On Theatrix: Poetry Plays by Terese Svoboda
It’s hard to think of a writer who eludes classification to the extent Terese Svoboda does—paradoxically, by inhabiting and re-shaping fistfuls of labels. She is a poet, librettist, novelist, biographer, memoirist, translator, short story writer, filmmaker, fabulist, feminist, environmentalist, sorceress of syntax, prop master, critic, magician. In her nineteenth book, Theatrix: Poetry Plays, she smartly deploys the bedazzlements of the playwright and dramaturge, but refuses the plush confinement of the box seat.
For starters, there’s the deceptively simple title, Theatrix (theatrics + tricks, with the wink of the feminine suffix—and, if you will, a nod to a children’s cereal best known for the tricky rabbit on the package). Then there’s the subtitle, Poetry Plays. Is “plays” a noun or a verb? Yes (and yes again). One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but since we all do, the image by sewn-drawing artist China Marks commands attention. An impossible, branch-nosed creature, ever so slightly suggestive of Paul Klee’s 1939 “Angel Applicant”—a lonely, hopeful, wrenchingly beautiful hybrid monster—with (wink) a touch of Pinocchio, offers as fine a clue as any as to what awaits.
Crack open the book and you’ll find a cast/list of characters that includes everyone from the stage manager to the late comedian Jack Benny to Debussy to “Me” and “WE” (uppercase) and “many non-speaking parts, or parts that can’t speak, or parts speaking inaudibly.” To these, we must add the unlisted ghosts of Shakespeare and Beckett, who gleefully haunt these pages, not surprising from a writer who in previous books has engaged in avid conversation with, among others, Willa Cather (Bohemian Girl) and God herself (Tin God.) As in Svoboda’s other works, wordplay and puns (“King Leer”) abound. Tragedy is not so much leavened as brought into sharp relief by ribald humor, and assorted sly dogs sometimes poke in a nose when you least expect them.
Theatrix is not a play, of course, but it is performative. It’s composed of more than forty short pieces—poems and dialogues—with spacing evoking staging (the stage of the page). Bracketed, interruptive insertions bring to mind not so much a Greek chorus as a side-eyeing, backstage badass, there to deflate an authorial authority. No one—certainly not the author—holds a solid truth; there’s no one point of view. There is, most notably, an extraordinary breadth of subject and emotion.
Part One leans somewhat more historical and political. In “HBO’s Chernobyl,” Svoboda considers both the environmental and human catastrophe and our reaction to it, clamping it down with the line “The brain folds—ask the media.” In “Emma’s Play,” four of Emma Goldman’s lovers jockey for position ’round her corpse. Their snappish repartee concludes with the bracketed: “[Bag hangs mid-air, over the corpse, with a zipper up one side, an unfailing zipper as yet unzipped for the million future dead unfree to come, despite Emma’s love and ambition, for the free-for-all].” Part Two feels more personal, at times intimately autobiographical, but these distinctions bleed into one another as the pieces intertwine and accrue to a moving, echoing effect.
In interviews, Svoboda has said that she trusts the readers’ unconscious to provide the glue.* Having followed her work for almost thirty years (in full disclosure, as friend as well as fan) I might add that one doesn’t so much read Svoboda as invite her into your psyche in order to rearrange a few things that you probably won’t be able to name.
Theatrix’s greatest strength, among many, may be its tonal range. One minute, Svoboda is cracking wise about men and women, as in “The Cast”: “Sex and death are my two best subjects, she says. She tells him with death you can do it alone and nobody laughs at you.”
The next minute, she’s approaching vaudeville, as in “Silverware Dialogue”:
A fork and a spoon lie together
To spoon and to fork.
E=MC2 says the spoon.
I don’t have the energy says the fork.
To be sure, it’s delightful. It is also subversive, setting up the unsuspecting reader to be knocked flat by later poems such as the devastating “She Said He Said,” about the death of a child. Here, no words suffice (“An envelope of silence. Licked shut.”) The effect on the reader is likely permanent.
Toward the end of the book, an actress named Beatrice (a tip of the hat to Dante) regards “The bassinet in the living room, the sadness and anger of maternity, not to mention the trap door.”
Theatrix is chock-full of trap doors, of trompe-l’oeils and mirrors. The ground is not solid; the air is not safe; the coast is not clear; the rug will be pulled out from under your feet. You feel it in your bones. Svoboda’s lines are elegant but she is equally eloquent in moving the “parts that can’t speak, or parts speaking inaudibly,” the innermost parts of our messy and unclassifiable selves.
* For example, in this interview with Karla Kelsey: “I guess I assume that the unconscious has coherence.”