant

Thrown from a ship during a storm at sea, he is swallowed by a whale and lives happily in its stomach for days. His son arrives to rescue him.

The old king comes upon the body of his daughter and does not know whether she is alive or dea.,

A stone cries out against being stepped on, kicked, buried, and split. It meditates revenge.

The ghosts of girls betrayed by men dance living men to death. A man and a woman exchange parts of themselves with each other – a hand, a leg, a heart. For a while this contents them. In the end they have to rent each other to pieces.

A mirror walks down the road.

Children plant a doll in the garden and wait for spring.

Lovers try vainly to touch each other through a hole in a wall. Their hands grope in the dark. The wall tries to console them. The hole alone is happy.

Children carry the corpse of their mother to a distant graveyard. From time to time she raises her head up from the coffin, crying “Faster, faster. . .”

On top of a mountain, a man binds his son to the pile of wood on the alter. An angel takes the knife from the old man’s hand. The ass looks on.

Blocks learn to spell out words.

Buildings shake themselves awake at dawn.

On far-flung islands, he studies the different sizes and shapes of beaks, the speciation of claws and eyes, the drift of feathers, the flow of blood, the fragmentation of bones, the appetite of worms.

She burrows in the soil, building a network of tunnels, listening always for her enemies, the army of invaders and subtle spies, those within and above the ground – she is blind but not, as she thinks, invisible.

Lessons for a shadow: How to creep up a wall. How to watch from behind a door. How to fall suddenly across a page. How to stretch out along the ground. How to disappear in darkness. How to inseminate the light.

A creaking cry. A white sail appears on the horizon at a great distance, then moves out of sight.

Spindle, shuttle, and needle were guarded in the royal treasury and paid every honor.

Animals take over a theater.

A dream of rescue: swooping down from the air on a winged horse, the hero flies to the monster, the bound virgin, the ancient rock, the ancient chain, all the motions of water.

Punch descends to the underworld to recover his lost wife, knocking down all who stand in his way, charming dead souls with the sound of his stick.

A puppet show of hell. Flames shake as they tell their stories. Thorn trees speak in blood when their branches are broken off. Humans and snakes exchange bodies, or merge together. The murderous poet carries his severed head as a lamp, telling his story. Whirled about in a storm of wind, two puppets embrace for all eternity. Frozen in ice, one puppet gnaws at the head of another.

She turns to stare at the city and is turned into a statue of salt.

The whale instructs the drowning man.

The wire sings to the wire-walker.

Vanity presents a head and a leg, Truth a head and a heart, Love a heart and a hand.

The siege of the city. The death of a hero. The battle for his corpse. The burial of his armor. The wanderings of his name.

They gather at the edge of the dam, watching the rising waters.

The bird song speaks for the child whose bones lie buried beneath the roots of a juniper tree.

A bed sails away.

Don Juan tears up his book of conquests. Shreds of paper hover in the air and crowd around him, crying out in mockery.

The mail coach rushes along at twilight, bearing down upon a group of travelers. Some are crushed under its wheels, some leap over the coach and save themselves, other catch onto the door or the fender and are drawn along in flight beside it.

A crumb explores a table cloth.

She returns after many days.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Samuel Becket’s plays, clearly on the creators minds, give us human creatures at the edge of humanity, possessed of a severely limited, even mechanical range of movement and gesture, bound in the earth or to a rocking chair, or reduced to immobile heads, spot-lit mouths, disembodied hands, and depersonalized voices. They show us humans caught by the inhuman forces and orders that yet emerge from within the human, including human theater, forces they inflict on each other as much as suffer from themselves. Beckett’s actors portray humans brought close to death, to a form of death-in-life, a state joining entrapment and trance, their humanness recovered the more powerfully for being so reduced. Just for this reason I cringe to think of the plays performed outright by puppets. That would literalize the fiction and kill the dramatic force of seeing a human actor whose body and voice are under stress. It would also strip of their alien-ness, their thing-ness, those few inanimate objects that Becket does bring on stage: the carrot, the shoe, the gun, the bloody handkerchief, the stuffed dog, the book.

Yet the Leipzig-based company Wilde & Vogel’s rendering of King Lear made a place for the ghost of Beckett’s dramatic world within a play of puppets and humans together. Here the king and his fool, both human performers, were trapped together in a kind of limbo, A Beckettian dream space like that of Hamm and Clov in Endgame. The fool performed before the king scenes from his folly, madness and suffering, using puppets both beautiful and grotesque, representing variously his daughters, his courtiers, and inhabitants of the storm-torn wilderness. Lear sometimes himself collaborated in the puppet play, even supplied a puppet’s words. Or he might don a mask and take on the persona of one of his victims, such as the blinded Gloucester. Just as often he sat or stood, strangely impassive before the shows, stunned by the desolation he had created….

. . . . . . . . . . .

I think also here of how a poet such as Emily Dickinson turns here attention to small objects, small creatures, small occasions, forgotten or idiosyncratic intervals of time. The very diminutiveness that seems to put an object or moment at risk is also its source of power, even as its small size makes a thing the world is liable to violate, misapprehend, or embarrass. Such small entities – the buzzing fly, a bird, or bluebell, a rat said to be “the concisest Tenant,” a spider that “sewed at Night,” or even “A certain Slant of light” – stand for dimensions of knowledge and feeling that are too private, too strange, or too radical to be given larger or more conventional public form, that will not answer to established frames of judgment, that refuse to witness any grace or even suffering marked as good by an established system of belief.

The plays of scale in puppet theater are about more than visual paradox. They suggest that we do not yet know the dimensions and limits of what we call life. This theater will remind us that even the life of our hands is not our own, that these are subject to stranger motions, capable of stranger gifts. It may also remind us that we do not know fully the different kinds of death that humans own, or the shapes of the lives that can be lived by inanimate things. That is why locating precisely the life of the puppet, or the source of its charm and fascination, is so complex, so elusive a matter, and so endlessly suggestive of the paradoxes of our own lives.

There is a stark poem of Dickinson’s that catches something of this ambiguity, sowing her way of making urgent emblems out of the most ordinary objects and events. She describes the stopping of an elaborate clock, and the freezing of the tiny, mechanical figures within it:

A Clock stopped –
Not the Mantel’s –
Geneva’s farthest skill
Cant put the puppet bowing –
That just now dangled still-

Motion it has at first, mechanical animation. Yet it is only when the clock has stopped, when the automatic motion of the figures vanishes, when they experience a kind of death, that the poet feels a radiance and a sense of suffering life in these creatures. It is a life that includes a consciousness of a temporality – and of a timelessness –unmeasured by human mechanism, even as the figures themselves seem to grow in size, detail, and human feeling:

An awe came on the Trinket!
The figures hunched – with pain-
Then quivered out of Decimals
Into Degreeless noon-

Here the breakdown of the machine is the very thing which gives the figure life, makes the world newly charged. (In another poem Dickinson speaks of moments “when everything that ticked – has stopped -/ and space stares –all around- “.) The poet, indeed, makes of their sudden, mysterious illness not an image of death or failure, of merely passive suffering, but the image of an act of will, an act of refusal; a “cool, concernless No -/ Nods” from the clock face. (That “Nod” makes of the “No” a paradoxical assent.) The clock is “not the Mantel’s,” but something that belongs to a more metaphysical order. At the end of the poem, in a desperate turn of analogy, Dickinson makes such a stilled moment an image of her own blank refusal of obedience to the demands of the deity, “Decades of Arrogance between/ The Dial of Life -/And Him-.” This small soul-clock, in its broken, urgent, even deathly life, pits itself against the larger work of an invisible clock-maker God, whether of John Calvin’s Geneva or Dickinson’s own New England.

Puppet; An Essay on Uncanny Life by Kenneth Gross; University of Chicago Press, 2011

photo: Scene from Chair de ma chair (My own flesh and blood), Ilka Schonbein, by Marinetter Delanne

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