Bula Matari/ Smasher of Rocks

Bula Matari/ Smasher of Rocks

Tom Sleigh’s “Bula Matari/Smasher of Rocks” first appeared in the print version of At Length. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

12 Rehearsals and a Cremation


In this poem there is a shadow.
The shadow is my secret sharer.
The secret sharer is like a gap in an ancient text.

The secret sharer is not one sex or another.
The secret sharer holds aloof and will not answer.
The secret sharer emanates an aura like the truth.

Joseph Conrad listens in on that emanation.
He writes and writes to fill that gap.
If you want, think of Conrad as my secret sharer.

As he listens, Conrad’s aura slowly darkens.
His writing becomes blocked inside and out:
Blocked by history. Blocked by mind. Blocked by body.

By blocked, I mean his writing is a wall.
This wall is the eternal wall.
A scratch runs down this wall: each of us leaves our scratch.

By blocked, I mean blocking:
The actors told by the director where to move on the stage.
By blocked, I mean internal and external movements on the stage.

Please take your seats.
Please turn off your cell phones and beepers.
Please remember that this is a theater of shadows.

Rehearsal 1: Premonition Scene

Lianas trail down
from a tree piercing
the theater’s ceiling,

branch out
into ripped up streets
and bullet-pocked walls of the Intercontinental Hotel.

Day after the performance:
Our hero is
waking up; he looks nothing

like a hero, no consciousness yet of cruelty
or shame or lust or love
or painful associations to last night’s performance

come flooding
with migraine haze like a fluorescent tube
pulsing off, on:

At this moment he’s
meat, meat struggling to put on
the distinctions of a past; of having

to dream into order
the residue of yesterday; it was a funeral he acted in,
correct? A father, was it, that died?

His father? Well, the corpse was awfully quiet…
Our hero sees an arrow speeding toward
a too-tired-to-run, iron-vulnerable heel:

His mother’s heel at the funeral: she is so dry:
in answer to someone who asked her if Dad
wasn’t a closet Christian, she said,

“It was too small a closet for anything like that.”
She’s tyrannized by her body’s gathering helplessness,
she limps and can’t wear shoes with heel-backs:

they inflame the tendon itching with foreknowledge,
the same foreknowledge that made Achilles
such a vital killer: at times, she is like Achilles, her tongue

her sword: she lacerates our hero
who thinks of her as Shakespearean/Homeric/colonial explorer:
something like Stanley as played by Lear hacking through the bush.

When he thinks of his mother about to die,
he hears the sound of a baby elephant moaning
in an elephant graveyard

on television–an image that morphs back
to a human baby crying out, the goddess mother holding
her baby by the foot

to dip the squalling flesh into Styx’s black water
that anneals it to impenetrable bronze…all but the heel–
not even a goddess dares touch that water.

Back, forth, he paces relentless as an elephant,
such knowledge driving him far into his head:
rather than think of that soft pad of flesh

he turns into a lens focused
on his lines, he flames up
to fill his costume:

pith helmet, machete;
white wig of Lear
shouting on the heath;

and make-up
so thick his knowledge of his real face

What he knows then is basic:

Exit left.

Exit right.


Omnes exeunt.

Rehearsal 2: Dramaturgy–Setting and Background

Rip down the curtain, strike the set–
the elephant’s ear, the earhole weirdly small
and tender-looking, like looking in a baby’s ear,
seems, beneath the hunter’s jutting boot, to hear
the shutter click–the ear neither pathetic
nor indicting, neutral as the hunter’s boot-leather.
The hunter is Ernst Rom, a kind of real life
Kurtz–in this photograph of a kill, the equipment
carried by a BaKongo tribesman fingering
his crucifix, fl ash powder stinking in the air,
Rom assumes the aura of David’s Socrates, not the same gesture
of one hand pointing up, one down, but the masculine
hardness of presentation; the steroid-muscled look
of conviction, purpose–a hint of intellectual
swagger in the way Rom’s waxed moustache
sets off his dandified smile back at the camera,
a picture posed for eyes like mine collaborating
to see “a field of sight suggesting always
a beyond or beneath which is not seen.”
Piles of smoked hands heap up next to one-handed
survivors; a knife slices along the vine
as if it were a vein, not cutting across it
which kills the vine, the latex bled out and stuck
to the worker’s chest where it dries and then is
pulled inch by inch off the depilating skin.
The camera documents the dailiness of gathering rubber
and ivory in the bush, of accounting for each bullet
by producing a chopped off hand: one bullet one hand.
The ridges of the elephant’s curling trunk and its intelligent
piggish eyes make no appeal: they seem blind
to the boot’s weight, or to the way Rom holds
his head and thrusts out his chest, his athlete’s
bearing making the elephant’s head look
like a marble pediment holding up a statue
of this colonial Achilles, some morally neutral
sensation of joy at work in the photograph:
a man happy at having done something big,
and lucky and powerful enough to have at hand
a way of witnessing his triumph: the only didactic
juxtaposition being Rom’s smile and the elephant’s
utter deadness; his smile arguing like Socrates
how suffering leads beyond the flesh, the elephant’s
ear not hearing, resolutely mindless meat.
Also in the picture is what must be Rom’s servant,
a boy about l3 whose head is barely visible
behind the elephant’s head: Mountain, rock,
the wide solid earth, all that resists, all
that can be struck, driven, surely all this
proclaims the real existence of the corporeal?
And how, it will be asked, how can we,
on the contrary, attribute Being, and the only
authentic Being, to entities like Soul, Intellect,
things lacking weight, presence, yielding to no force,
offering no resistance, things not even visible?
The boy’s eyes have a certain depth and focus
that makes me want to think that he’s pushing back
against the camera and through the camera lens
to push forth bodily into this present moment
of my quiet, breathing, open-windowed room.

Rehearsal 3: Deus ex Machina

He’s sitting backstage,
gluing on his moustache, gluing on
his face of heartbreak/heroism/hellfire anger

at his porters
who keep trying to desert
when they learn how far they’re going into the bush.

About many things the script is contradictory:
the archetypes, the mythic creatures, the originary peoples
who behave in such anomic ways–

is he to play all these characters, and their couplings, at once?
He wants to cancel
the engagement and disappear in

“the earliest beginnings of the world,
when vegetation rioted on the earth
and the big trees were kings.”

But he’s an actor, right?
Didn’t he confess to his secret sharer
that shapeshifting was his thing?

But the script has a way of changing–the words
writhing, hissing, fangs
injecting venom

he finds intoxicating–
a hole opens in his head, the words flame up
and wriggle into air, they write themselves on

klieg lights silently pulsing in the dark:
         (With scholarly gravitas).
“Whether begotten of Marx, begotten of Freud,
we must resist the temptation to simplify what is not simple.

Let me end this chapter by quoting a lyric from the Antigone
which conveys far better than I could convey it
the beauty and terror of the old beliefs.”

When God takes your house,
        Takes your house and tears down the lintel,
When mad winds lash the deep sea swell
        Raking and scouring the lightless sea-bottom
And wind-battered cliffs echo back the shock,
Then bless your life if you have not yet tasted evil:

Here we watched it piling
        Wave on wave, trouble on dead men’s trouble:
When God strikes, when He moves his hand
        Against you, when, with death’s red sickle
The sly tempter plotting in the brain reaps the final
Branch whose leaves shone light in the well-lit house,

Then sleep that nets us in,
        All of us but His power shimmering forever,
Sleep brings our darkness face to face with His–
        And as time approaches us and passes us by
And is forgotten, only one law stands:
Never does God reach out to us but to crush us.

You see what hope is:
        Some are warmed by it, they feel its healing fire,
But to most it comes like a trick of desire,
        Blinding us as we stumble, the flash and flare
Driving us into a corner we can’t escape from:
The mind God leads is led to evil that good becomes:

If it’s your mind God leads, He leads you to destruction.

Rehearsal 4: Entr’acte

His exhaustion was like a curtain coming down–
it had gotten to the point where a new kind
of speaking had taken over–his voice
was being hollowed out the way a log
is eaten by insects inside out; my mother
looked at him with a slightly different pressure
in her gaze–
                too heavy for the rotting-log soul
being eaten slowly by his cancer…
As he sat at his desk, trying to add up
their joint checkbook, columns of numbers
toppling into chaos, a long, barely
noticeable but definitely there
crack had appeared in his forehead: a papery,
angry, waspish hum threatened to come
swarming out into the room where she and I
pretended to read the papers: “Hon,” she said,
“why don’t you let me do that?”
                                                     The crack
between his eyes split wide and you could see,
as in the old atomic energy symbol
of electrons buzzing around an atomic core,
the swarm of his inner structure swerving
into quiet chaos: “I can do it,”
said the new voice: a ragged-winged humming
turning to a geiger-counting clicking
as his eyes studied the paint texture of the wall.

Rehearsal 5: Suffering Scene

Enter our hero
dressed in pith helmet, white wig,
and shouting: “Blow wind, crack your cheeks!”

Our hero didn’t enter.
He still stands in the wings,

stage fright nailing him to the cross of his own fear.
He watches white confetti
that’s supposed to be fallout ash

swirl down from the ceiling and cover
the stage.
The stage directions say,

Hacks and hacks his way
through thicker
and thicker vines

to jungle’s heart.
But the jungle’s “heart”
is only more jungle:

and anyway, jungles don’t have hearts, human beings have hearts,
hearts of darkness:
Conrad/Marlow says of Kurtz/Rom:

“I had a vision of him on the stretcher, opening his mouth
voraciously, as if to devour
all the earth with all mankind.”

But no one could possibly devour all mankind:
how comforting to think so,
that the world is on such a scale

that one human being could swallow it:
now, if our hero were to stumble
on stage, pushed there by the stage manager,

wig askew, moustache dangling, he’d find
a nuclear reactor behind
a single padlocked gate:

no guards; a fleet of junked cars
being worked on
outside the reactor’s front door;

jungle growing up among sprouting casava
and papaya trees; the compound, oddly homely
in its encroaching dilapidation, giving the impression

of a jungle village theme park
set on an eroding hill subject to landslides.
The government of Belgium gave this reactor

to Congo in 1959
as a reward for providing uranium
processed into the atomic bombs dropped on

Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A flock of goats bleats and bleats;
used in outmoded experiments

for the effect of radiation on animals,
during the next grand pillage,
when looting sweeps like a flood across Kinshasha,

the goats, radioactive or not,
will be stolen
and eaten by the starving…

Mesmerized by the bowels of the reactor, our hero
finds himself drawn to
the uranium rods gleaming silver through murky water–

sign of corrosion, contamination–
our hero feels tempted to turn all this to metaphor,
a comment on the paltry soul

of that open mouth that wants to eat the world:
but it isn’t metaphor: Conrad, in his journal
about his trip upriver, sans superfluous moralizing gristle,

merely notes occurrences, observing the way an actor
observes a part of himself
moving into another voice, other gestures, an alternate skin:

Self rather seedy. Bathed.

Prominent characteristic of social life here: People speaking ill of each other.

Saw only pigeons and few green parroquets; very small and not many No birds of prey seen by me.

Saw another dead body lying by the path in an attitude of meditative repose.

On the road to day passed a skeleton tied up to a post. Also white man’s grave. No name.

Mosquitos–Frogs–Beastly. Glad to see the end of this stupid tramp. Feel rather seedy.

To day fell into puddle. Beastly…. After camps went to a small stream bathed and washed clothes.–Getting
         jolly well sick of this fun.–


–Sun rose red–from 9h a.m. infernally hot day.–

By elective affinities felt half a world away, heat curdling the air,
my father as a boy stares into a fire that my mother as a girl
also stares into,

both sets of eyes, opposing on different sides,
interlocking in the flames.
The couples around them, perched on the hood of a ’39 Ford,

are hugging, kissing, staring into each others’ eyes:
but my mother and father only look into the fire…
Three sets of eyes, if you count mine.

Conrad would call this moment
immersing yourself “in the destructive element.”
My father’s slow death from radiation exposure

from his years of observing nuclear testing
in the Utah desert wasn’t quite what Conrad had in mind–
still, the later photo of my father beside a snow-fringed hole

scorched black from a rocket booster test at dawn,
sunlight scrubbing his face to an ivory mask,
with the prospect of pancakes at the pancake house

sweetening the sense of a job well done, the plaque of heat
from the rocket motor tearing a hole in the void,
would perhaps have reminded Conrad of that mouth’s gape:

The lips open wider and wider,
like a mouth mouthing back its lines:
dead souls clamoring for blood fill up my ears:

our hero feels himself growing small and lost
among projections of giant trees,
lights and shadows swarming and devouring me:

the lights are fading down now all the way to blackout
as if to swallow
all the earth with all mankind.

Rehearsal 6: Dramaturgy–Setting and Background

The dead and the living acting out their roles
sign back and forth across the waters of death:
sometimes an ocean, but often just a pool, puddle
that we living step across: the ancestors live
near and far, the land of death plotting
and re-plotting its coordinates as we walk, oblivious,
along its flashing, everchanging shores.
During World War II, in the Far Eastern theater,
while my father played his part in uniform
near Kun Ming in China–“…I was shot at
by local warlords thinking I was another tribe
but don’t worry, I’m fine…”–in Congo’s Katanga
province, miners are digging up uranium.
Completely unprotected from radiation,
many of them die from cancer: they join
the dead who live the lives of the living,
only reversed: while the living hoe their plots
of ground beyond the village, the dead lie down
to sleep in their beds; and when the living
sleep, the dead prowl through the bush,
keeping herd on leopards, elephants, panthers
as if they were herding goats; the miners
and my dead father both in their versions
of the land of death: the miners’ ancestors
make offerings to the dead, consult them
whenever there is trouble: Someone
in the family’s ill; they ask who among
the dead is responsible, what do the dead
require to make the pain stop: is it true
that someone has been selling the lungs
of the sick one to a hungry spirit who can fix it
so the seller can go work in a rich man’s house?
The Gross Legumes in their Mercedes and couture
from Paris are powerful sorcerers whom the dead help–
but the price for this is that the dead eat the living:
every advantage we living receive is paid for
in the land of the dead, the bodies of the living
are sold piece by piece for the dead to eat.
And when the Gross Legumes die, even they can’t buy off death:
In the 19th century the dying king was strangled
by running a rope through a hole in the death hut,
knotting it around the king’s neck, and then, from outside
pulling it taut until he strangled–his last breath
breathed in by the new king, or else the dying king’s
power breathed out in that last breath would destroy
the village, rampage through the world like an elephant
through the bush. The bomb born in Congo
and dropped on Japan was the prototype for what
my father helped make into an ICBM:
In his world of death he hovers above his son
envisioning Congolese miners who die without
treatment in the barracks but for the sorcerer
who tries to divine what the dead are angry over,
and tries to bargain the dead spirit down
to just the man’s lungs; or, even better, a chicken’s blood;
he tries to make the dead right with the living:
as a man’s son, following a script inscribed
by his father’s death, might bargain with the dead
to learn more about the rocket motor burning up
liquid fuel exploding on the launchpad–
the burn too fast, too hot, too close always
to burning out of control: my father becomes
a solid propellant man, the man who goes
to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch
and make sure the burn burns evenly,
at the same temperature, I imagine, as a blast furnace
or crematorium, that plaque of heat
shimmering from beneath the first stage booster
as the rocket slides free of the gantry
and crawls its way slowly up the sky,
the payload with its halflife pervading
in its poison emanations the father with his rifle
hitching a ride back to base after shooting at
and missing some rabbits and being fired on
by the warlord’s soldiers; and the miner stripped
on his bunk, the sorcerer inquiring
which ancestor is hungry, what food
do the dead need to let loose of the living.

Rehearsal 7: Fight Scene

According to the script,
after the cremation scene, our hero
and his mother go back to her condominium

to begin the symposium:
The Nature of Love and Pain.
Our hero, whom his mother thinks of

as her “soul-mate,”
squirms away from the identification:
he feels his soul reduced

to psychological limbo, scorched
and frozen by her need and love.
Our hero’s father

understands the scorching;
understands it through and through–
both as an expert in rocket fuel

and from the heat of first hand experience:
our hero’s father steps out of the flame as the stage manager
calls the cue: “Lower flame.”

His eyes have been opened by that burning onto
certain painful passages in his long marriage:
the snake-god idol his wife took to her heart;

the accusation that she served up his children in a stew…
Now, he watches with real interest
as she dresses in Achilles’ armor:

she and our hero our enacting Hector’s death:
Achilles chasing Hector around the city walls;
Achilles thrusting his bronze-tipped spear

through the hollow of Hector’s throat;
Achilles dragging Hector behind his chariot;
Achilles contemplating Hector

lying face down in the dust.
Our hero’s mother takes off her helmet–
she looks tired after her exertions.

And our hero, well, he consoles himself
by imagining such intensity between human beings
is better than a tepid, faults-on-both-sides tact.

Though to the audience it must look as if nothing much is going on,
when Hector says, with a tight-faced smile,
–Have you tried massage for that heel…

in the ancient Greek he’s really saying (as Achilles watches him die),
By your life and knees and parents,
don’t let the dogs devour me.

And when Achilles says,
My fury tells me to carve you up and eat you raw,
the audience hears,

–That’s for other people…you know…celebrities…sybarites.
And when Hector, with growing anger, says,
–I get massages–am I a sybarite?

what he really means is,
The heart behind your breastbone is iron.
Achilles, with a you-can’t-fool-me shrug, says,

–I’m a child of the Depression, you know that–
the words beneath the words say,
I accept my fate: now accept yours.

Just-trying-to-help smile: I-know smile. Uneasy grasping hands.
The cuckoo clock
shredding the seconds…

But this is the kind of thing, that when he was alive,
our hero’s father found a way to avert.
A buffer between our hero and his mother–

a dead man can only do so much.
The stage manager calls the cue: “More flame”–
he steps back through flame-shadows into the burning.

Rehearsal 8: Reconciliation Scene

The scene with him standing in the desert,
fallout dusting his shoulders,
the scene where our hero becomes his father

and dies in his father’s place–wasn’t that Achilles and Patroclus?
Achilles as Patroclus’ father?
But it was our hero’s father who died,

not Patroclus,
the myth
is only a myth.

But the etymology of the name “Achilles”:
“without a lip”–referring to my father’s silence,
the lack of mere noise inside his head?

“Restrainer of the People”–or to his calming presence
at the dinners he cooked, his tribe catching a glimpse of their faces
in his shield?

Or “the obscure” as mist is obscure–
always a quiet man,
could this refer to his gnomic answers at the end?

–How are you, Dad? –Yes, I wish I’d never done this…
–Can I get you anything? –That picture. Straighten it.
–Are you OK? –Are those dolphins?

Or “the snake-born”, as in Achilles’ mother, Thetis,
who takes the form of a snake? Reading his paper, he was motionless
inside the reading, the jeweled scales of his hands enforcing quiet.

Our hero ponders the status of metaphor;
of the biological necessities
that make him, his father and mother

and the goats grazing on their radioactive grasses,
and even Achilles, all part of the script:
the script a compendium of lights and darks,

lights setting off darks implying negative space that makes a shape;
somehow, this seems a statement about Light and Dark–
how both, according to Conrad/Marlow, can be made to lie:

Kurtz’s fiancée, on hearing of her lover’s death,
eulogizes his goodness that will stand as an example
for generations of men who will come after;

and then she says, “I cannot believe that I shall never see him again,
that nobody will see him again,
never, never, never…” while Conrad/Marlow sees him all too clearly,

over “the glitter of the infernal stream,
the stream
of darkness.

She said suddenly very low,
‘He died
as he lived.’

‘His end,’ said I,
with dull anger stirring in me,
‘was in every way worthy of his life.’

‘And I was not
with him,’
she murmured.

My anger subsided
before a feeling
of infinite pity.”

Rehearsal 9: The Method–Acting Coach (C), Actor (A)

C: Be clear/ tell us what we need to know

A: I am telling you everything I can

C: Everything you can or everything you can bear

A: You can see what this does to me I love/hate my secret sharer as the first principle of being

C: Plotinus says everything moving has necessarily an object toward which it advances

A: That’s the problem/ the object is first inappropriate/ second a violation

C: That’s a dodge particularly if part of you enjoyed it/ Augustine says raped women if they found
         pleasure in being raped

A: I know I know/ are not responsible

C: The question isn’t did you find pleasure

A: I did find pleasure I also felt disgusted

C: That’s good cry cry remember where tears come from you can use it/acting isn’t acting it’s real
        emotions real situations

A: I’m not crying or I’m crying but tears beg the question

C: You’re like a bird with so much of the earth in you

A: I can’t fl y high never mind the wings Nature gave me

C: Come come lift yourself a little above the earth think of your secret sharer/(by the way your check
        bounced for last week’s lesson)

A: How’s the ascent to begin/ whence comes its power

C: Look you see/ you look just like your secret sharer/ your wings are lifting you just off the ground

A: In what thought is love to find its guide

Rehearsal 10: How I Became an Actor/Reversal Scene

How haunted I am by this notion of my mother
eating her own children;
but let us back up a moment:

I want to establish a genealogy of hunger:
it starts with Conrad
as my mother’s favorite author,

and her favorite quotation, which she intoned
with quiet fervor for 35 years
to her highschool seniors the first day of school:

“Immerse yourself in the destructive element.”
Influenced by my mother,
as a teenager I read Heart of Darkness over and over;

Kurtz’s last words, “The horror, the horror”
seeming always to apply to something other
than his own malign nature: it seemed somehow

to apply to his fiancée left back
in England whom Conrad/Marlow visits,
and lies to, when she asks him to tell her

her perished lover’s final words:
says Conrad/Marlow:
“The last word he pronounced was–”

(in this sentence
the insertion of a dash provokes demonic laughter
in the wings)

“The last word he pronounced was–your name.”
Conrad/Marlow goes on: “I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still,
stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry,

by the cry of inconceivable triumph
and of unspeakable pain.”
“I knew it–I was sure!”…

“She knew. She was sure.”
Conrad/Marlow waits for the house to collapse, the heavens
to fall upon his head for telling such a lie:

“But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle.”
Equally a trifle to house the delusion that my mother
cut up her children and served them in a stew to my father:

it was one of the dreams that tormented her when she checked herself into
the mental institution.
Of course she knows it as delusion, a displacement from childhood,

even a joke we share:
–Bayleaves or pepper, Ma? –In your case…tabasco sauce.
We laugh…warily.

Well, Cronos, father of the gods–who sheared off with a sickle
his own father’s genitals that fell into the sea and impregnated clots of
foaming spray that gave birth to Aphrodite–talk about displacement!–ate

his children;
Medea murdered hers and Jason’s sons
and in some versions of the story, served them up to Jason

in a stew;
just as Atreus would do,
butchering his nephews

and serving them to his brother, Thyestes, who,
unwitting cannibal, ate
“the fresh meat with a keen appetite.”

But what about cannibals who knew: Dante’s
sinner, Ugolino, gnawing the head
of Archbishop Roger who imprisoned him and his children,

and starved them to death, Ugolino eating his dead sons
one by one until he too dies;
or as in one of Stanley’s journeys to the Congo:

an English gentleman-naturalist named Jameson, who paid
a 1000 pounds sterling to take part in the expedition
is negotiating help from a slave-trader named Tippu-Tib:

At a banquet, Tib tells Jameson that the Wacusus
who are their hosts once brought him water to drink
and wash his hands in from a nearby well:

the water was so greasy and foul tasting that
the next morning Tib investigates: Jameson writes that Tib tells him:
“a most horrible sight–the surface of the water was covered

by a thick layer of yellow fat, which ran down over the sides.”
Jameson scoffs. Tib asks Jameson for a little cloth:
“I sent my boy for six handkerchiefs, thinking it was all a joke…”

A ten year old girl is led before him, a knife is plunged, twice,
into her breast, then three men cut up her body, her head last,
each man taking his piece down to the river to wash it:

“…the girl never uttered a sound, nor struggled….I never would have been
such a beast as to witness this, but I could not bring myself
to believe that it was anything save a ruse to get money out of me…”

But ever the naturalist, back in his tent,
Jameson, an artist just as Kurtz was, makes small sketches of the scene…
Meanwhile, among the dead, did that girl

watch him sketching, did she recognize herself,
was she plotting her revenge on the world of the living?
Three months later, dying of fever at a trading station,

Jameson’s last words–as he rouses from his coma
to the sound of drums beating for work to cease,
“They’re coming; listen. Yes! they’re coming–now let’s stand together”–

seem bristling with paranoiac, Kurtz-like terror…
though nothing like Conrad’s
demonic joking: “Mistah Kurtz–he dead.”

With the etiquette of a cannibal, Conrad
circles an abomination:
Wouldn’t he have liked the old cartoon festooning my mother’s fridge?

Pointing at the boiling pot,
the sweetly smiling cannibal mother
says to her cannibal son: “It’s time for your bath, Junior.”

And isn’t Jameson,
as appallingly innocent as Kurtz’s fiancée,
equally The horror, the horror?

“…thinking it was all a joke…”
“I never would have been such a beast…”
I’m haunted by Jameson’s sketches, which I’ve never seen,

but which I envision like the frescoes in the hermitage
in Florence painted by Fra Angelico:
no bodies, only body parts: a pair of arms flying out at you;

a foot, high in the arch, stepping; palms open to the ray of light
piercing them; thorns around a forehead cut off just above the eyes:
“Immerse yourself in the destructive element.”

It’s time for lunch. My mother zips open a ziplock bag
of pre-cooked turkey and makes me a sandwich with mustard
which I eat. I don’t think,

The horror, the horror,
though the turkey is a little dry,
because I tell myself I know the difference between

what my mother tells me was a dream and what is real–
the reason why now I know my part
is to carve myself up into little pieces

to pass out to the audience to nibble on, devour, vomit up
like Thyestes when he’s served the platter
of his children’s feet and hands:

The dream, delusion, psychic intrusion,
does it come from her stories about growing up poor in the Depression,
“so poor that when I dropped the 50 cent piece

through cracks in the floor,
my mother and I had to pry up the floorboards
or we’d have starved that day.”

The surplus aura around her dream
crackles and shimmers
between me and my turkey meat:

the pamphlet propped on her dining table explaining how
a diabetic needs to balance protein with carbohydrate
insinuates its truths at me as I chew.

Rehearsal 11: Dramaturgy–Setting and Background

What does the explorer discover?
He discovers the theater of his own exploring–
the human beings he encounters have no need
to be “discovered…” Rivers, lakes, the source of the Nile
are all evident in themselves, flowing
regardless of who claims to name them, the naming
estranged from the water’s quiddity, its unimpeachable
thereness refuting Stanley’s “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
Each of us, though, is inside his own theater:
Stanley, acting out the soldier/civilizer,
tries out Hiram Maxim’s machine gun
at its inventor’s home, making sure, before he takes it
on his wanderings, that it fires the advertised
six hundred rounds per minute: “…of valuable service
in helping civilization to overcome barbarism.”
On stage at a music hall in London the actors sing
to a catchy tune:

And when the heat of Afric’s sun
Grew quite too enervating,
Some bloodshed with the Maxim gun
Proved most exhilarating!

Just as Kipling writes of the adventurer/performer
acting out of bounds:

Ship me somewhere east of Suez
         where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain’t no Ten Commandments
         an’ a man can raise a thirst.

East of Suez. East of Eden. East of________(you fill in the blank.)
One commentator accuses Conrad
of reducing Africa “to the role of props
for the breakup of one petty European mind.”
Props of cannibal teeth flashing in jungle gloom
brooding like “an implacable force
over an inscrutable intention.”
Props of pith helmet and lamp-blacked moustaches,
props amassed on a stage and lit by the audience’s,
including the commentator’s, inner eye:
hack and hack your way to the interior:
blocked by history, blocked by body, blocked by mind,
the machete chops and chops. Stanley’s workers,
“many dying of sickness and sheer exhaustion,”
dynamite a railway above the Congo’s cataracts
so that ivory can be hauled from the river’s
navigable reaches in the interior.
Interior space that leaves a hole which desire
penetrates and overthrows: “Blind is the flame
when fanned by passion, love itself rages
and does murder.” The stage the explorer
strides across shrinks to the measure of his footstep.
See how thick and impenetrable the vines are:
the secret sharer can go no farther than the locked door
of the captain who hides him in his own inner cabin.
Conrad, as a nine year old boy, places his finger
on the blank outline of a map of Africa,
“representing the unsolved mystery of the continent…
When I grow up, I shall go there.”

Rehearsal 12: Recognition Scene

Such intractable loneliness–when I see it in my mother,
I try to track it to its thorn-bristling lair. Mind of a machete,
she cuts and cuts to the neutral interior

of her widowhood: nothing to do, nothing to be done;
my visits seem to quietly elate her… Inside of her, as in me,
there is a television show constantly playing:

she is its star, and I
am the son who listens
to her age tell me what must be

a sort of objective agony–
the common case with people of her temperament,
those with too much consciousness to have faith in anything for long.

Her months in the hospital she brings up now and then–
she wants to know what it was we kids were feeling
(a shuttlecock fluttering absurdly in clear June air,

no net to mark off the game, just random hits
in the taut-strung mesh humming
weirdly with each smash…):

No one ate each other/ look I’m joking…
My father drank/ he pulled the tablecloth off
the table one Christmas/ the food went all over the floor.

But when he didn’t drink he was kind/
he worked and worked to buy me a piano/
that was when we lived on 50 cents a day.

After the hospital I lived without hope/
everything gets better
but first you have to lose all hope…

Why is that, Ma?
She’s eating a chicken salad sandwich
and her mouth is full–

I watch her jaws crunch and crunch
and imagine the soup she made of the hacked up bodies of her children,
my dad blowing on it–Tasty–his word

of culinary approbation.
Look, it’s a python–
the actual TV tuned to the animal channel:

phantom jets tearing through
clean sunlight sweep across the plate-glass window
reflecting a python gliding past a tapir and monkeys

unblinking in a tangle of vines.
I’m a Depression girl/
it’s what you think about

when you can’t think/
there are people who are Hopers/and then there are people like me…
Lettuce crunch. Sprouts crunch.

Superimposed on my mother, as if it were a metaphor
of some condition of soul that she and I share, I see us
sketched as mere body parts:

her mouth open, all teeth; my hand severed at the wrist;
our heads cut off
like the shrunken heads

that adorn Kurtz/Rom’s garden.
These sketches push through her flesh, they intrude
and blur whenever I try to see her clear of my looking:

what drama am I escaping into when I see her this way?
Chainlinks of iron that can’t be broken. I put on my makeup,
I don my pith helmet, I rage and swear at my deserting porters

while my mother sits reading the paper, my dead father
hesitates to enter the room: Jason and Medea, like all who pledge
their love.

Two flying dragons harnessed to a flaming chariot
transport my mother to the sun, the dragons’
glistening snaky coils coiling with her hair

as she wraps around him
in flaming passion, his hollow voice speaking Jason’s lines,
“That place to where you’re travelling, there are no gods…”

Now, his body and hers turn to coils of the python
braiding in serpent ecstasy–
cut to the commercial.

Back in the bush, Stanley shackles his men together
to keep them from deserting:
does it never occur to Stanley that he’s a criminal?

In a photograph taken in l885 he stares out
from under a high-peaked safari helmet,
face stern and truculent, uncomplicated gimlet gaze

projecting confidence in his own powers of mastery,
his faith in will indomitably applied
to rocks, human beings, jungles, distances…

though in an oil painting of him during the same year
you see despairing fatigue, wariness, doubt
as the opposite of single-minded determination:

I know my mother’s loneliness is incommensurate
with Stanley’s blindness to what his own image, projected, implies–
and yet–

her loneliness erects its own invisible bars–
it whips her so subtly, can it be one of her defining states of soul,
not easily acknowledged?

Perhaps a punishment for some guilt gnawing
at the paper napkins in the silverware drawer?
…The cannibal eats the virtues of the victim

he devours–courage, strength, patience, martial valor–
he stages his own assumption
into the higher plane where the serpent gods dwell:

but still, the python is hungry and gorges on its food…
The lash uncoils and spits above her head,
she picks up her burden

and carries it up the rapids
which is what she does day after day, indefatigable
in venturing into loss

camouflaged by foliage
ramifying endlessly
past all fatigue…

For the railway he built, the Zanzibaris
called Stanley Bula Matari, Smasher of Rocks–
well, it takes a rock to smash a rock…

Staring at the photograph of my mother and father
staring into the flames,
dressed in my costume, I understand how much of my part

is random conjecture, trying to piece
together a plausible emotion
to portray: a dripping, gouged rock face

smashing against another rock face:
phantom voices tearing through my head,
sulfur smoking up between collisions;

the actors-out of confrontation dwarfed
by drip drip drip drip from the cuckoo clock.
Their stares and mine intertwine like a vine bridge

over the chasm-churning
rapids boiling white
plunging to dismembered spray.

Opening Night/Cremation

Houselights fade down.
Spots fade up.
The stage manager calls the cue: “Rain.”

The equatorial rainmaker’s fat drops
splatter on giant leaves shedding the downpour
–think of someone trying to shed old memories–

into two gutters sluicing down into either eye
of the audience staring back
through its Cyclops-eye, each member’s soul

slotted into that single channel of sight:
What the actors feel looking back at them
penetrates their costumes

like a hot dry wind
that has the aura of an angry parent’s words:
“Say that again and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.”

The courage of the actors is to keep on speaking
the same lines night after night
until the threat is just another part of the performance:

even a part the actors, if not exactly
relishing, rely on to give them something to rub against
to make their acting kindle and smoke…

their acting like a stake
they sharpen, plunge into a fire to plunge
into the Cyclops-eye:

and the Cyclops-eye, knowing this, performs
this role as an act, almost, of soul-sacrifice–
soul-immolation lighting up the dark lining of that gaze,

soul-stuff igniting and stinking like burnt rubber in the interval…
The eye’s parental hovering witnesses the flames rising up

around the actors’ voices
straining to make their acting tremble as live flame
trembles under the steady direction of the house manager

whispering the cues: “Bring down spot slowly; turn on the flames.”

Tom Sleigh’s books include After One, Waking, The Chain, The Dreamhouse, Far Side of the Earth, and a translation of Euripides’ Herakles. His most recent books are Space Walk–winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award–and Interview With a Ghost, a book of essays published by Graywolf Press. He has won the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, an Academy of Arts and Letter Award in Literature, an Individual Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College.



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