Thursday, August 12, 2010

Clockfire—Jonathan Ball

A spotlight appears onstage to light a large, ornate grand-
father clock. The clock displays the correct time and is in
perfect working order.
     The actors sneak behind the audience and set the theatre
on fire.
This, the title poem of Jonathan Ball’s new collection, is tucked discreetly in the middle, but it is a perfect example of the strange and engaging work that Ball has created. In “Creation”, the lead actress is a Goddess, who creates a world on stage. In “A New History”, a play reenacts an alternate version of Earth, in which life never comes about.

Each poem is a tiny vignette having to do with the theater, and in each a bizarre scenario unfolds: actors repeat everything each audience member has ever said; the audience slowly dissolves; the actors dig a never-ending hole through the stage. Each somehow involves the audience, and blurs the line between theater and reality, actor and audience, possible and impossible. In many vignettes, the actors commit some prank on the audience, though this prank inevitably involves something impossible, fantastic and usually destructive.
The Doppelgängers

Patrons file into the theatre, but before they have a chance
to sit down, they are confronted by their doppelgängers.
     This cannot be.
     Only one from each pair may exit the theatre. The other
must remain, dead or alive, to attend the next performance.
An overriding theme is death and destruction. In one poem, the audience members watch themselves age until dead; in another, they are killed immediately. In another, the rest of the world is destroyed. There seems to be no message or significance here, merely a fascination of Ball’s. If his purpose is to unsettle us from our typical expectations if the theater, then the contemplation of our demise does the trick. The theater, as a concept, is filled with expectations, prescribed roles, social mores and comfort, yet there seems to be a lingering discomfort with peering voyeuristically into the lives of fictional characters or the performance of the actors, and Ball exploits this, and take it to its extremes. The sense of strange and unsettling scenes involving history, literature, acting, the self and doubles, the mind, perception and the cosmos reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges. So does this poem:

A messiah comes. And performs miracles, to prove divinity.
     All the world gathers around the stage to inspect this
new savior.
     But will the audience accept her? Will the audience
accept him? Will the audience accept this, what is now so
clear, so plain to see?
     Crosses are already being built. Fires kindle. Pockets fill
with stones.
The verse style itself deserves comment. I appreciate that Ball writes in prose. It’s not free verse, it’s lyric prose. I always find it a bit pretentious when poets write prose and then chop it up into lines of “verse” with no particular reason for a line break in one place or another. Ball writes in paragraphs because that’s how you write prose; in this he is like Carolyn Forché. I appreciate it. He lets his words and images do the work, without relying on extra “poetification”. One more before I must go. This, too, reminds me of Borges and his mirrors:
The Mirrored Stage

The lights dim. Then come up as the curtain rises to reveal
an empty stage, its back wall a giant mirror. The audience
looks upon its own reflection, enraged. What pompousness!
     Betrayed, they file out. A joke has been played on them,
an artless joke. Some have looked forward to this play all
week. They mutter and complain. The play a failure, a ham-
fisted attempt at profundity. They will warn others and
demand a refund.
     Finally, the theatre is empty. Silence, then an eruption
of applause. Although the audience has left, their reflec-
tions remain. These reflections rise, cheering – delighted,
finally free.

Recommended if you like unpretentious lyrical theatric phantasmagoria.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a kind and incisive review. Yes, death to needless line breaks.