The Bardo of American Poets, Patriot and Expatriate (place)
Act II, Section Five of An American Book of the Dead - The Game Show. . .
(The Bardo Wheel lights. Spokesmodel 1, sporting a WWII U.S. Army helmet, helps IBM into the arm straps of a portable flamethrower, while Spokesmodel 2, in Japanese Army cap, ties the blindfold.)
ANNOUNCER: Blink, Kim/Tonya’s being outfitted with a U.S Army portable flamethrower, circa 1945. Juiced with napalm, this little beauty proves quite handy in ferreting out stubborn Japs hiding in caves.
HOST: All set there, pal?
IBM: Yeah, I guess so.
HOST: Great. Spin that Wheel!
(The spokesmodels spin the wheel. IBM fires, igniting a single panel. As the lights fade and the wheel slows, the burning letters can be seen to say: “The Bardo of American Poets, Patriot and Expatriate”.
LANGSTON: Well, here you are; free and bravely born or not, looks like the white light gave you the slip once again, and now you’ve landed here....
(Lights up on Uncle Walt.)
LANGSTON: Uncle Walt Whitman.
LANGSTON: That you do, Walt. That you do.
LANGSTON: Your Uncle Walt has a simple, no-nonsense recipe for making American poems.
UNCLE WALT: Make no quotations or references to other writers.
(A low groan comes from the opposite stage side.)
(The complaint grows louder. Lights rise slightly on a shadowy figure in a cage.)
Make no mention or allusion to them whatever except as they relate to new present things. Use no ornaments, especially no ornamental adjectives, unless they come molten hot and imperiously prove themselves.
(The shadowy figure speaks.)
UNCLE EZRA: Oh please.
UNCLE WALT: No ornamental similes at all. Not one.
UNCLE EZRA: Please, please, please!
UNCLE EZRA: Heath? Sanity? Simplicity? You would have us write nothing but nursery verse for the mood crasses. You’d happily chain us forever to their provincial little lives.
LANGSTON: Ignore the man in the cage. We’ll get to him later.
(Lights dim on the cage.)
Uncle Walt never leaves America. Not in body, brain, heart, or soul. When civil war erupts, he journeys to the front at Fredericksburg and helps bury both blue and gray dead under a white flag of truce. Later he finds himself in the nation’s unfinished capital, tending the wounded in countless ad hoc hospitals.
UNCLE WALT: I estimate, in the six hundred visits I made to the wards, I touched or talked to one hundred thousand wounded men.
LANGSTON: Behold your Uncle Walt Whitman. Can you recognize him as your own true self? Never has nor will a poet loved this nation as unabashedly as he does.
(Lights up on Williams on a raised plinth, somewhat lower than Whitman’s.)
DR. BILL: I deliver over 3,000 babies in Paterson, New Jersey.
LANGSTON: Bill Williams begins hacking at verse as a young man entering medical school. He’ll pursue both careers for the rest of his life. Taking Uncle Walt’s advice to heart, he forges a style so sparse some are hard-pressed to call it poetry at all.
glazed with rain
beside the white
LANGSTON: Yes, I know, Doctor Bill. I know.
DR. BILL: Lines in languages you couldn’t possibly know, penned in strange alphabets you couldn’t possibly decipher; literary puzzles to fiddle with while Rome burns and Luftwaffe bombards.
--Say it, no ideas but in things—-
LANGSTON: Letters come across the sea, tempting, cajoling.
UNCLE EZRA (from the shadows): Deer Bulllll. I rilly think ye kneed te take a year off and come te Yerhope. I know you’re afeard of loosing yer illusions, rickening yer job gives ye contact or some such nonesuch. Ye don’t kneed to leave permanent. But yeh rilly ot teh see a yuman beeyin now and aginish.
DR. BILL: A what? A human being? What do you think I’m doing over here? Please tell me, Ezra: what the hell have you done that I haven’t? Maybe I haven’t piled up a bin of superior work but I’ve hit right into the center of the target first and last and I haven’t been licked. . I’ve met a hell of a lot more of all kinds of people than you’ll even get your eyes on and I’ve known them inside and outside in ways you’ll never know.
LANGSTON: But Ezra was relentless. When he wrote--
LANGSTON: It echoed in Dr. Bill’s head.
LANGSTON: Listen to Dr. Bill. Recognize him as your true self: sincerity, jealousy, courage, bitterness, love, longing and all. Failing to recognize your William Carlos Willams nature causes you to drop to the next poet, Emily Dickinson.
(Lights up on Emily, standing on a thin riser.)
I never saw a moor.
LANGSTON: And severe--
AUNT EMILY: And queer--
LANGSTON: In the same white dress.
LANGSTON: After she dies you’ll find eighteen hundred unpublished poems left behind like a finicky dragons hoard.
LANGSTON: Listen to her. Take her in. Recognize her quirky broken self as your own. She is the last poet firmly on this side of the Bardo, because with the fourth we enter a painfully perfect balance of Patriotic Ambivalence.
(Langston himself steps forward at stage level.)
I am Langston Hughes and I too sing America,
(Lights up on T. S. Eliot, standing in a hole a few inches lower than stage level.)
LANGSTON: Seems risky.
UNCLE WALT: Walt Whitman, a kosmos.
LANGSTON: To this...
OL T.S.E.: Do I dare disturb the universe?
(Lights up on Sylvia on her knees in front of an old-fashioned gas oven range.)
LANGSTON: That you do, Sister Silvia, that you do.
SISTER SYLVIA: I do it so it feels like hell.
An engine, an engine
LANGSTON: Nope. Not a Jew. But you find your oven, don’t you? Age 32, milk and cookies left out for your two children napping, you lay a dishtowel down on the racks, and then rest your head on it, turning on the gas.
Out of the ash
LANGSTON: If you don’t see yourself in Sister Sylvia, Uncle Ezra might give you one last chance.
(Lights up on Ezra clutching the bars of his cage sunk halfway into the stage floor.)
LANGSTON: Ah Ezra, ever the aristocrat.
LANGSTON: For Uncle E, it’s clear who runs things back home.
LANGSTON: Here is at least one American unsaddened by the news of FDR’s death.
UNCLE EZRA: Boo-hoo to the tearful neargrows in jewspaper hats mourning the dead dog Rosenfeld.
LANGSTON: Do you find yourself hating Uncle Ezra? Or pitying him? Be careful. Without Ezra heralding their work, it’s possible neither Eliot nor Williams would ever be published. Every poet here, every poet anywhere, is crucial to every other poet’s existence. Without Auntie Em there would certainly be no Sister Sylvia. And without Uncle Walt, no Uncle E or me.
UNCLE WALT: I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
DR. BILL: --Say it, no ideas but in things--
AUNT EMILY: I never saw a moor. I never saw the sea.
LANGSTON: Torn from Black Africa’s strand I came to build a “homeland of the free.”
Ol’ TSE: I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.
SISTER SYLVIA: I think I may well be a Jew.
UNCLE EZRA: I am a weird untamed that eat of no man’s meat.
UNCLE WALT: Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
UNCLE EZRA: My house is the rain ye wail against.
DR. BILL: Any way you talk.
UNCLE EZRA: My drink is the wine of sleet.
DR. BILL: Any way you stand.
AUNT EMILY: Tell all the truth but tell it slant.
OL’ T.S.E: This is how the world ends.
DR. BILL: Any way you lie.
SISTER SYLVIA: Every woman adores a Fascist.
DR. BILL: You have pissed your life.
LANGSTON: Who said the free? Not me?
UNCLE EZRA: Boo-hoo to the tearful neargrows in jewspaper hats.
(The poets disintegrate into cacophony, everyone proclaiming at once until...)
UNCLE WALT: After culture has said its last say we find that the best things remain to be said-- that the heart is still listening to have heart things said to it-- the brain still listening to have brain things said to it-- the faith, the spirit, the soul, still waiting...
(Lights specify to Langston.)
LANGSTON: Well, looks like you’ll be headed back to the world now. And it looks like you’ll be waiting still. Brain, heart and soul.
(Lights rise on Tom Hennessy smoking quietly at the Gatling gun above.