Act II, Section Five of An American Book of the Dead - The Game Show. . .
Act II, Sect. 4
(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”.
Lights up on an African American man wearing a suit of mid-20th Century cut.)
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....
Welcome to the Bardo of the American Poets, Patriot and Expatriate. This is a descending bardo. If you fail to recognize any poet here as your true self, you drop to the next lower plane of expatriotism.
Let’s start where it all began, with the first native-born bard to ever utter genuine American.
(Lights up on Uncle Walt.)
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
and what I assume you shall assume,
for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
LANGSTON: Uncle Walt Whitman.
Has anyone supposed it is lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
LANGSTON: That you do, Walt. That you do.
Stop this day and night with me and you shall posses the origin of all poems.
Walt Whitman, a kosmos.
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.)
Take no illustrations whatever from ancients or classics.
(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 WALT (speaking now to the cage): Ezra, perfect transparent clearness, simplicity, sanity and health are what’s wanted.
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.
UNCLE WALT: Now, Ezra, settle down. You put yourself where you are. And you’re only gonna make it worse with fussing.
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.
If you lose touch with Uncle Walt you will drop to the next level of poet patriots, the good doctor, William Carlos Williams.
(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.
so much depends
upon a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
LANGSTON: Yes, I know, Doctor Bill. I know.
He works in earnest opposition to what was going on across the sea, where the Modernists were infusing their work with all sorts of arcane allusions.
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—-
Yes. It is difficult to get the news from poems,
yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
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--
UNCLE EZRA: Oh, my deer deer gully bullllll, cain’t ye see? You’re pissing your life away.
LANGSTON: It echoed in Dr. Bill’s head.
Any way you talk
Any way you turn
Any way you stand
Any way you lie
You have pissed your life
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.)
Because I did not stop for death,
he kindly stopped for me.
LANGSTON: That he did now, didn’t he, Auntie Em?
Such a strange patriot is Emily that she hardly ever ventures from her hometown of Amherst; and in later years, barely leaves the house.
I never saw a moor.
I never saw the sea.
LANGSTON: And severe--
AUNT EMILY: And queer--
LANGSTON: In the same white dress.
Title divine is mine
The Wife without The Sign.
Conferred on me--
Empress of Calvary.
LANGSTON: After she dies you’ll find eighteen hundred unpublished poems left behind like a finicky dragons hoard.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise.
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,
but America was never America to me.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me.
America was never America to me.
Hey, not nearly brave or free, can you be me? Langston? If you fail, you fall to the expatriate side of this bardo.
(Lights up on T. S. Eliot, standing in a hole a few inches lower than stage level.)
I grow old... I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
LANGSTON: Born in Ohio, T.S. Eliot flees America as soon as he is able, never looking back. He literally renounces his U.S. citizenship and becomes subject to His Majesty the King of England.
I am not Prince Hamlet,
nor was meant to be.
LANGSTON: Nobody’s arguing that.
With his umbrella and bowler, working as a banker, Ol’ T.S.E. becomes more British than all the British combined.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
LANGSTON: Seems risky.
Folks, notice how far we’ve come already. From this...
UNCLE WALT: Walt Whitman, a kosmos.
LANGSTON: To this...
OL T.S.E.: Do I dare disturb the universe?
LANGSTON: Nick-named the Possum by his friend and mentor Ezra Pound, Eliot watches the best of his generation destroyed in the War to End All Wars.
This is how the world ends,
this is how the world ends,
this is how the world ends,
not with a bang but a whimper.
LANGSTON: Do you recognize anyone?... Maybe you’ll see yourself one step down in Sylvia Plath, who also moved to England, but required no Holocaust but her own.
(Lights up on Sylvia on her knees in front of an old-fashioned gas oven range.)
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
LANGSTON: That you do, Sister Silvia, that you do.
SISTER SYLVIA: I do it so it feels like hell.
LANGSTON: She isn’t Jewish, has no first hand experience of Nazi atrocities, but nevertheless Sister Sylvia appropriates their horrors to represent her own inner torments.
Every woman adores a Fascist
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Aushwitz, Belsen.
I think I may well be a Jew.
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.
You poke and stir
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—
Herr God, Herr Lucifer,
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
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.)
I am a weird untamed
That eat of no man’s meat.
My house is the rain ye wail against.
My drink is the wine of sleet.
LANGSTON: You’ll find Ezra somewhere in Italy in a cage specially constructed for the worst kind of American traitors.
UNCLE EZRA: Six by six by ten. Cement floor and a tarpaper roof. I call it my gorilla cage. I’m surrounded by Murka’s best and blightest: deserters and rapists and coons.
LANGSTON: Ah Ezra, ever the aristocrat.
For Uncle E, it wasn’t enough to leave, or even despise, America. He needed to join arms with the Fascists, Il Duce and Der Fuhrer, broadcasting hate to his former fellow countrymen, the American GI’s who had come to liberate Europe.
UNCLE EZRA: For the United States to be making war on Italy and Germany is just plain damn nonsense, and every native-born American of American stock knows it.
LANGSTON: For Uncle E, it’s clear who runs things back home.
UNCLE EZRA: Just which of you is free from Jewish influence? Your own louse of a President stands for Jewry, all Jewry and nothing but Jewry. Lil’ Frankie Jewsefeldt.
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: At least one Yankee not applauding the new bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
UNCLE EZRA: Say this to the Possum, who couldn’t be more wrong: it’s a bang, not a whimper... Do you hear me?! A BANG!
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.
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.
A tight special lights Blink Bodie . . . . )
ABOD-TGS Act II, Sect. 6