—From the Fool—
My cousin Roy sent me a poem. That was a pretty weird thing for Roy but I guess car thieves can read poems too. This was from an old guy we studied in school and I remember wondering if he was always an old guy or if he just turned out that way.
It was a pretty good poem even if it was just like the old guy writing what he thought. I didn’t understand it much but it stuck in the head like when something gets stuck in your teeth and you try to scratch it out but your finger won’t go that way. What it said was What is the grass?
We had a lawn when I was a kid and I had to mow it and once I asked my mom, “Why is there crabgrass?” but she didn’t say anything poetic. So I never really thought about it after that. Now I don’t have any grass except some blades sticking up in the sidewalk cracks in front of the apartment building though I guess that qualifies as grass.
Turned out that Roy wasn’t a big poetry fan. He’d just googled SOMETHING NICE ABOUT GRASS and Google came up with the poem. He’d heard some guy on the radio saying we shouldn’t have grassy lawns because they took up a lot of water and he thought maybe I agreed with the guy because I think a lot of weird things so he wanted to show me there was a famous poet who’d think it was okay for him to ride around on his little tractor mowing his big lawn even though once he tipped over and broke three ribs.
But I didn’t see anything in the poem about tipping over your tractor. And all I’d ever said about his big lawn was “I’m glad I don’t have to mow it.” I guess he felt that threatened his Constitutional rights. Roy has a fitful digestive tract.
It’s a nice poem though, and the question sticks.
Memory. It’s like a trick dog who performs its little repertoire really well but then craps on the rug when you least expect it.
Right now the doggie is working overtime. We’re reviving KING LEAR, which for me is about a 100 minutes of rapid-fire iambics plus puppet hand-offs that require the dexterity of a street con dealing three-card monte. And next week, we’re part of an annual performance event, “Rumi’s Caravan,” with a number of people reciting inspirational poetry (broadly defined).
Memorizing eight minutes of poetry shouldn’t be that big a sweat. But I know, from 60 years of acting (back to my first 5-line part in a high school play), that it’s not really there in a functional way until it enters that part of the brain that can spew it out triple-time, as automatic as a ping-pong champ’s instincts. At that point you can find your own inner center and give those words full value, coming from your heart, not from your mental crib-sheet.
But that takes time. And then too, I get sabotaged by my “re-write” instincts. The brain starts editing the way I’d do for our own work, suddenly coming up with synonyms, alternate constructions, instinctively probing like an obsessive dentist. At that point, you have to go back to the line and ask yourself, “Why did the writer not choose to employ my improvement?” It does give you a fuller understanding of the subtleties of the text and an invaluable master-class in the art of writing, but it’s also a tiresome phase that you have to pass through.
Both in writing and performing, verbs or adjectives will slip away. Before supper, I generally have a glass of red wine and a handful of peanuts. When I dip into the peanut jar, I take extra care not to spill any, but I’m rarely able to do so without one damned little peanut sliding between my fingers to its doom on the kitchen floor. Words do that, more and more, which just means keep working at it.
So now, a week to master these poems of Whitman (yes, “What is the grass?”), Edgar Lee Masters, Billy Collins and Denise Levertov, and rehearse their delivery. Then the week after that, another King Lear. My brain is becoming quite ancient, the old horse walking around and around and around the millstone, but it still knows its path.
My personal world has the usual array of visible tangible creatures and things. Then there are the others, and they are legion.
The yapping dog next door is invisible to me, but when he decides to enter my universe, I have no way to shut him out. The poet Billy Collins had the same problem:
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.
For a while the people across the street had guinea hens, and I think they eventually ate them. Until then, at odd intervals it sounded like rabid monkeys attacking jackasses, and I swear you could see the noise.
If someone offends a neighborhood skunk, everybody knows it, and when my daphne bush blooms, the fragrance intoxicates from way down at the driveway entrance.
I’ve never seen Tom Waits perform, but yesterday “The Piano Has Been Drinking” was my constant companion as we were setting up the stage for King Lear, maybe because we needed to move the piano.
I dearly love Albert, the central character of our novel Galahad’s Fool, and I wish I could sit and have a glass of wine with him, maybe flirt a little, but the only way to get close is to read the damn book again.
While visiting the Quiberon Peninsula in Bretagne, I have twice gotten off the bus too soon and have had to walk for an hour to get to the hostel. That memory is so vivid that I can enjoy the sound of the waves, the smell of the pines, the color of the wildflowers underfoot any time I like, step by trudge, bit by bit, the whole long way.
As a teen I was coerced into piano competitions, and upon registering at the site, the form required a timing for the selected piece. One year I completely forgot to do this, but on the bus ride to Indianapolis I simply looked at my watch, played the piece in my head, and looked at the watch again. The timing was absolutely accurate.
Tangible reality is great, and “be here now” is worth remembering, but I am very fond of that whole rich world that may be out of sight, but is definitely not out of mind.
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© Bishop & Fuller 2016