Puppetry Redefined

December 29, 2011

The curtains part as if inside a river in the snow.
We’re sitting in a fancy Chinese restaurant to see a play.
The waiter brings us wine and waits to take our order.
On stage an ancient erhu, shown in silhouette
behind a hand-painted screen is set to play (I read
from the program) ‘the music of Swallows River’. A shadow play,
in its ancient Chinese form, always begins in tears—
a child’s tears. The tears turn to rain, rain to river.
You will need to love them more
than you might ever think, the poem begins.
For even if misery is all there is, and all we know
is like an empty stage, full of empty chairs,
the river carries the children into the new life.
We can’t think that they are alone there. Perhaps this poem
is a kind of congregation of our selves, a place to gather
all the shadows that we need to keep alive on stage.
Our poetry is thus made for puppets redefined…
The room grows dark. The chairs remain empty.
Swallows River flows across the stage and into the snow and sea.
I order the General Tso’s Chicken. Brown rice, please.

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7 Responses to “Puppetry Redefined”

  1. fivereflections Says:

    i enjoy reading your poetry very much – happy new year from david in Maine USA

  2. John Stevens Says:

    As always, Jim, I’ve read this several times. It seems to work on at least three levels: there’s the restaurant where we are sitting, the puppet play and ‘our poetry’.
    The restaurant is a firm setting; “brown rice please” indeed! The play is mysterious. The lines –
    “For even if misery is all there is, and all we know
    is like an empty stage, full of empty chairs,
    the river carries the children into the new life”
    – are very effective and affecting.
    And then you pull back from the play or the poem being shown in shadow form to something about ‘our poetry’ – which I don’t yet think I properly grasp, but I feel there is something being said about poetry exploring our lives like puppetry.
    Fascinating.

  3. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim, Like John I have read this over several times and keep coming back. An erhu, of course, is a Chinese two stringed instrument. The Chinese shadow play is a puppet show. In the poem you go to a fine Chinese restaurant to hear an erhu concert and see a shadow play that “always begins in tears–a child’s tears.”
    As I read the poem you are sitting waiting for the waiter when the play begins.
    “You will need to love them more
    than you might ever think, the poem begins.”–
    I assume at the beginning of the play. It continues:
    “For even if misery is all there is, and all we know
    is like an empty stage, full of empty chairs,
    the river carries the children into the new life.
    We can’t think that they are alone there.”
    The there is not defined precisely in the poem, although we think first of Swallows River and how rivers can carry children away from tears and misery. After all, “all we know/is like an empty stage, full of empty chairs.”
    After that scene the poet reflects, seeing that the poem is really about the congregation of our selves, the individual selves in all humanity, an empty stage with empty chairs, a place to gather the shadows (puppets and ourselves) so that they can be kept alive on the stage of life.
    Then the key line of the poem: “Our poetry is thus made for puppets redefined…”, the redefinition lying in the way the shadows are kept alive and playing on the stage of life even though: “The room grows dark./The chairs remain empty.”
    It is in this moment that the puppet play about the children that are carried away by the river has its greatest affect:
    “Swallows River flows across the stage and into the snow and sea.” The play and the poet’s reflections become alive in the restaurant, becoming real in a place where they are not real, but just a story from a shadow puppet show.
    Then the waiter comes, the spell is broken, and the poet, the diner, orders “General Tso’s Chicken. Brown rice, please.”
    Poetry and storytelling is mixed inextricably with the story of children told in a shadow puppet play as an ehru concert heightens emotions and imagination until it comes time to order chicken and rice and dine.

  4. Thomas Davis Says:

    Good Lord, what a poem!

  5. extrasimile Says:

    Wow. You guys. (And David, I include you here; I have the feeling you are reading along as closely as John and Thomas). I’m going to have to go out and get a bigger size hat. This is the second time I’m finding myself saying, ‘Yikes. Did I actually mean that?’ Let me try to clear up the ‘our poetry’ thing.
    First, a bow to the master. It’s got something to do with Wallace Steven’s idea of ‘the poem’, which he once explained as the ‘brightest and most harmonious concept, or order, of life’. But of course, it’s winter now and, like the sun, the poem perhaps cannot get very high in the sky. If you do want to see more of my thoughts on WS, see The World as Meditation
    https://extrasimile.wordpress.com/2008/10/25/the-world-as-meditation/ and Adorning the Rock (warning: very long).
    https://extrasimile.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/adorning-the-rock-4/
    Suppose we look at ‘poetry’ and ‘puppetry’—and how they have an isomorphic relationship. Can I think of a more pretentious way of saying that the rhythms of the two words match up? That you can sort of lay one word on top of the other? No, I cannot.
    Still… I was experimenting with trying to, as it were, lay the sentences on top of the lines, where they are sort of isomorphic with each other, and then remove that relationship. At the start they match up pretty well. In the middle, they don’t, but rather flow across the lines. Then at the end, they come back to their (proper?) place in the lines.
    What’s the point of that? I guess, to set the tone of the simple declarative sentence, to sucker you in as it were, so that when the poem, the music, the shadow play, the poem on the on the menu, the poem performed—and the river—all mingle and flow together, you take this as an assertion, as truth. But it’s kind of hard to tell where one narrative strain starts and another ends in the middle of this poem. I mean, how many beginnings does this thing have?
    The point, Jim?
    Well, our poetry… just as our words have a relationship with the world through the sentence, though I wouldn’t describe that relationship as ‘isomorphic’, our poetry must have something to do with the dynamics that exist between line and sentence and world, which may be isomorphic, (or at least could be) (might serve as a model of perfection) but if it is then one must be careful not to fall under the spell of the declarative sentence. To go back to Stevens again: ‘Where is it one first heard of the truth? The the.’
    The poem can be a ‘gathering’: the poetry, the puppetry, the children, the relationship(s) to all of the above.
    Our poetry can be a ‘gathering’: our poetry, our puppetry, our children, our relationship(s) to all of the above.
    But neither is quite true, is it? That we are reifying a poem (just words) must tell us something about our relationship to each other, the earth, the snow, the stage, the shadows…we don’t own any of it, do we?
    Our poetry is thus made for puppets redefined. Swallows (not swallow’s) River flows across the stage and into the snow (the snow? Since when do rivers flow into the snow?) and sea (where rivers do tend to end up). Now, what kind of an isomorphism is that?
    Gentlemen, I salute you. I thank you. Really, these last couple of poems have been written for you, to you; inspired by you. Really.
    (By the way, I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years. I’d go with the Moo-Shu vegetable.)


  6. I could spend an entire day on your blog reading your beautiful words! Your style is alluring and I am in LOVE! ♥

    I am a new fan! Following!!!!

    Kellie

  7. extrasimile Says:

    Hi Kellie. Sorry I’m so slow getting back to you, but life is keeping me busy. I really do like it when people come out of the blue to read a poem or two. I’ll look at some of yours ASAP. John Stevens and Thomas Davis keep me very busy thinking about poetry…and, you know, ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’…I am glad you found the poem worth your time.
    Jim


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