Thursday, August 27, 2015

Silence, please! The performance art of Marianne Moore, or poetry as theater's secret agent and the world's caretaker



Eyes on the prize: A pangolin subject to out-of-control harvesting
The toll mankind exacts on wildlife throughout the world took a poignant turn for me when I listened to NPR's Aug. 18 report on the threat to the pangolin, a compact anteater that I'm guessing few people have heard of. The report calls it the most trafficked mammal in the world, despite its obscurity and low profile in conversations about exploitation and extinction.

I would have been among many American listeners unfamiliar with the beast had I not known one of Marianne Moore's inimitable animal poems, "The Pangolin." I went back to this poem as I reconnected with the poet's severely truncated version of "Poetry" in order to make a point about my response to Phoenix Theatre's current show, "Silence! The Musical."

Considering whether to lasso "The Pangolin" into that post, I was stopped by my internal editor, who barked: "Wait a minute! You're reviewing 'Silence!' Please tend to business."  But there is an odd relevance of both Moore poems to the themes often obscenely pursued in "Silence! The Musical." That's what I plan to probe here.

Near total annihilation in habitats elsewhere, the pangolin in Africa is under dire threat, spurred by what some might defend as a cultural norm that our Western values should not disturb. I will disturb it here.

To quote the NPR report: "The animal has long been prized for its scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. But  Jonathan Baillie, a pangolin specialist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in London. says nowadays pangolin meat is considered a luxury item by a growing middle class in Vietnam and China. 'We're seeing that the body is actually being eaten as some sort of celebration when a business deal is done,' he says. 'The price can go up to many hundreds of dollars per kilo.'"

It may be harsh to find this sort of heedless desire akin to the psychopathology that drives some people to the extremes of Hannibal Lecter, famished for human flesh, and Buffalo Bill, who has human skin in the game, in the Phoenix show. But once the world is conceived as being for our use and pleasure, there's no stopping us. And we tend to individualize that in the worst way.

There is no end to human vanity and greed, qualities for which money exists in part to assign costs to. From time immemorial, East and West, many celebrations have been accompanied by wasteful feasting. When we push ourselves back from that groaning board, the perspective changes: "To explain grace requires / a curious hand," Miss Moore notes in "The Pangolin." This insight is nestled amid praise of the pangolin's fitness for its unspectacular existence, with its artichoke-like armor proof against its food's resistance and its predators' designs. The current headlong harvest by the worst of all predators is something else.

Miss Moore always had that steady, curious hand.  Her animal poems are exact in description and oblique, even coy, in extolling her subjects. To put a stamp of unique performance upon these tributes, many of her poems are set in unconventional line lengths and with a controlled, sinuous variety of indentations (the forced adherence to the left-hand margin you will find in versions of "The Pangolin" online makes as much sense as stressing the downbeats in a Debussy prelude).

"The Pangolin" is gloriously discursive, ending in a meditation that blurs the line between this charming, dogged animal and that king of the hill, mankind, about whom Miss Moore is richly ambivalent. An odd effect of reading such a poem is that you become super-aware of a human sensibility shaping every phrase, and yet somehow the animal itself seems to emerge intact and unexploited for your inspection and admiration.

Marianne Moore: Showing the deepest feeling.
In Moore, culture and nature are often intertwined: In "The Elephant," for example, the poet writes: "As loss could not ever alter Socrates'/ tranquillity, equanimity's contrived // by the elephant. With the Socrates of animals as with Sophocles the Bee, on whose / tombstone a hive was incised, sweetness tinctures / his gravity."

The dust jacket of my "Complete Poems of Marianne Moore" carries praise from fellow poets as diverse as T.S. Eliot (his eye ever turned toward eternity) and John Ashbery (relentlessly focused on this world of time and change). Ashbery's kudos runs thus: "More than any modern poet, she gives us the feeling that life is softly exploding around us, within easy reach."

Such energy occupies a different universe from the noisy explosions  — and ejaculations —  in "Silence!: The Musical." The creators' exclamation point hypercharges the irony of that abbreviated version of the movie title. The show's gravity is peculiarly hard to access, and no sweetness tinctures it.

Miss Moore had her "Silence," too, it must be pointed out. She devotes the short poem of that title mainly to recalling her father's wisdom, ending with these lines:

"The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.

As we continue to hack away at the health and viability of other species, we ought to consider the earth as our inn. Regarded solely as our residence, how can the earth help being ours to do whatever we want to with pangolins, elephants, other people, and species that are disappearing faster than we can count them?

It's instructive to encounter the lack of restraint that boils over in "Silence!: The Musical," but we don't want to live there, do we? Whoever or whatever you may want to consider our host on earth, it seems healthier to have the good manners and restraint of a guest. The pangolin might then thrive in its own modest way, along with earth's other guests.

Continuing to exercise what we deem to be the prerogatives of residence is frightening to contemplate. The rest — to quote the most quotable literary character ever — is silence.