The show must go on

By Andre Bagoo

Performance Anxiety: New and Selected Poems, by Jane King
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845232306, 116 pp)

Subversive Sonnets, by Pamela Mordecai
(TSAR Publications, ISBN 9781894770941, 112 pp)

Shrine Circus, 22 February 1972. Image posted at Flickr by Marion Doss under a Creative Commons license

Keats, if he does not say it, implies it: all poets are actors. In a letter to a friend, he describes the “poetical Character” thus:

. . . it is not itself — it has no self — it is everything and nothing — It has no character — it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, right or poor, mean or elevated — It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity — he is continually in for — and filling some other Body — The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute — the poet has none.

It’s hard to say just how far Keats is willing to take this. Is it a manifesto for the life of the poet, or is it rather a statement about the appropriate range of poetry’s subject matter? Both? At the very least, these comments get us thinking about the similarities, if any, between performance and poetry.

If poetry is concerned with creating experiences, perhaps this is what links it to the idea of performance. Just as actors aim to provoke emotion or convey feeling and ideas through tools such as gesture and body language, so too do poets aim to assemble feeling, albeit through the artefacts of words drizzled on a page; or text represented on a canvas-like computer screen; or type patterned onto objects; or projected, ephemerally, in a space.

Poetry, thus, becomes a kind of acting and acting a kind of poetry. On a basic level, too, the poem may be performed, especially if it is written as a monologue or a piece for voices (such as Dylan Thomas’s closet drama Under Milk Wood — or some of the poems in Pamela Mordecai’s book Subversive Sonnets). And the actor must co-opt the techniques of poetry if she is to achieve what she seeks to do with an audience. Acting is as much about what is said as unsaid; it is a choreography of silence, speech, gesture, implication, sound, and sight. Both things aim to replicate human experience and feeling in some way. Aristotle would probably say both spring from the same imitative instinct.

Yet, if poets are actors, are we not all actors too? Shakespeare has many answers to this. One version is in Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

And another, markedly different version, comes later in The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Another kind of answer came a little more recently, from the novelist J.G. Ballard. Reportedly, at age fifteen Ballard left decimated Shanghai, where he’d spent the Second World War, for Cambridge. He remarked:

One of the things I took from my wartime experiences was that reality was a stage set . . . The comfortable day-to-day life, school, the home where one lives and all the rest of it . . . could be dismantled overnight.

One reason the idea of life as a theatrical production endures is because it presents tantalising possibilities. What comes at the end of this play? If “real life” is a play, then are we not partaking of plays within plays, ad infinitum?

Aside from this, the conceit endures because it is simply convincing. It touches on something of the artificiality of all communication, all language; reflects philosophical questions about cause and effect, determinism, free-will, and fate; focuses on the idea of creation and the realm of the imagination; reminds us how personality itself can be a roving, fungible creation.

In truth, the idea of life as a stage endures because it forces us to question what is true and what is not. A fiction can sometimes be more truthful to life than reality. The actor can create something freer and more alive in an audience than what exists outside the theatre. The point of the lie, then, becomes one of blurring the line and, in a strange, ventriloquistic way, telling a truth.

Not only do the poems in Jane King’s Performance Anxiety suggest ways of looking at the poet as a performer, but they summon the idea of personality as performance. The book’s first section comprises new poems, while two other sections select from King’s previous collections, Fellow Traveller (1994) and Into the Centre (1993).

King was born in St Lucia, where she recently retired as dean of the Division of Arts, Science, and General Studies at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. In addition to being an award-winning poet, she has a number of acting and directing credits, and was a founding director of the Lighthouse Theatre Company. Her newest poems do not explicitly deal with theatre. Instead, they take up an ambivalent posture and attitude to the conducting of different roles relating to social and family duties, such as mother, lover, friend, poet, dean, devotee. The idea of performance is re-enforced through evocative titles such as “The Performer’s Night Terror”, “The Performer’s Love Poem”, “Performers Are Holy”, and “Performer After the Tropical Storm”.

In these poems, the playing of different roles is tied to existential questions raised by a range of social contexts and constructs. And so in the opening poem, “Same Circus, Second Year”, the stage is off-stage. A family has come to see a show, but who is really putting it on in this “eerie circus light”? A son observes animals:

Three once-white ducks are crammed into
a cage with muddy floor
the toddlers gravitate to them
Mikel asks what they’re for

To lay the eggs to feed the snakes
and what are the snakes for?
To put their heads in a lady’s mouth . . .

Then what’s the lady for?

Oh, we’re frightened, we are weary
we are hungry, sick and sore
and the crowd calls out for more
the crowd calls
for more

The enjambment of the last stanza makes it polyvalent. “We” are both members of the crowd and its entertainers. “We” are constantly “sick and sore” and part of that thirsting crowd, even if a comma separates us. The crowd beckons; the crowd calls all the time; the crowd demands accountability, maybe blood too — just as it expresses delight (“out for more”); goes in search of meaning elsewhere (“out / for more”). It is telling that this kind of kaleidoscopic breakdown of meaning in the poem comes after the queries of the child, who asks the simple yet difficult questions the adults are struggling to answer.

“What’s the lady for?” may well refer to a general question about the place of the female in this show, as well as wider questions asked by the feminist school. Earlier at the start of the poem, a “dancing girl” is objectified, falls, and is “caught by hired local men in tired velvet clothes.” The poem’s persona remarks: “it’s not rehearsed, it isn’t fun.” This circus is supposed to be an entertainment, yet it turns sour because it comes to mirror larger forces at work. The family unit is also implicated in this, for it is the family that must come to the show and perform the role of audience, thereby making it unclear who is really who. The family, too, must inevitably comprise individuals playing specific roles within its dynamic, and for the benefit of a crowd. So “Same Circus” achieves a disorientating critique effortlessly, unfurling swiftly to show the innards of the stage set. It follows Dylan Thomas’s suggestion that a well-crafted poem “leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in.”

King’s vision is honest and wide-ranging: encompassing the personal and the social in economically crafted poems that are black, disarming, and effective. In “Performer After the Tropical Storm”, the storm may well be between two people (“I do not know how to say / all this to you”) or two countries or regions. A similar process occurs in “The Other Sea Almond Women After the Storm”. Until trees themselves come to be performers, in “The Performer Gets Some Comfort From a Tree”, the stand-out poem of the book:

A tree told me that nourishment
is never very far from where we are,
that it is our most delicate filaments
that force the dust and rock aside and travel far
to tap the water, mine the minerals we need,
that it is our most vulnerable tips, like leaves
so casually blown, that search the air, like seeds
so tiny, bravely grow, whatever one believes.

The tree said: Know, you must sit still and slow.
Everything you need to grow is all around,
it’s hidden in the rocks in the hard ground,
it’s in the harsh and mocking wind. You know
you cannot strain and fight to dig these out.
What’s softest, most vulnerable, conquers drought.

The sonnet’s metaphors and images embody contradiction and complexity. The “delicate filaments” of the tree roots conquer “the hard rock.” Patience, a steadfast nature, and wiliness overcome drought. Arguably, the poet’s craft gains from a similar allegiance to subtlety, economy, as does the actor, and all endeavours that involve seemingly insurmountable challenges. Other poems in the book contain similar dichotomies which are undermined, in bravura fashion, to unmask contradiction and show unexpected insight into aspects of human relations (“The Motherside”, “Performers are Holy”).

In an interview last year for the ARC website, King discusses what she perceives to be a conflict between her own roles as poet, mother-about-the-house, and dean. “When I am able to let myself slip totally into poetry mode, I enjoy it,” she says. “I feel dreamy and relaxed and cheerful, but I must admit I am totally useless, the house won’t be clean and there will be no point expecting me to commit to anything.” She continues: “When I am in administrative mode I am really quite efficient and the poet persona annoys me to pieces — and I just can’t wear the two different hats and achieve anything at all, I just feel totally pulled apart. When I force myself to do it I find that the best I can get are Performance Anxiety–type poems. They are frightening to write and I don’t enjoy living in that mode.”

If these poems are just the best Jane King can get on a bad day, we are frightened at the thought of what she might produce otherwise. Her comments point to a complication of the idea of the poet as performer. Each role is itself a performance, and though apparently in conflict, they reside in the same person. Can we admit there is poetry in all our roles, and all our roles end up in our poetry? This is what makes all the world a continuous stage. Perhaps while King feels a conflict, she is really one role consisting of many limbs, each playing its own part in slowly conquering something buried, unseen.

The performance of roles and their subversion is one theme which also flows in Pamela Mordecai’s Subversive Sonnets. The very form of these poems embodies the complexity the poet means to convey. Some poems are sonnets, others are sonnet sequences. All pay careful attention to rhyme, metre, and rhythm, but none are restricted by them. The poems make us question the role of the sonnet in contemporary poetry, yet, in a sign of Mordecai’s achievement, do not draw attention to their form.

The Jamaican poet — who lives in Canada — is also a playwright, and these poems have a conversational air. They often function as monologues, or carry a range of voices within narratives. A strong, irreverent Jamaican voice is present, as the pieces blend lyric and storytelling. The poems seem destined to come to life as much as through recital as on the page.

Not only does the book demonstrate how poetry itself is a performance genre, but the poems sing against oversimplifications of history, race, gender, and age. In the process, Mordecai reveals the artifice implicit in most roles, and shows how these shapes shift under greater forces. Behind the show of the poems and the roles they dissect is what Dylan Thomas called “the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation.”

Mordecai draws the reader in with humour and vivid images, deploying storytelling techniques. She paints scenes of characters and domestic situations. Everyday moments come to life and are sometimes recalled with a jejune nostalgia. But often these moments link, abruptly, with the greater current of history. The reader is caught off-guard, as though the rug has been pulled out from under her feet. Banal moments dissolve, darkly, into history in the outstanding poems, such as “Litany on the Line”, “Trois hommes: un rève”, and “Lace Makers”.

In the truly subversive poem “Thomas Thistlewood and Tom”, the scatological becomes sublime when a slave decides to carry out a cruel punishment forced upon him and his lover with a mindset of relish. Love itself transforms an act of extreme cruelty into the ultimate expression of the heart. Slavery and history are powerful currents in the book, as made clear in “Litany on the Line”:

O, lay the ancestors to rest inside
these cursive curls with litanies.
Anoint their necks, their ankles, wrists,
with sacred oil. Put wampum shells upon
their eyes and set bouquets of trembling
anemones between their fingers and their toes.
Sing sankeys, beat the drums to dredge
up greed, harpoon it like Leviathan
and beach it where the carrion birds will pick
its pink meat from its bones. Blessed are you
buried in this blue dirt. Blessed are you
who never reached this side. Blessed are you
who listen as the tribe burbles its grievous news
across these fibre-optic threads. Blessed are you.

The book’s opening poem, “Stone Soup”, embodies the gymnastics the free individual is capable of. The story of how Irene Armond was trapped under the rubble of a tobacco factory after the 1907 earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica, then lived to be 101 years of age, comes to symbolise the power of the human spirit, the female body, and of the seemingly marginal underclass. Other poems also seek to show the complexity of society and all the roles they contain, such as in a poem about nuns called “Lace Makers”, where

Mother Luke leans hard on the horn
of her red Ford — first woman in this whole
island to drive a conveyance not pulled
by four-footed creatures. Her long black skirt
slung in between her knees, beads furled into
her lap, dark glasses on her white bent nose,
she drive rough as any crufty truck man . . .

The poem challenges expectations of women, nuns, and white religious people, showing how perceptions are often not true. Identity is complex and far more fluid. The very purpose of life’s theatre is also questioned, as in the poem “Counting the Ways and Marrying True Minds”, where the poet asks, “What sense in all this coming and going?”

Amid this cauldron, Mordecai returns, time and again, to love, such as in the closing poem, “Yarn Spinner”, which ends, “What if you die spinning a thread? Die, yes, but never dead.”

The self that is loved may be, like Irene Armond, hard to pin down, in all its glorious multi-faceted roles. But both these books tell us that if life is a stage, it is also a place of shadow and light where roles are played, reversed, and shed in aid of a production with no end. The place of the individual is the crucial agency, undermined by larger forces, if not ennobled by serving some off-stage cause. To end at the beginning, we could go back to Shakespeare and the famous formulation from As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts . . .


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2015

Andre Bagoo is a Trinidadian poet and journalist. He has published two books of poems, Trick Vessels (2012) and BURN (2015). He is a collaborator in the Douen Islands project.