What’s the cost of a plot? The Steiny Road Poet poses this question ambiguously for these reasons: 1) because of paper she will present at the conference Lifting Belly High: A Conference on Women’s Poetry Since 1900, she has been studying Gertrude Stein more deeply than usual, in which case, the bucking of habitual storyline—plot—came into focus with Stein’s lecture on plays, 2) the Steiny Road Poet made a pilgrimage to the family cemetery on the third anniversary of the death of her dear friend Hilary Tham, and 3) the Poet attended a preview of What’s A Little Death, a musicalized play by playwright-lyricist Juanita Rockwell, composer Chas Marsh, and director Leslie Felbain.
IS THERE ALWAYS A STORY GOING ON?
In Stein’s essay “Plays” which was part of her Lectures in America (a book based on her lecture tour that took place 1934-35), she says about the genesis of her first play What Happened:
“What is the use of telling a story since there are so many and everybody knows so many and tells so many. In the country it is perfectly extraordinary how many complicated dramas go on all the time. And everybody knows them, so why tell another one. There is always a story going on.
“So naturally what I wanted to do in my play was what everybody did not always know nor always tell.” [pp 118-119]
What does this mean? Simply that Stein abandoned plot in What Happened. Instead of plot, and thanks to the scholarship of Ulla Dydo noted in her annotated A Stein Reader, we understand Stein recorded the proceedings of a birthday party held on April 8, 1913, for the painter Harry Phelan Gibb. According to Stein, telling a story was something anyone could do and did.
Habitual behavior, such as developing a plot line, was for ordinary writers. Stein, an ardent follower of her Harvard professor William James, provided a stream of thoughts and impressions meant to wake up her audience with an unexpected flow of language. Take for example the opening lines from Act One, Scene Two: “Urgent action is not in graciousness it is not in clocks it is not in water wheels. It is the same so essentially, it is a worry a real worry.” To Stein, the cost of a plot in a play was complacency by the writer who followed The Rules, often meaning the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. Stein’s standards, based on the teachings of Williams James, equated habitual behavior to “old fogism” (James’s terminology) and not a path to genius. Although Stein’s audience for these lines quoted above cannot be sure about the who-what-where-when-why—in fact there are no characters, no stage directions, and no story, the impression delivered is urgency, passage of time, and human angst. Instead of plot, Stein offered a look inside the human mind where thoughts, impressions, words flow turbulently.
BURY OR BURN?
With the loss of her dear friend Hilary Tham, the friend who became Gertrude Stein by delivering the first public spoken-voice presentations of Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, the Steiny Road Poet has been making an annual pilgrimage to King David Memorial Gardens in Fairfax, Virginia. Some years before Tham’s onset of lung cancer, the Poet had discussed with her friend whether burial or cremation was the preferred method of attending to the body after death. Tham, born in Malaysia to immigrant Chinese parents was a practicing Jew married to a former Peace Corps volunteer. Tham was adamant that burial was indeed preferred over incineration and she had helped the bereft husband of a mutual friend, also a poet, buy cemetery plots and plan that funeral. Here’s Tham’s pragmatic poem of encounter, head on with what the future would bring, before her diagnosis of fatal cancer.
ON BUYING A BURIAL PLOT ONE SUNNY DAY
I don't know if last night's stars aligned in some
mysterious conjunction or a moon-pulled rise
in tides or money in the bank moved me to stop
at the cemetery and buy a double lot
on the brow of a low hill comfortingly near
an old friend whose death leached the world of color
a few months ago, where tall oaks provide shade
gentle as friendship in midday glare; I stand
and look over the undulating lawns where grass
rises to lap at my feet like waves. Good feng shui
I think, good flow of chi, wind and water.
I remind myself I am not superstitious,
yet peace rests on my eyes like morning light.
The memorial gardens representative—
cemeteries embrace euphemisms—offers
the extras I can buy now or later, granite bench,
flat bronze plaque (standing headstones not allowed),
lead liner for the interment site. I look
at his face, the bruised shade of his skin
and wonder: Does keeping company
with the dead darken the aura of people,
as the Chinese believe, and would this
darkness show in photographs or is it
visible only to the living eye?
I supposed the lead lining, required by law,
was for sanitation, but he says, "No, it's cosmetic—
to prevent the weight of earth from collapsing
the coffin, making ugly holes."
Later, I tour the other gardens—
the Asian garden with mounded graves
achingly familiar from childhood, the tall
tombstones with photos, one like grandfather's.
I take a quick look around the Muslim
garden with nameless graves—and toss away
the small regret I will not have a headstone
to inconvenience the mowers.
I take a last look at my new purchase and note
that Joe and I will lie beside Winter when we die—
Mrs. Winter already here, the mister still alive.
I wish him long life and wonder if he has
remarried and whether he will use this space
reserved for him or opt to go with a second
Mrs. Winter—man proposes and God
or others will dispose or dispossess us.
From my hill, I look at the green earth
that goes on and on, beyond the horizon,
beyond stretch of the eyes, hear the hum
of distant traffic, the swish of wind crossing
waves of grass and feel buoyant peace.
I hope, when I open my hands to the winds
and let go this body, this gravity,
my children will feel a similar peace,
that they will not be afraid.
By Hilary Tham
First published The Innisfree Poetry Journal
The Steiny Road Poet whose parents had never been able to afford to buy a house, had purchased eight plots at King David, enough for themselves and their six children. After escaping the too-crowded rented houses of her growing up years, the Poet viewed the prospect of joining her parents in the house of death unattractive. Now, because friends are there, the value of a plot has accrued more interest to the peripatetic Poet. While some cemeteries are slamming their gates to further burials because they have run out of ground to accommodate the dead and some European repositories are digging up centuries old bones, the Steiny Road Poet holds the deed to six unused plots, some of which will never be used by her siblings.
IS THERE ROOM FOR A PLOT?
What’s A Little Death is focused on plots—cemetery plots—and instead of a storyline plot, it offers a situation: an endless war is overworking a gravedigger who has run out of room in the cemetery. Consequently, the displaced dead are riled up. As this one-act play opens, bodies that have been dragged on stage by the gravedigger during the seating of the audience suddenly sit up in a frightening synchronized hinge and rhythmically chant the word dead. The chanting morphs into “This is a song of the dead.” Beginning with this song, the four dead frights become, little by little, uncomfortably familiar. Who are they and why does it seem that what they say is so quotable, so rarefied?
The play presented in the 2008 Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC, gave no clues in its printed program, but the playwright when questioned by the Poet called the young dead woman Ophelia and some of the quotable lines—in old English— are snippets from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Just in case, you think Shakespeare is a snore (some of us are Philistines after all), there are surprising modern phrases that pop up occasionally like “pink slip.”
Besides Ophelia, one of the men is brother to the young woman and so he must be modeled after Laertes and the older woman, maybe she’s Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. A fourth man who sparred with the must-be Laertes left the Steiny Road Poet scratching her head. Was he Hamlet and by what name? The late breaking news from the director to the Steiny Road Poet was that these characters have the following names Gravedigger, Sonny, Lady, Wet One (Ophelia character who drowned herself), Buddy.
So far, what is engaging about this play is that the music seems to well up from the words, the players move through the scenes into visually satisfying tableau vivant frames (the director Leslie Felbain has an eye for art), and Ana Marie Salamat’s gorgeous costumes are tagged with small iridescent swatches that say these four corpses belong together.
The Steiny Road Poet plans to following the cost of a plot. Will What’s A Little Death get more storyish when it premieres September 4 through 13 at the Baltimore Theatre Project? The Poet bets it will get more Steinish. Better the Poet should worry whether her aura is getting darker from associating with the dead. To put things back in balance, the Poet offers this Sanskrit mantra:
Om Tryambakam Yajamahe
Mrityor Mukshiya Maamritat
We meditate on the Three-eyed Reality
Which permeates and nourishes all like a fragrance.
May we be liberated from death for the sake of immortality,
Even as the gourd tethered to its vine is severed from bondage.