A new poem of mine just appeared on the front page of Open Arts Forum. An appropriate sentiment, I hope, for poetry month. Here’s a video reading of it.
“… that fictional ideas, like placebos,
can attain an astounding level of reality
through sheer persuasive force.”
Who would have believed that fictional characters would simply refuse to be remaindered along with physical books? After The Jamais Vu Papers was published by Harmony Books in 1991, it sold a few thousand copies and then seemed doomed to disappear as books did when major publishers lost interest in them. Two decades later, after we got complaints that the book wasn’t available anywhere, we republished it ourselves. A small audience continues to follow our erratic story, and a modest number of copies sell every year. That seemed to be the end of the story.
We did take note that our character Llixgrijb succeeded in walking off the pages and taking on a life of his own, turning up in a variety of guises and languages. Those connections seemed amusing, probably harmless, and again we thought that was the end of it.
But the words of another fictional character from our book have taken on new life today. Imogene Savonarola, a renowned neuroscientist at the Institute of Neuroreality, “determined that the brain possesses receptors for paradox” and hypothesized the existence of a neurotransmitter which she called the “oxymorphin.” Explaining that “The oxymorphin is almost wholly dormant in modern man, except when it is occasionally sparked by direct encounter with a common metaphor,” Savonarola set about producing a chemical equivalent, creating chaotic adventures that make up much of our tale.
In another of her publications, Savonarola discusses a very timely concept: how fantasy can become empirical reality through “The Hoax Principle.”
“Flat-out lies can come true if they appeal
eloquently enough to the credulity
of both sides of the mind/brain.”
She describes false ideas as placebos, those sugar pills or meaningless procedures that can seem to cure disease if the consumer believes they are real medicine. (See Harvard report) Whatever we might think of Savonarola’s scholarship, it does seem that in our own time, an extraordinary consumption of placebos has activated the dark side the process she describes.
Here is the prologue to my latest full-length play, The Mad Scene, which has been aptly described as “an Our Town about the Reign of Terror.” I’ve been developing it during the last year or so with amazingly brilliant members of the Yorick Theatre Company, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and Theatre at St. John’s, as part of the Theatre at St. John’s Cyber Salon, hosted weekly by Mark Erson and Everett Quinton. The parts were read by Everett Quinton, Jenne Vath, Sally Plass, Maude Burke, and Shane Baker; Daniel Neiden directed. The Mad Scene has yet to be produced.
The entire text of The Mad Scene is available on the New Play Exchange or by contacting me personally.
Marie Grosholtz/Madame Tussaud
The scene is the Madeleine Cemetery, Paris, the night of October 16, 1793.
MARIE ANTOINETTE’s head lies in the lap of MARIE GROSHOLTZ, who will later become known as Madame Tussaud. MARIE works by the light of a lantern.
MARIE. Madame …
ANTOINETTE. There is no sky.
MARIE. … can you hear me?
ANTOINETTE. I never noticed it before.
MARIE. I must take your face.
ANTOINETTE. Carolina, look for yourself. You’ll see it’s true.
MARIE. I’m not Carolina.
ANTOINETTE. There is no sky. There are only stars. Oh, and a slender curved scimitar of a moon, hanging by … an invisible thread, I suppose. But tied to what? There’s nothing to tie it to, nothing to hang it from. There is no sky. (wincing) Don’t. Carolina, why are you touching my face like that?
MARIE. I’m not your sister. I’ve got to make a cast of your face.
ANTOINETTE. What are you smearing on my skin?
MARIE. Oil, so the plaster won’t stick.
ANTOINETTE. What a silly thing to do on such a night, with a moon and so many stars and no sky at all to gaze at. Look.
MARIE. I’m looking.
ANTOINETTE. No, you’re not. You’re looking down at me. You’re in the way of my view. But where are we? Oh, we fell asleep in the gardens again, didn’t we? I was counting clouds and you were giving them names and it got dark without us knowing it. Our dresses must be soaked through with dew. Odd, I feel so … dry. We’ve got to get back to the palace. The countess must be angry. Or beside herself with worry. Poor old thing, we’re so much trouble to her.
MARIE. We’re not in your garden in Vienna.
ANTOINETTE. Of course we are.
MARIE. No. This is the Madeleine Cemetery. In Paris
ANTOINETTE. What are we doing in Paris? Don’t touch my eyes.
MARIE. I’m only closing them.
MARIE. Because they’re not glass. I’m covering them with plaster.
ANTOINETTE. I don’t understand.
MARIE. It’s best not to talk.
ANTOINETTE. Why not?
MARIE. The dead are usually quiet. Or at least they’re supposed to be.
ANTOINETTE. I’m not dead.
MARIE. Madame, you have been beheaded. You are certainly dead. Tomorrow you will be buried. It really would be best to keep quiet. You’ll upset yourself.
ANTOINETTE. You’re not Carolina.
MARIE. So I’ve been telling you.
ANTOINETTE. I’ve not been beheaded.
MARIE. You have, and it was hard to find you among so many dead, all thrown about every which way, so it’s hard to tell whose head belongs to whose body. Don’t you smell the stench?
MARIE. Death has its blessings then. I never guessed how blood and flesh could stink. It’s always such a chore, this scrounging through stench and open graves, looking for just a certain head. Your husband was even harder to find than you, and to make things worse, he was already dissolving in quicklime.
ANTOINETTE. My husband?
MARIE. But I found you. I recognized the white morning dress you wore on the scaffold, even though it was stained and caked with blood and dirt. Then your head was easy to spot, plopped right between your knees. But your face looks strange now—so thin and drawn, with a scalp of short white hair. When did your hair turn white? Oh, I hear it was after you were caught trying to escape—you and the king and your children. I can fix all this when I make your new face.
ANTOINETTE. Who are you?
MARIE. I hoped you’d remember me, madame. My name is Marie Grosholtz. I lived at Versailles nine years. I tutored Madame Elizabeth in molding wax, and I lived in her apartments and kept her company. You were very kind to me in those days, madame.
ANTOINETTE. Versailles? Madame Elizabeth?
MARIE. The king’s sister. You don’t remember. You’re confused. But don’t worry. The plaster will set, and we’ll be finished soon, and it won’t matter whether you remember or not. I needn’t tell you to keep still. You’re doing that anyway.
ANTOINETTE. There is no sky.
MARIE. I’m sure you are correct, madame.
ANTOINETTE. Oh, yes. Versailles. They tell me I’m going there. They tell me I am to become the Dauphine of France.
MARIE. If you say so, madame.
ANTOINETTE. I am to marry the Dauphin, they tell me—Louis-Auguste, some cousin I’ve never met. They say he is a clumsy boy, rather stupid, and he’s sure to grow fat, and he can’t dance at all. But then, I’m just a girl myself, and people say I am silly and I laugh more than I should and I like to dance too much. No, don’t deny it, I know that’s what they say. But he’s a boy, just a boy. I wish I could marry a man, someone wiser, someone I could trust to know …
… how to …
But it’s not up to me, is it? Nothing is up to me. And not only must I stop being an archduchess, they tell me I must stop being Austrian, and I must say goodbye to everyone I’ve ever known—even to you, Carolina, and also to Mutti—and I must forget how to speak German and speak French perfectly for the rest of my life. And when I go to France, before I meet the Dauphin in the Forest of Compiègne, I must be stripped of every scrap of my Austrian dress and be clothed anew in the manner of a French princess. Of course there will be people watching me change. It’s always been like that. I’ve never been naked alone. But in France there will be more people than ever, watching my every waking moment, and while I’m sleeping as well. I will put on my rouge in front of the whole world. It will never stop.
MARIE. There. The plaster is set. I’m almost finished.
ANTOINETTE. That pinches.
MARIE. Yes, but only for a moment, while I remove the cast.
(MARIE pulls the cast away.)
MARIE. I must leave you now.
ANTOINETTE. Where are you going?
MARIE. To where I work.
ANTOINETTE. You can’t leave me.
MARIE. I must. I’m sorry.
ANTOINETTE. I am your queen.
MARIE. France has no queen.
ANTOINETTE. Obey me.
MARIE. I must obey the National Assembly. I wish it weren’t so.
ANTOINETTE. Take me with you.
MARIE. I can’t take your head, madame. I’ll lose my own if I try. Adieu.
ANTOINETTE. Wait! I remember! Your name is Marie! You make likenesses from wax! Elizabeth adores you! She came running to me a little while ago to show me a Virgin you taught her how to make. “Look, sister!” she said. “Look at my little wax Mother of God! I made her look just like you without meaning to, I couldn’t help it! Was that blasphemous of me, sister? Must I confess it to the abbé?” “No, sister,” I said. “No blasphemy at all …”
MARIE. Adieu, madame.
ANTOINETTE. But what will happen to me after you go?
MARIE. I don’t know.
ANTOINETTE. Oh, but you do. I’ll vanish. I’ll die. Please, I beg you. It is only by the grace and bounty of your madness that I still live. Don’t let me die.
MARIE. You’ll live again in wax.
ANTOINETTE. But will I remember … ?
MARIE. I don’t know what you’ll remember.
ANTOINETTE. Will I still be myself?
MARIE. I don’t know.
ANTOINETTE. Am I myself even now?
MARIE. I said I don’t know.
ANTOINETTE. Please stay!
MARIE. Dawn is nearing.
ANTOINETTE. We’ll watch it together!
MARIE. I must go.
ANTOINETTE. We’ll skip barefoot in the dew, watch morning burst into blossoms of light, bathe ourselves in mad mists of swirling color! We’ll worship the sun and laugh and dance like Incan priestesses!
(MARIE exits, carrying her lantern.)
ANTOINETTE (dying). There … is … no … sky …
(Upon reading “Mind at the End of Its Tether” by H.G. Wells)
Saith the Sage,
there is no Shape of Things to Come;
there is only the Coming of Shapelessness.
Maps crumple—yea, and also the landscapes they signify—
into dimensionless wads of nothing;
the clock’s hands are blurred the whole way round;
the eons snap their fingers in our faces.
The very NOW contracts its steel coils
and breaks our ribs and squeezes our breath away.
There is no way out or round or through.
The bitter wisdom of the Sage
begins with the knowledge of vanity;
the multitude is not disposed to know
and so it will never know.
In the glass-walled formicary of this world,
the ants keep faith in the magical placations of their leaders,
whose bigotries blossom into radiant cruelty.
The subservient fear-haunted mind
in its blind libidinous craving to exist
retreats into a sanctuary of jaded reassurance,
the idiot’s recital of the everyday.
There is no way out or round or through;
the way ahead is steeply up or steeply down.
May mind climb the rungs of the air
and the worm aspire to the stars?
To go steeply up is to cease to be human;
our heirs are creatures we know nothing of.
Gluttonous time devours us all;
the cherished delusion of recurrence is dead;
gravitation’s golden cord is frayed;
earth slows in its spinning,
and the years and days grow longer;
the equinoxes wobble in their precession;
night no longer follows day, nor day the night;
there are naught but new things under the dying sun;
we lie when we say we have seen them before.
There is no way out or round or through.
Now that mind,
that strange intruder,
that peculiar throb in matter,
is at its final ebb,
the grinning Antagonist goads us with the riddle:
“Is this all?”
For the more we reach the less we grasp
in saecula saeculorum—
for ever and ever.
Appeared in The Thieving Magpie, Issue 9, Spring 2020.
Given the ongoing revelations of Neanderthal art and technology, it is difficult to see how we can regard Neanderthals as anything other than the cognitive equals of modern humans.
—Hardy, B.L., Moncel, M., Kerfant, C. et al. Direct evidence of Neanderthal fibre technology and its cognitive and behavioral implications. Sci Rep 10, 4889 (2020).
Ask the young tree
when the day gets pungent with blossoms
whether it is ready and willing
and if the tree says yes
let it start working.
The tree will glide the flint’s edge
through skin that bleeds
pale and clear as you cut it
skyward to earthward
then in crueler horizons
high and also low.
The skin will tease itself free
revealing its secret inner face
of infinite tendrils.
(The naked sinew of the tree
will taste sweet to the tongue.)
Three slim bundles
will strand off brightly
and sing their song of weaving
leading your fingers
whirling toward the river
while your wrist
bends ever toward the mountains
and the womb of your palms
gives birth to new vine
and the new vine’s secret.
We begin and we end
but it needs not be so
for the birthing of this vine
into its life of dance and song
does not have to stop
even as it dies behind us.
So may our birthing
yours and mine
partner ever with our dying
on and on and on
Poem appeared in Sisyphus, Summer 2020.