but it was in one of those times that I thought we
were all moving at the same pace with the same
gaze when the whistling of that truck came
kicking up dust
I don’t like that
– Megan Murtha, Bone Play
Puppets & Poets
Megan’s piece, The Glass House Speaks, is the last piece of the night, so I go. It’s raining that night, which I remember because I trudge the many blocks from the Dekalb L stop to the Starr under a tattered umbrella, and I remember that umbrella because I remember later, after the show’s over, searching for it in the umbrella pot and finding it finally, or its remains, only the plastic handle and the spider wire legs. Most pieces borrow from some other text, marry the words to their theatre. There’s one using Robert Frost’s “Birches,” one an amalgam of Edgar Allan Poe. Some are original, the poet writing new material for the performance. Megan is her own source. She shepherds the work from a blank page to the audience. Well, with the actors and the objects.
Etymol.: To throw in the way of [Latin], or
A thing presented to the mind [Medieval Latin]
The Glass House Speaks
Three actors behind a small table. On the table, a glass enclosure – a house house, sure, in context, but in actual practice something more like a birdhouse, four glass panels and a pyramid roof – and three objects of seemingly different worlds: a plastic deer, an antique folding ruler, and a porcelain doll’s arm. Each actor assumes an object, moves and speaks through the object. A story of shared spaces unfolds. I am in the front row. The Starr is small. The audience is pressed upon the stage. Megan is somewhere, I assume, in this room or nearby. Afterward the puppeteers and poets and the audience mingle on the stage and by the small concession stand sipping on beers. Megan and one of the actors are talking and she has the look on her face with the trapezoid scowling grin, wide eyes, the whole gaze of a person standing beside a car wreck amazed to find survivors. They’re talking about a rehearsal in which the actor dropped the folding ruler out of frustration and it landed on the table with a hard thnunck.
“And we just looked at it,” Megan says, the actor nodding. “It was dead. So I called it. I said everybody go home now. I mean, there was nothing more to say about it, what can you do. It’s not like you can just bring it back to life after that.”
There’s something else to say here, but then another puppeteer breaks into our circle and hugs Megan and the conversation goes off. But the dead ruler hangs there and I go out in the rain again and go home. It seems there might be a poem in the whole thing, but I go to sleep instead of writing it and the poem or the halfpoem hangs there too.
“The magic of all forms of puppetry is that it is playing with death. It’s the most godlike positioning of the artist – to take the inanimate and bring it back to life…. It’s witchcraft! It’s scary But it’s not a denial of death. It’s an embracing of it + a full understanding of it… but one has to know fully how an object is ‘dead’ to bring it back to hang out and play,” Megan writes in my notebook at The Double Windsor.
Oh the crowded world (1), or Child’s play
A child is the accumulation of stuff in so many ways. New plastic dishes. Messy piles of bright laundry. Strange-flavored toothpastes and footgrip strips in the tub. Our apartment smells of fresh skin and shampoo and the rooms are full of small furniture. I know new songs. I tread different routes in the neighborhood, the subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in my schedule to accommodate the struggling on of soft winter boots or navigating little pink toes into a sandal. Endless parades of family, the tighter gathering of familial gravities. The miracle of Calvin’s coming seems to dull at times then glares back full force and I have to assume after two years that the magnitude of his being is more a pulse than a flash. On the floor in his room, his back to me, blond head bent down, small crossed legs, the toys in an orbit around him, various cosmic debris of his imagination. The cars. The trucks. The train treads. The xylophone mallet. The severed soft nose of some doll, bright pink. The pages of Where’s Waldo. Where is he? The trucks in his hands, their plastic noses turning graceful arcs in the space around. “Thhhzooom,” he says, his lips brrbrring. My son on the rug.
“The difference between puppetry and object theatre,” Megan says, “is that puppetry tries to rid itself of the person behind the puppet, to give you over to the idea that the puppet exists without the puppeteer. Object theatre relies in part on you remembering – always remembering – that the object is manipulated. It’s driven by the relationship between the object and the human.”
We fall into talking about Pee Wee’s Playhouse, a show riffing on the central idea of object theatre, or maybe more accurately, a show pushing object theatre through the absurd and straight out the other side. Megan yips, takes to eBay and we spend the day oohing and awwing over dolls and models of the set. A seemingly endless cache of toys here. Some of them still shine, artifacts from proud collectors; some have that worn-elbow look of well-loved toys. In one photo, the hairy back of a doll owner’s hand, the dry knuckles and yellow nails pinching the doll’s leg.
“That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?” I say. “Thinking of grown people somewhere talking to their dolls? Dancing them from foot to foot.”
“Oh…” Megan says, with an exaggerated frown.
It sounds like she’s joking, but also she’s not. I feel that same hole open in me when my father tries to explain how I can make money writing poems. I shrink away from my own ignorant spaces. Megan’s moved on, clicking through images of Jambi, Cowboy Curtis. I try to think of something to say but before I can say anything, our students come filtering in with their backpacks and laptops under their arms and the room fills up with life. A few weeks later, Megan comes in with a box, grinning. She opens it and inside is Pee Wee’s entire set. She reaches in and pulls out a Pee Wee.
“Pee Wee!” I say.
“I know you are, but what am I,” Pee Wee says in Megan’s glowing little growl.
For weeks until the end of the semester, the various characters hang around the corner of her desk, absorbing our back-and-forths, weathering our stresses, occasionally standing up to sing or speak out, Megan’s impish smirk a lipping halo round their heads.
A birthday candle, a parking cone… (1)
For Christmas this year, somebody gave Calvin a set of difficult-to-describe crayons. They’re conical, with a sort of octagonal base into which you insert a finger to guide the rounded tip around on a piece of paper in some approximation of finger painting. There are eight of them in an array of basic colors. I open the package and fall into a game that strikes me as most obvious, one crayon on each finger. I chase a giggling Calvin around the room, roaring, baring my crayon claws.
Calvin has other ideas. He fixates on the orange crayon, pinches it delicately between two fingers. “No, like this,” I say, demonstrating the sort of puppetry principle of the thing. “No, like this,” he says. He takes it and holds it up. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.” The crayon’s a birthday candle now. “Blow it,” he says. I blow. He clutches the candle to his chest and spins on one socked heel. He sings again. I blow. He sings.
Days later. I come out of the bedroom to find Calvin pushing a truck around in a circle on the coffee table. In the middle of the table, the orange crayon. The truck pulls up to it. Calvin beepbeepbeeps and the truck swerves around the crayon and continues on. “Did the truck catch fire?” I ask him. The truck stops. Calvin blinks. I bend down.
“No,” he says.
It’s a parking cone now. The story’s switched on me. The truck moves around the table, pushed by Calvin’s gaze, his head on his bicep, little fingers delicate on the truck’s bed, guiding, careful not to interfere with the integrity of his play. The orange cone in the center of the table. The birthday candle burning alone.
A birthday candle, a parking cone… (2)
A short play by Megan Murtha:
[A Birthday Candle burns alone.]
Birthday Candle: It’s not every day I celebrate someone so special as myself.
[Enter a Parking Cone.]
[Parking Cone whistles for the attention of someone offstage.]
[A long reel of caution tape is stretched across the space. It hangs in midair.]
[Birthday candle burns out.]
One night at a friend’s apartment, we take turns reading work out loud to each other. Megan brings a section of a new play and a song to accompany it. She sings the song, a deep and mournful sort of gospel that flutters fat from her small frame. Bone Play. Megan’s husband grew up in Texas, where his parents still live on a ranch. Megan found some bones. Cow bones. A leg. A skull, the jaw. Two sections of the spine. “Bone suggests absence that our minds readily superimpose flesh + animation to.” She builds a theatre from the suggestion of the cow’s skeleton. I haven’t seen the play, though I’ve read the script now and so picture it: the two pieces of spine move through the hands of two different actors who speak in near unison, with just enough delay to call attention to their distinctness. At one point in the song, the spine pieces separate and assume the characters of the rancher and his wife at a table. Picture bones. Picture piles of bones and the lilting song of the bones and the singing actors. The dead materials drift and dance and sing and build and break around the stage. I can and I can’t imagine it, the scattered bones gathered back again. The cow the meat the cow is nowhere but where you might imagine it. “Meat or muscle itself/on its own is messier, [realer?] somehow… Whereas bones have an elegance to them – a dancer-like movement – they’re aerodynamic in shape + appearance. But sometimes meat gets it better.”
I’ve got what doctors call a terrible fucking back, so every once in awhile I combat the problem by treating myself to a massage. There’s a woman at the spot down the street who needs no guidance, no prompting, she glides her hands over my shoulder blades, down my flanks, over all that meat and prying prying to my hips and over to my thighs my knees squeezing and I hear her little sighs all along and then she knows. She finds the problems the knots the pinches in the muscles. I might as well not be breathing, although my breath, her breath, the honeyglow of the soft ambient music are the only noises in the room. I am meat on the table. I am an object here. I could’ve left myself at home and let my body go alone. I am a birthday candle. I am a parking cone. I am two sections of spine separating. My voice comes in two. The woman’s hands knead and release me and all my little pains.
At The Double Windsor
“I wanted to write an essay about how objects home our imaginations. About how objects are little vessels – or big – where we can take the sort of aching intangibleness of our imaginations and make them real, which is sort of achy, too, I think, in the way it aches to see pictures of your mother when she was young and think about how all that time passed.”
“But?” Megan asks, sipping on a hot cider.
“Well, I got this massage the other day. And now I’m thinking that to think of objects like that, as sort of tools for manifesting our imaginations is maybe unfair to objects. Because it seems like the process of hanging narratives on objects might be the same as the process of me hanging a narrative on, say, you. Or I’m thinking of my son.” And here I tell her about the orange crayon. I cringe, realizing when I’m talking that maybe I could be pushing some limit, equating object theatre to what a toddler does with toys, but she’s nodding.
“I’m a kid in so many ways,” she says. Who isn’t? “But I think what separates me, finally, is that I’m an archivist. I don’t necessarily create. I mean, I don’t only create. I find.”
That seems important. I write it in my notebook. Later, when I get home, I can’t read my own handwriting.
“What I do,” she continues, “is look for whatever object sings to me. Or whatever objects sing together.”
“A sort of harmony.”
I know what she means. I do the same with words, as any poet does, listen for the rhythms behind the words and arrange them until a harmony arises. A word is an object, too. There is that. There is more to shape and figure than shape and figure alone. We finish our drinks and head out into the warm January night.
“We bought tickets to Ireland,” she tells me, her and her husband.
“Oh?” I say, but I’m thinking about how words are objects, too, and we hug at the corner and separate and I go home and in my dark apartment, I sit up in bed and I listen to the chugging interplay of my wife’s sleepbreathing and the huzz of the white noise machine in Calvin’s room and I hold a pen over my notebook and think about words and objects and try to write the poem that hangs but doesn’t come. I sleep.
I bring Calvin a plate of mac and cheese, some applesauce, his lunch. A sickening crunch. A coldshiver pain from my toe to my hip and I lift my foot and find I’ve smashed the orange crayon birthday candle parking cone. “Uh-oh, Calvo,” I say, pointing. He bounds over, considers the shards smashed in the fibers of the rug. He holds up a tire from a toy car. “Look,” he says.
“Oh,” I say. I lower his food where he can see.
He nods emphatically and bounds away.
Oh the crowded world (2)
“So much the better! All the trash we make makes possibilities for object theatre utterly endless. There’s no shortage of stuff. This is why I want to make the Theatre of Artifacts that includes artifacts of religious/relic status alongside broken vase handles and bottle caps… To remove hierarchy(ies) between objects opens up time for us to understand where we’ve been and where we’re going more holistically…”
One day I will be dead and my wife will be dead and my son will die one day too and it’s good to say it here to hold the thought in breath and muscle on the tongue like a small object itself though yes an object of no shape and no weight but an object too yes your voice an object too to hold in suspension there the thought of it like an object too to one day pluck from your throat to hold aloft and to be given new narratives to toss upon the heap of all the said thoughts the narratives to die to rise in new stories. Control is not a virtue but a lens. I am trying to shape something here. I am trying to archive something here. And one day I will die and my wife will die and my son will be dead. And one day Megan will die and you will die and we will all settle dustful down into the long carpets of cosmic dust at last to one day rise in new shape and be given new names and someone will gather the pieces of me and of you and of all of us and assemble new figures in new winds. We are objects, too.
Daniel Parsons earned his MFA from the Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College, where he now works teaching composition to students who speak English as a non-primary language. He lives with his wife and young son in Brooklyn, NY. His poetry and fiction have appeared recently or will appear in Manhattan Magazine and Eunoia Review and he was a featured poet in River Styx‘s Hungry Young Poets reading series.
Megan Murtha will be performing on April 11 at 7:30, in the “Little Theatre” series at Dixon Place. Tickets available here.
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