Metatheatre: Wednesday Workshop

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Metatheatre
Wednesday Workshop
22 March 2017

It sounds complicated and, in the ivory tower of academia, it can be. Wikipedia describes metatheatre (or metatheater), as describing “aspects of a play that draw attention to its nature as drama or theatre (theater), or to the circumstances of its performance.” A more complex description of metatheatre and its effects follows.

“Metatheatre” is a convenient name for the quality or force in a play which challenges theatre’s claim to be simply realistic — to be nothing but a mirror in which we view the actions and sufferings of characters like ourselves, suspending our disbelief in their reality. Metatheatre begins by sharpening our awareness of the unlikeness of life to dramatic art; it may end by making us aware of life’s uncanny likeness to art or illusion. By calling attention to the strangeness, artificiality, illusoriness, or arbitrariness — in short, the theatricality — of the life we live, it marks those frames and boundaries that conventional dramatic realism would hide. It may present action so alien, improbable, stylized, or absurd that we are forced to acknowledge the estranging frame that encloses a whole play. It may, on the other hand, break the frame of the “fourth wall” of conventional theatre, reaching out to assault the audience or to draw it into the realm of the play. It may — by devices like plays within plays, self-consciously “theatrical” characters, and commentary on the theatre itself — dwell on the boundaries between “illusion” or artifice and “reality” within a play, making us speculate on the complex mixture of illusion and reality in our ordinary experience. Any theatrical device can work metatheatrically if we sense in it a certain deliberate reflexiveness, a tendency to refer to itself or to its context in a more general mode: to theatre itself; to art, artifice, and illusion; and perhaps above all to language as such. (Quoted from https://courses.cit.cornell.edu/engl3270/327.meta.html)

While metatheatre is usually connected with the theatre, it occurs in other areas as well. Miguel de Cervantes, for example, uses it as a device early in the Quixote. Don Quixote returns from his first venture to find that his library has been boarded up and no longer exists. When he asks how this has happened he is told that a magician appeared on a fiery dragon and magicked the library away. DQ is left wondering how and why these sage enchanters have picked him for an enemy and delight in tormenting him. At one level, this is comic. At another, it is tragic. Metatheatre often has this tragi-comic edge to it. Comic: that anybody would believe the lie in the first place; comic when the reactions of the deceived are viewed in light of the lie. Tragic when the fabric of the real world is destroyed by deceit.

Later, in Part One of the Quixote, the priest and the barber set up an elaborate play in which they act out their roles as supplicants to the knight. The priest is saved from the necessity of wearing an ox-tail beard by the appearance of a beautiful young lady who plays the role of distressed maiden to perfection. In this play within the novel, the plan is for Don Quixote to be persuaded to return home under oath and not to wander anymore. Of course, it all goes wrong with emphasis throughout on the comic, rather than the tragic, nature of deceit believed.

In Part Two of Don Quixote, published some ten years after Part one (1605 / 1615), metatheatre takes on a more sinister role. In the castle of the Duke and Duchess, an elaborate theatrical plot is laid out in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are the principal actors. Crucial to this plot is the episode of Clavileño in which DQ and SP are blindfolded, set on the back of a wooden horse, and flown to the moon and the stars. Lies within lies within lies: the entrapment and enhancement of madness, and who is the real madman when the mad lead the insane on a spectacular and fictitious dance?

Again, when Sancho receives the long-promised governorship of his island, the cruelties, beatings, purges, and indignities that descend upon him in the name of a third party’s so-called humor, make him walk a thin tight-trope between comedy on one side and tragedy on the other. And what can we say about the appearance of the Knight of the Woods and the Knight of the Mirrors? Real knights (apparently), out of time and out of place, as mad as the madman they are baiting, and they bait him by challenging him to fanciful, dressed-up jousting duels on horse-back. Mind you, the ‘they’ is fictitious too, since ‘they’ are yet another character, a single character, who engages falsely in two different but equally fictitious roles.

As with all academic and artistic concepts, much depends on how you define and frame your terms. At its most simple level, metatheatre is crying wolf. When the little boy cries “Wolf!” he creates a situation in which other people believe the lie (there is no wolf) and come running to the rescue. Of course, when the wolf does appear, the boy cries “Wolf!” but nobody believes him. That is when comedy turns to tragedy and the boy and his flock of sheep are devoured. There may be amusement as the elders of the village mill around looking for the wolf, but there can be no comedy when the elders are absent, or refuse to turn out in force, and both sheep and boy disappear down the wolf’s dark throat.

So, in addition to crying “wolf,” one can set out simple or elaborate plans to enmesh other people in a new and mendacious reality. By distorting this reality so that the false appears to be true, we get metatheatre, even though there is no theatre present, save in the minds of those, manipulators and manipulated, who are engaged in the action. All of these things are used in literature, both poetry and prose, to create theatre within theatre, plots within plots, deceits within lies. But what happens when we encounter the same thing, not in literature, but in real life?

In exile from the land of my birth, I come face to face with doubt and fear. I am deceived by my senses; in what can I put my trust? I am subject to delusions. I cannot separate wakefulness from sleep nor dreams from reality nor the truth from these pictures I create in the wood-fire’s flames. And in my philosophy book I read that “… there is no earth, no heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place and that nonetheless I perceive these things and they seem good to me. And this is the most harrowing possibility of all, that our world is commanded by a deity who deceives humanity and we cannot avoid being misled for there may be systematic deception and then all is lost. And even the most reliable information is dubious, for we may be faced with an evil genius who is deceiving us and then there can be no reassurance in the foundations of our knowledge.”

René Descartes wrote those last words to express in philosophical terms what Cervantes, and other members of Spain’s literary circles, especially the theatre, had created in literary terms about fifty years earlier. Spain’s Golden Age may be a long way away and it may even have been re- named the Early Modern Period, but the danger of the application of a literary device, metatheatre, to real life is ever-present.

What if our world is indeed commanded, not by a deity, but by a human being, or a set of human beings, who deceive humanity on a regular basis? What if there is systematic deception? What if the most reliable information is dubious and we can no longer trust it? What if we are faced with an evil genius who deceives us with misinformation, disinformation, false knowledge, and outright lies that destroy the foundations of our knowledge? If such is the case, when our knowledge is suddenly without foundation, then we are indeed in deep trouble.

Intertextuality: Wednesday Workshop

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the dialog that takes place between texts or as Merriam-Webster explains it: “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as a basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.”

Often we write from an intertextual perspective when we respond to other writers and their thoughts and imagery. This is why, in the creative process, reading can be as important as writing. Reading expands our vocabulary. It reinforces some of our own opinions and challenges others. Without reading, we are lonely rocks in sunless seas.

To be creative, we need to be aware of what others are writing and how they view the world we inhabit. When we read creatively we read with an eye to improving our creativity and our structures. We look for new ideas, new images, new words, new ways of expressing our thoughts.

Often we think we are being original when in fact we are re-processing, just as I am now, the ideas of other people. Given the nature of modern media, we are not always aware of all the multiple sources of our material: telephone, twitter, blogs, radio, television, newspapers (less and less), books, chapbooks, magazines, e-sources, lectures, chat groups, Facebook, and general conversations with other people who are also unaware of their sources. Thus ideas abound, float in the air, circulate and recirculate, submerge and resurface, shift their shapes and colors.

As writers we dip into that enormous moving mass of current and past culture and creativity and we choose our narrative lines, our characters, our structures, our images, our metaphors. As Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, once wrote, “Mes idées? Je les prends où je les trouve.” My ideas? I take them from wherever I find them.

Imitation is the best form of flattery. Indeed it is. We cannot, however, borrow wholesale and just copy. Miguel de Cervantes borrowed the first five chapters of Don Quixote (the first sortie) from an earlier entremés entitled El Entremés de los romances. For a very long time, critics thought that Cervantes was the author of both pieces: they are very similar. However, even a quick analysis also shows that they are very different. The language of the entremés is much older while the conversion of theatre into narrative distinguishes them at a very basic level. Cervantes borrowed: but in borrowing, he adapted, he changed, he took the old form and converted it into something new and completely original. Nevertheless, we are still aware of the origins of the great novel that has many other borrowings woven into its fabric.

So, we indulge in intertextuality when we engage in a dialog with other texts and ‘borrow’ from other authors. To be original, we have to take that borrowing and turn it into something entirely different, something that becomes a part of ourselves and no longer exists as a part of that other text. Intertextuality is not copying. If we take a text in its entirety, if we ‘copy’, then we must acknowledge the source. However, when we indulge in a dialog with a text, when we transform a text, when we are ourselves transformed by a text, then that is a totally different situation. Think of the links between Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, and its offspring, the 1960 western entitled The Magnificent Seven. They are very similar in so many ways … and yet they are so very different.

While intertextuality refers more to the larger elements of character and narrative structure, it also exists at the level of metaphor and image. Sometimes, without thinking, we use metaphors that we have heard before. Often we like the sound of a group of words, shuffle them around, and come up with a new meaning for them, a new metaphoric reality. This too is intertextuality.

At its best it is a very valuable addition to our creative tool kit.

While on the topic of creativity, let us spare a thought for our needs for creative time and space. We cannot create when we lack the blessings of time and space. Creativity is greatly hindered when we go hungry and need to complete back-breaking work just to sustain our lives and feed our families. Our relative wealth and leisure is a blessing: without them, we would be floundering in the pre-industrial world of subsistence farming, working at manual labor from dawn to dusk.

Let us spare a thought too for those oral societies that existed when people could not write. Or those early societies in which only the few, the happy few, were educated to the level at which they could actually read and write.

Intertextuality is a blessing, not a curse. Use it wisely, use it well.

Comment: I would like to thank Meg Sorick who suggested that I expand an earlier conversation that we had on the topic of Intertextuality. If you have other literary topics that you would like me to investigate, please suggest them to me and I’ll see what I can do.

 

Novel Writing Mistakes (2)

Well worth reading: another Wednesday Workshop. Thank you, Meg.

Meg Sorick, Writer

This is the post you hope to never have to write…

Rewind to the weeks leading up to November 1st, 2016. I was preparing to enter National Novel Writing Month with the outline of my fifth novel: Breaking Bread. I never have all the details worked out when I write, just character studies and a list of the major events that need to move the story from start to finish. This gives me, the writer, a lot of flexibility as the novel progresses.

Not every writer writes this way. There are “plotters” –who have all the entire story mapped out in exhaustive detail. There are “pantsers” — writers who “fly by the seat of their pants,” having only the major ideas of the story figured out. And of course there are all combinations of writers who fall in between. That would be me.

There is no right way to write…

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Writer’s Block: Wednesday Workshop

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Writer’s Block

Every day, well, almost every day, I meet people who tell me that they cannot write anymore. They have abandoned their current project. They sit in their work space and stare at blank screens or empty walls. They have come face to face with the dreaded Writer’s Block.

While some consider Writer’s Block to be an actual illness, others flaunt it like a flag or a badge of honor:

“Don’t touch me — I’ve got Writer’s Block: I wouldn’t want you to catch it.”

“I’m having a bad week: I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

“Sorry, I can’t make the writer’s meeting, I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

According to Wikipedia, “Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Throughout history, writer’s block has been a documented problem.”

We have probably all experienced the sensation of being unable to write, unable to think, unable to continue. As an academic, I found that something similar happens frequently in examinations with young students whose minds suddenly go blank when faced by a white page and an awkward question. This form of Writer’s Block comes at the most unfortunate times. Students need to be switched on just when their minds switch off. And something similar happens to writers.

Examination Block can be overcome. In many cases careful preparation for an exam will reduce or eliminate examination block. These preparations may well include correct note-taking and relevant revision procedures. There should be no last minute all-night study the night before the exam and a good night’s sleep, proper food, and water are essentials. Appropriate physical exercises before the exam starts are also useful as these make the heart beat and the blood flow. All these things prepare both body and mind and free the student for that most important task: the struggle with the blank page and the awkward question.

Will a similar set of preparations work for those who suffer from Writer’s Block?

In order to answer this question, I would rather take a different approach. Instead of seeing Writer’s Block as a physical / mental presence that stops us writing, why not look at it as an absence that can be overcome? What can we call that absence? Personally, I look upon it as an absence of creativity. If the creativity isn’t there, then writing creatively won’t happen. So what do we do?

Let us define creativity. For me, creativity is the expression of the creative principle that dwells within all of us. It is there, within us. We may suppress it or we may let it be suppressed. We may ignore it or we may deny it: but it is still there. It is always there. Sometimes it is beaten out of us; or we think it is. But it is still there, beneath the surface, waiting to be called on. The Roman poets spoke of it as Deus est in nobis … the god that dwells within us.

Creativity, for me, is like a river that vanishes underground and then reappears: it will be back.

The most important thing in my opinion is what you do when you’re not writing, what you do when you’re faced with that wall of blackness, what you do when you stare at that blank screen and nothing makes your fingers dance on the key board.

Here’s what I do. I make up my mind not to force myself to be creative. Forget about writing. Do something else. Ignore all idea of Writer’s Block, or the End of the World, or the Imminent Disaster of not being able to write. It may take a mental effort, but forget about it.

Now do something else, something positive. Different people respond to different stimuli. Here’s what I do.

(1) I read books
I read other people in their creative moments. I love reading people who write in other languages that I speak and read, because my own mind tries to recreate their images, their stories. This re-creation is a form of creation in itself. New words, new ideas, new combinations, rise to the surface of the mind, like bubbles on a river.

(2) I color and draw
As any who have seen my drawings know, I cannot draw. However, I can take a line for a walk. And that’s what I do. Then I color the spaces I create. My friends thought I was wasting my time and I believed them until I read one of Matisse’s sayings: “My ambition: to liberate color, to make it serve both as form and content.” Voilà: I have my raison d’être. Nature abhors a vacuum. When you create a space, color and meaning rush in.

(3) I take photos
The capturing of a moment: a sunset, a new bird at the feeder, deer wandering through the garden, a black bear visiting, rain on a spider web, sunlight through a prism, a cat made out of cherry stones … the re-creation of the moment is the creation of the memory. More bubbles flow on the surface of the stream.

(4) I go for a walk, look at nature and the world around me, people too
It is incredibly important to do this. A visit to the local coffee shop, a walk around the super-market or corner store, a seat in the park on a sunny day … just be yourself, believe in your existence, watch things as they happen, relax, look and listen, empty yourself, let the world flow back in … look at the ducks on the lake or the goldfish in the tank … more bubbles on the water, more ideas floating down the stream …

(5) I listen to music
De gustibus non disputandum … we can’t argue about taste. Where music goes, each person must make their own choices. The music I like fills my mind, relaxes me, flows out when it ends, takes my mind for a walk and leaves … a vacuum … into which dreams and colors, words and ideas, build like clouds …

(6) I cook
Cooking has always relaxed me. Sometimes the repeating of an old recipe helps clear my mind. Sometimes I have a need to invent something new. Hands and mind occupied, the secret, sacred underground river of creativity flows on …

(7) I sew
Last summer, an unexpected event led me to join a quilting group … oh what fun … a man quilting among a dozen women … I learned so many things … so many different ways of looking at the world … so many concepts that I would never have dreamed of on my own … Sewing runs in the family: I still have my grandfather’s sewing kit … darning and sewing needles that served him for two years before the mast … that darned his socks as he survived in the trenches of the First World War … it bears his name and I use it with pride … and what memories arise in my mind as I choose the needle … his needle … the one that will lead me into the next adventure, be it quilt, button or patch …

(8) I keep a journal
… and come hell or high water, I write in it every day and have done so since 1985. That’s 31 years during which I have scarcely missed a day. The writing maybe banal, it may be nothing but a note on the weather or a comment on a sporting event … but it’s there … a vital challenge to the idea that Writer’s Block can take me over and stop me writing. This journal is 95% drivel … maybe more … but bobbing along the stream of words are ideas, verses, rhyme schemes, choruses, stories, flashes of inspiration, jokes, memories, magic moments, falling stars, … the secret is to catch these falling stars, to recognize these rough diamonds and to return to them and polish when the moment is ripe … and it will be, sooner or later … for bubbles are buoyant and will lift you to the stars.

(9) Free Writing and the Creation of Metaphors
I also use the journal for free writing and automatic writing. These techniques, drawn from the Surrealists, allow the mind to wander at random. While wandering, the mind creates an interior monologue or a stream of consciousness that in fact turns up a series of delightful metaphors that can be polished and re-used at will. When I use this style of writing, I am reminded of Dalí’s saying (again and as always, from memory): “I don’t know what it means, but I know it means something.” My own theory of metaphor is that the metaphor is defined by two (sometimes more) points and rather than settling on one or the other (as in a simile), the mind moves and flickers sub-consciously between the two extremes so that meaning is sensed, but rarely can be grasped or stated in definitive terms. Thus, the marvelous line from André Breton, quoted by Mr. Cake,  “The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow” has, according to my theory of metaphor, four defining points, namely, wolves … clothed … mirrors … snow. All four of these defining points creates an image, a very personal image, in the reader’s mind. The mind moves quickly between each defining point and meaning is lost in the rapid shift from image to image. Quite simply, “the hand cannot grasp it, nor the mind exceed it.” This means we have to return, as readers, to the unconscious level where the metaphors were first created. Then: “when we no longer seek it, it is with us.” This same analytical exercise can be performed for each line of Breton’s poem. When we indulge in free writing, much of what we write can be abandoned. The secret is to recognize and rescue the little gems we so often find.

(10) I believe
Through all this runs a thread of belief … belief that the black cloud of despair will not win. The Writer’s Block will go. Creativity will never be not lost. It is there, beneath the surface, always ready to be contacted, waiting to rise and take you over again. And all too soon and quite unexpectedly, one form of creativity slips into another and the creative writing (it never really went away because of the journal) comes back.

Writer’s Block: it does exist. It’s how we deal with it that’s important. Creativity rules: forget Writer’s Block and let creativity and the multiple ways back to creativity grow and flow. Sooner or later the clouds will lift, the sun will return, the block will unblock and the words will flow again.

Remember the words on the Roman sundial: Horas non numero nisi serenasI count only the happy hours. And remember: the clouds will lift, the sun will return.

Trust me.
And believe.

Comment:
I first posted this entry on 17 August 2016. Since then it has received a number of hits and comments. Today, I have revised it and tightened it slightly, but the main ideas remain the same. I will try and continue with my Wednesday Workshops on a regular basis throughout 2017. Wish me luck.

Tomorrow

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Tomorrow

Tomorrow, early, my love, you’ll fly away. Today, all tense and stressed, your foot in the stirrup, as Cervantes would say, the anxiety of the journey on your back, you walk around the Beaver Pond where red and yellow leaves abound. I know you are hoping to see, once more before you leave, the Great Blue Heron that was here last week. Some ducks remain. I can see them standing on the water, flapping their wings, inflaming the wind, keeping themselves warm, not looking as if they really want to fly.

Alas, there are no beavers now. An abandoned lodge, the grass on its roof turning brown and dry,  lofts white sticks into the sky, but the waterways are clogging and the beaver have gone. Drowned tree trunks, beaver-gnawed and languishing, grow tiny clumps of grass and weed. Sometimes, they join together and form a miniature island that will grow at last into a grassland. The deserted lodge reminds me of our home, soon to be abandoned by the life and soul that animates it and keeps it alive. It will be sad and lonely living there without you. I know I will have the cat for company, but that’s not the same. I think I’m in charge of her, but I wonder sometimes if you’re leaving her in charge of me.

A thin grey woven webbing garlands one moribund tree. I don’t like tent worms or their equivalents. Every year we face a different invasion of this worm or that and the trees stand shocked by crawling creatures that infest their branches and build their silk cities up into the sky. I hate it when those dangling inhabitants, escaping from their cocoons, swing from low branches and twine silk threads around my face. Give me any day a fresh green frond caught by the morning sun in early spring, or else bright autumn leaves so soon to fall.

I love American Goldfinches when they sing that last departing song. I love most of all the occasional visitors that wing up north on the wings of a summer storm. Do you recall the Indigo Bunting that perched in the Mountain Ash just outside our kitchen window? He had the look of a lost bird and his call was more a cry of help than a birdsong. You took such lovely photos of him as he sat there, looking this way, that way, anyway for the way he needed to go home … and those two cardinals, orange the one, bright red the other, standing beneath the feeder, so bright against the early snow.

The hunting hawks give everyone a fright. They perch on top of a power line pole then step off into space to alight, claws first, on some poor songbird trilling away, quite free from fear, his unfinished symphony of song. Claws first? I gaze again at the photo you took of the Sharp-shinned Hawk that settled on our porch that day it rained. Claws? The massive yellow talons are high grade weapons fit for any war. I pity the poor bird clasped in those claws and brought to earth or lifted high into the sky, a feast for the marauder.

It’s getting late, my love. You walk towards me out of the woods like some lost spirit returning to this earthly world from some spiritual sanctuary. The season is ending. Thanksgiving is close. It will soon be time for you to pack your bags and go. Three silent wishes for you my love: enjoy yourself; don’t forget me … and don’t stay away too long.

Comment:
This piece goes back to the Fall of 2016. Clare and I visited the Beaver Pond at Mactaquac the day before she left for Ottawa. I sat at a picnic table and watched her as she walked through the woods and around the pond. ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’: she didn’t want to leave me and I didn’t want her to go, yet we both knew how important it was for her to visit our grandchild for Thanksgiving. Time apart is good: it makes us realize how much we miss each other. For me, above all, it is a reminder of everything that gets done around the home without my ever noticing the care and love that is poured into each moment of every day. Having to provide that care and love for myself is an object lesson that makes me so thankful for the seemingly simple blessings Clare has brought to me throughout our married life …

Indigo Bunting, for Meg:

For you, Meg: photos, by Clare, of our second Indigo Bunting.

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He’s rather handsome. We usually get them in from the States following a strong south wind or  a summer storm.

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Great Blue Heron, for Tanya:

He was right over the garden: beautiful. We don’t often see them up here as we are on the far side of the hill from the river. Must have been raiding a neighbor’s goldfish pond.

 

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Terza Rima

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Terza Rima
 Apologia pro verbum meum
Dear followers of my WordPress Blog: sometimes
I write what I do not mean to write
and say what I do not mean to say. Rhymes
make things clearer, for I puzzle what I might
say, and plan ahead so an awkward word
doesn’t intrude. Words, birds in flight,
bright as postage stamps across the absurd
white snow of a page or a digital screen:
when I think about it, I assume about a third
of what I say, I really mean. Who has seen
the early morning wind drifting our thought cloud
across trees and lawn, shadows cast on green
leaves of grass as we think our thoughts aloud,
each thought a pea in a pod, as some we clasp
between finger and thumb while others crowd,
and the loud, uneasy word slips from our grasp
to wound or injure or otherwise to hurt and maim.
It’s not my aim to do this. My word is not an asp
or a viper or a screw to be driven. I lay no claim
to hurt and yet sometimes a word slips sideways
and does not say what I mean it to say. I aim
to please, to tease, to provoke, in so many ways
and yet I often hurt where no hurt is intended.
If I have done you wrong and my word displays
unintended ends, forgive me: let all rifts be mended.
Comment:
Terza Rima was, for a long time, the chosen verse form for letters and epistles: the epistolary form, in fact. The rhyme scheme is very flexible and easy to maintain and the syllable count is also relatively easy. As for the length of the letter, well, that is entirely up to the writer. The one that I have chosen here has seven tercets and ends in a quatrain. The quatrain is a standard “stitch up” with which to end. I have used the epistolary form on many occasions, especially when sending postcards and letters to friends. Add it to your poetic arsenal. You will not regret doing so.

Last Night’s Reading

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Last Night’s Reading

I can hear the questions now:
“How do you feel
when he writes about you?”
“What do you think?”

The question of how
the listener feels doesn’t enter
the reader’s mind
when it imprisons
this furious god
who drives us onward.

We carry a picture within
our hearts that corresponds
to an internal reality
that has nothing to do
with the world around us.

At first, we impose.
Next, we learn to shape.
Then we realize we are the ones
who’ve been shaped
and we learn to share.

Only then do we understand
that what we carried within us
like the mother carries
a baby kangaroo in her pouch,
was not at all what we thought it was.

“Mankind can withstand
a small amount of truth,”
some poet wrote, Eliot, I think.
And what we release hops out,
floppy ears, long legs, bounding,
bonding with its own sweet music.