A Triumph Was A Public Show

[Reading Shakespeare while sheltering in place]

Old Copy

Saturday noon finds eight friends gathered virtually for a read-around of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am one of them. I’m always one. This circle is the one I’ve belonged to the longest. At sixty, our host Alan is ten years older than I am and taking our sheltering period to grow the long free beard he’d craved wearing as a child. He strokes it. He sits beside his wife Rachel in their loveseat flanked by antique lampshades. It’s good to see them. It’s good to see everybody—Stacy, Pauline, Ransom, Mel, Jay, Bernard, Erica, and Sandy— looking so healthy. We live in California, North Carolina, Chicago, Albuquerque, and London. Masks may hang from our necks but again we are healthy. Everyone’s hair is longer. Looking past their smiling faces on my computer screen, I’m drawn to incidentals:

..spines of books about anthropology, cooking, umbrella handle, tidiness, a painting of a squirrel in a tree of Chinese lettering, weariness, chaos, autumnal colors red and golden, minimalist, business as usual, shabby chic, framed certificates of achievement, framed elders, children, transitional look, mad scientist, a pot of ivy hanging in macrame, rustic, clay figurine silhouetted in bright window, industrial look, a cat walks across a keyboard, Frank sets his laptop on his piano, contemporary, Jay’s wife poking her head in to say hi, mid century modern; a stray toddler (Little Gregory) for cooing as he passes….

We curate our frames. Everyone wants us to see something. An object. A quality. My guitar hangs on the wall behind me. I have placed such worn titles as Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody in plain view for anyone who’s looking.

Drawing my name from a hat, Alan assigns me the roles of Theseus, the Duke Athens, and Oberon, King of the Fairies. They’re both men, though Shakespeare’s fairies are hermaphrodites in my memory of them. Both lead their minions, an earthly troop in chain mail and swordplay on one hand and, on the other, a band of spirits, Peasblossom, Moth, and Cobweb among them. I want to say that Theseus is doctrinaire, bound up with fear, and that Oberon is a noble and supportive guy who will nevertheless drug his wife with magic to steal the changeling. This is comedy.

Playing the parts of Helena and Hermia, our London friends Stacy and Pauline reintroduce us to their eleven-and-a-half-year-old daughter Caitlin. In her pajamas, she’s dragged her blanket into the frame on her way to beddy-bye. I met her once when she was an infant and again a year ago. She’d recently heard that old-fashioned phrase, ‘If such-and-such happens, I’ll eat my hat. It was like a song stuck in her head that she kept singing: ‘If Mom’s on time, I’ll eat my hat.’ ‘I’ll eat my hat if there aren’t a million people already waiting.’ ‘I’ll eat my hat if I need my dumb coat after all.’ I remember feeling charmed by this, and also a little jealous. To be in the newness of it all! I told a story called ‘The Hat Eaters’ in her honor. It was about all of us. It was roundly panned by everyone as satire that was less a piece of social commentary and more a laundry list of my own personal grievances. I’ve always felt this was an overreaction. But that’s not important either. What’s important is that we all have our parts to play. If I know this crowd, and I do, we will read loudly and softly and with gusto. We will modulate our voices.

My copy of A Midsummer’s Night Dream comes from an anthology published in Cleveland in 1925 by the World Syndicate Company. It belonged to my late grandmother on my father’s side and includes all the Bard’s comedies. Its faux leather cover hangs by a thread. The printers have included the phrase ‘A triumph was a public show’ in a distinct font in the bottom margin of the first page of the play. These words are not part of the script. Appearing nowhere else in the volume, they feel more poignant than practical. The more times I read them the more they sound like an incantation. And why the past tense? But this too is beside the point. We’re all online together, and it’s time to start. I clear my throat and say to my friends in a fairly flat voice, ‘Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace….’ This is my Theseus. This is my Oberon.

The Players
Clover
Flute’s Reaction
Pollyanna

Too Bright To See

Child Questioning Everything

A boy walks in waist-high water parting and swirling back together behind him. Water gives off lapping noises when he dips his hands and raises them again like tilted ladles. Water makes going slow across an endless ocean.

Too bright to see, the distant horizon is a smattering of yellowy copper, and orange I see, with a kind of blue splashing upward. The variegated sky is as endless as the ocean. A few clouds pass over.

With an ocean coming and going at his waist, a boy walks into a sun both blinding and warm. His skin and hair are brined. He shades his eyes with hands pruning. His face catches light and his torso, catching light, flickers like a candle floating ceremoniously at daybreak.

Neither his legs nor his intellect drive him to where he’s going. The water is too deep for his feet to touch bottom. Too deep for thought. Once asleep and now awakened by the sensation of being carried, he rides a submerged animal like adventurous boys with hair swept back and their own oceans’ horses. In a rare moment of joy [as if the mucus collecting in his lungs could drain away once and for all and all by itself] he crosses into the rising sun straddling a hippopotamus.

Too Bright To See

Still Life With Smokers

Seaside Shopper

How many times have I ashed a shoe or smoked a poem or talked loudly on the other shoe on a crowded bus at noon, as if what I had to say was everyone’s primary interest? I’m sorry. I thank you for your own discretion. You are my role model of the public sphere. I’m not being sarcastic when I say this, even if my tone of voice tells a different story.

I want to do a still life of a poet, an ashtray, and a woman’s tennis shoe, but it’s the same every time. The poet can’t sit still for the picture. His curiosity about who the shoe belongs to leads him around the room when the name of the game is stillness. So no still life for the time being, unless I alter my vision to exclude the poet. The problem is that he’s my best friend in the city and near the top of my list for all times and places.

A tennis shoe is a wonderful thing to wear on and off the court. It makes me feel nimble. Quick like the player I was once when I was twenty. Then I was a smoker for twenty years, and the very thought of a full-length match took my breath away. I smoked to be in the image of a poet. One day the greatest poet I personally know asked me to please stop smoking. ‘But you smoke,’ I reminded him. ‘Kind of a double standard, don’t you think?’ ‘I’d like you to be around,’ he blew out, ‘for as long as possible.’

This morning I bought an ashtray for a poet friend of mine. The irony of the object lay in its shape of a tennis shoe. It sits before me now, beside a flowerpot and an apple. It’s ironic because our lungs, his and mine together, now that we’re both ex-smokers, are as pink as they’ll ever be. Before meeting him to hand off his present, I do as he would do and stop to write a poem. It’s a love poem about First Love. Because it must accomplish a lot to mean much to someone who doesn’t know me, it sets me up for failure. In it, I must do the following:

Covidavid

Masked Girl

A sixth-grader asks her teacher is it okay to have a good day while others are suffering. Before he can answer, her peers shout into mics like shouts in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Their faces light up his viewscreen. Voices draw down the tedium of sheltering. ‘Be happy about your happiness,’ they try to tell each other, ‘cognizant of the world happening around you.’ He doesn’t change the subject so much as its direction, when he asks, ‘What’s one thing you’d like to do when life returns to normal?’ The lists they make start small and grow increasingly unrealistic.

“Time Passes”

What is equivalent to a surprise party (for you!) attended by your best friends from each of your phases and a beam of light emanating from god knows where to sweep dark water, windows and crags of rock?

Text Box: Answer: Imagine a novel like To the Lighthouse—one that begins with an afternoon and an evening, and accelerates, slowly at first, across lifetimes.

I don’t want to run into anyone who I hadn’t heard had remained behind. I wouldn’t want to run into anyone who hadn’t heard I’d stayed. May I not run into anyone in the darkness?