The American Journal of Poetry
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Ron McFarland

David Wagoner's Poems of Performance

 

            Among the half dozen photographs featured in the gallery of the David Wagoner special issue that appeared about forty years ago for the now defunct Slackwater Review out of Lewiston, Idaho, you will find a picture of David Wagoner on stage in the role of Falstaff from The Merry Wives of Windsor. The photo is dated 1953 and was taken at Pennsylvania State University, where Wagoner received his B.A. in 1947. He went on to take his M.A. at Indiana University in 1949, taught for a year at DePauw University, and returned to Penn State to teach in 1952. Wagoner would have been 27 years old when he played Falstaff in 1953, and the year his first book of poems, Dry Sun, Dry Wind, was published by Indiana University Press. The next year his mentor at Penn State, Theodore Roethke, would invite him to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he has remained, a prolific writer of fiction (ten novels) and poetry (nineteen substantial volumes of verse), co-founder of Poetry Northwest, Professor of English, now emeritus, and virtuoso in the arts of performance.

            Wagoner’s enthusiasm for the stage began with parts in high school productions, and the Penn State Drama Department staged one of his one-act plays in 1946, when he was an undergraduate there. He received a Ford Foundation Fellowship in Drama and became a playwright in residence at the Seattle Repertory Theater in 1965. The special issue of the Slackwater Review mentioned above features a one-act play, “The Song of Songs Which is Sheba’s,” produced in Seattle in 1973. The Seattle Repertory Theater staged a dramatic reading of his poems on March 20 and 21, 1987. His one-act play, “Mr. Thoreau Tonight,” appears in the Fall 2007 issue of the Georgia Review, featuring Thoreau at age forty preparing to give a lecture, much of which he imparts to a largely blasé Master Goodman and a young enthusiast, Mistress Kally.  Most of Thoreau’s words are taken from his Journals. In the summer of 2008 Seattle’s ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) produced his one-man play on Theodore Roethke, “First Class,” which appears in the Summer 2006 issue of the Georgia Review. The play features Roethke, whom Wagoner characterizes in his introduction as “the most charismatic man I’ve ever met [including Dylan Thomas]” (346), in the late 1950s lecturing an imagined class and ranging broadly over poetry from Shakespeare to Yeats, including nonsense rhymes and Sara Teasdale. It starred John Aylward and ran 45 performances. Wagoner is also an avid amateur magician, per the poem “The Escape Artist” (1969) and the novel by the same title published in 1965 and made into a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1982. He told Colleen McElroy in an interview conducted in 2005 that he “felt influenced by the Theater of the Absurd, particularly by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett,” learning from them “understatement and mockery of inappropriate diction and silence when you expect something else, the half-said, the apparently irrelevant” (9).

            Wagoner tends to develop not so much mini-dramas, as narratives around what might be called dramatic moments: he creates scenarios. In one of his best known poems, “A Guide to Dungeness Spit” (1963), a sort of meditative dramatic monologue, he describes with vivid detail a specific setting (a National Wildlife Refuge on the Olympic Peninsula) and introduces a couple who are eventually identified as “lovers” (Collected Poems 21; Traveling Light 25). The voice we encounter in the poem is presumably that of the writer of the guidebook, who (like Wagoner) happens to be an avid birder, but he is alternately perhaps a wildlife officer, and finally a lover: “Let us step this way,” he says at one moment (CP 20, TL 24). The companion (“you”) to whom the speaker addresses his information and commands, and ultimately his insights or vision, apparently remains silent throughout the poem. She (presumably) is being instructed and at the same time romanced, charmed (certainly not “seduced”); simultaneously, of course, the “you” is the reader. The speaker of this poem could be alternately the main actor or the director of the implied seaside drama.

            Initially the speaker in the poem sets the scene in the indicative mood, present tense: “Out of wild roses down from the switching road between pools / We step to an arm of land washed from the sea” (CP 20, TL 24). The prepositions lay out what might be regarded as stage directions: out of, down from, between, of, from. An old railroad bridge over the Dungeness River near Sequim (pronounced “skwim”), Washington, might remind visitors to the site of the railroad’s “switching road” from which the couple descends. But when the speaker poses a question in the eighth line, the mood of the poem subtly shifts from the indicative, which is expository and straightforwardly descriptive, toward the dramatic, shifting to future tense: “Where shall we walk?” Conceivably, this question might originate not from the speaker but from the other actor/actress in the drama; that is, she asks where we should walk, and he responds, “First, put your prints to the sea, / Fill them, and pause here.” At this point, however, the speaker takes over via the imperative mood and directs their progress, identifying kelp and a broad array of fauna, from sponges to nine species of birds ranging from cormorants to an owl.

             Mingled with predictable seashore denizens we find incongruous elements like “the ends of bones”; “Those are cockleshells,” the speaker says tersely, and then abruptly he asserts, “And these are the dead. I said we would come to these.” With phrases like “Let us step this way” and “Follow me closely,” the speaker/actor (or is he more aptly defined as “director”?) leads his beloved (and us, his readers) to what appear to be the very origins of life, at which point “The air grows dense.” I suggest Wagoner’s speaker means “dense” with meaning and significance. In fact, at this point (line 31) the speaker directly addresses his beloved for the first time since the eighth line of the poem with something other than a simple command: “You must decide now whether we shall walk for miles and miles . . .” or “whether we should turn back,” we expect him to say, but he does not. Instead, Wagoner startles us, and in the scenario unfolding before us, the lover startles his beloved by insisting she choose between walking for miles and miles “And whether all birds are the young of other creatures / Or their own young selves, / Or simply their old selves because they die.” In effect, the beloved is confronted with two decisions: whether to keep on walking and whether birds constitute the primal species from which all of the others have originated or whether they are merely to be regarded as creatures per se, presumably with no embellishments, either poetic or Darwinian. (Obviously the imperative mood is involved here—the person addressed “must decide”— but the speaker in this case offers options.)

             The speaker (and presumably Wagoner) makes his preference known right away when he describes one bird falling and the others touching him (not “it”) and “Treading him for the ocean,” at which point he asserts, again tersely, “This is called sanctuary” (CP 21, TL 25). The couple “both go into mist” and are directed not so much by foghorns as by the snowy owl whose “flashing yellow eyes / Turn past us and return,” like the beacon of the distant lighthouse toward which they have been walking. For the most part the speaker sustains the indicative mood after telling his companion to “wait” for the owl to buoy them “into the wind,” at which point he proceeds to explain where they have come: in one sense, simply to the lighthouse, and in another sense, to a moment of enlightenment: “Here is a staircase past the whites of our eyes. / All our distance / Has ended in the light.” Significantly, although the speaker does direct his companion one more time (“look, between us we have come all the way”), he returns at this point to the indicative mood with which he began the poem: “We climb to the light in spirals.” The poem ends with three more terse associations, which hearken back rhythmically to others the speaker has made throughout the poem: “Those are called ships. We are called lovers. / There lie the mountains.” These short declarative sentences suggest progress toward some destination, either by sea or by land, as well as identification, presumably the identity as lovers attained as a result of this small seaside drama.

            We encounter the director’s voice in many other of Wagoner’s poems, particularly in the poetic sequences, which he has mastered following the lead of Roethke with his North American Sequence (1964). Significantly, however, while the first person speaks through the six poems that comprise Roethke’s sequence, as is the case with his earlier Lost Son sequence (1948), we most often encounter the second person, the voice of the director, in Wagoner’s. In the nine poems that comprise his most familiar sequence, Travelling Light (1976), for example, we are told in the first poem, as if we were less an audience in the poems than actors or performers, that “Having spent a hard-earned sleep, you must break camp in the mountains / At the break of day” (CP 249, TL 45). The wordplay or pun on “break” may be justly regarded as one hallmark of Wagoner’s style: he loves plays, playing with words, and being playful generally in his poems, although his playfulness often comes off as darkly comic.

            In the second poem of the Travelling Light sequence, for example, the speaker/director confronts us with a bear: “He doesn’t care what you think or calculate; your disapproval / Leaves him as cold as the opinions of salmon” (CP 250, TL 46). The lines are simultaneously funny and sinister. As the sequence proceeds, we find ourselves wallowing in a swamp and being tracked by some unknown man, getting lost (predictably) and even getting shot before we are rescued in the final (and title) poem, in which Wagoner sets aside the director’s imperative mood and joins us via first-person plural pronouns (we/our). In effect, he rescues us from the dilemmas he has wished upon us. In “Walking in a Swamp” the director advises us, when the ground turns “soft and uncertain” to “start running as fast as you can slog,” but if it’s too late for that, we must “lie down now,” whether we like it or not and “dream of floating” (CP 252, TL 48). Then we may be able to “slither / Spread-ottered casually backwards out of trouble.” As in most of the poems from this sequence, Wagoner leaves us in harm’s way: “muck is one part water, / One part what-have-you, / Including yourself, now in it over your head, / As upright as ever.” If one hallmark of Wagoner’s style is the pun, then another of at least equal force is the cliché, refurbished and in a strange way refreshed or revitalized by an unexpected and often darkly humorous context.

            In “Tracking,” the fourth poem of the sequence, Wagoner changes the dramatic circumstances by identifying the actor (you) as a tracker or pursuer of a man who now realizes he is being followed. In effect, the plot of the nine-scene play has been enriched (complicated) in a rather surprising fashion: we had no idea the person breaking camp, encountering a bear, and nearly drowning in quicksand was pursuing someone. Because the man being tracked is now “wary,”

                        You must learn to read

                        What you’ve never read before: the minute language

                        Of moss and lichen,

                        The signals of bent grass, the speech of sand,

                        The gestures of dust. (CP 253, TL 49)

Wagoner turns on another cliché phrase, simultaneously a pun of sorts—paronomasia, wherein the word is slightly altered—when he advises us that no human can move “Without disturbing the natural disorder.” At the end of the poem we are advised to be prepared for an “unwelcome meeting” with the man we are tracking because he does not know whether we intend “to kill him, join him, / Or simply to blunder past.”

            In the next two poems in the sequence, or scenes in the play, “Missing the Trail” and “From Here to There,” the traveler/tracker takes a wrong turn and gets lost “past the middle of nowhere, / Toward your wit’s end” (CP 254, TL 50). As he indicates in the latter poem, “A man on foot can suffer only one guiding principle / Next to his shadow: One Damn Thing After Another” (CP 255, TL 51). This poem concludes in what I am inclined to describe as a metaphysical pun as the “foolhardy” but now “hardened” traveler is advised not to propose to define the border between illusion and reality,

                        But to find yourself

                        In the Land Behind the Wind where nothing is the matter

                        But you, brought to your knees, an infirm believer

                        Asking one more lesson. (CP 256, TL 52)

In his twelfth book, First Light (1983), Wagoner creates a nine-poem sequence entitled The Land Behind the Wind featuring not a single traveler, as in this sequence, but a loving couple. That sequence begins with the poem “Making Camp” and concludes with “Walking into the Wind,” in which we are told that the lost lovers “dreamed of a place to stand behind the wind” (86). The Land Behind the Wind might be a spiritual realm, or a site of the imagination, or a sort of Platonic world of pure idea or Forms.

            The next poem of the Travelling Lost sequence, however, appears to proceed from an ominous answer to the request for “one more lesson” at the end of “From Here to There.” The initial line of “Being Shot” suggests that the lesson offered the “infirm believer” is not going to be ontological, but something quite empirical in the form of a gunshot: “You’ll hear it split-seconds later—the loud afterthought / Booming among tree trunks like a thunder-crack” (CP 257, TL 53). The bullet may strike us (you) as an “appalling intrusion” into our privacy which brings about the “unexpected displeasure of half-breathing.” Clearly the tables have now been turned, and the tracker has now become the tracked. Wagoner relishes the pun featuring the “stranger [. . .] leaning over you” with a “disarming smile.” He leaves the character (you/us) in what by now has become a predictable dilemma in the sense that each of the scenes ends with the character left in jeopardy. Will the stranger “grant mercy,” or

                        Give you as gracefully

                        As time permits, as lack of witnesses will allow

                        Or your punctured integrity will stand for,

                        A graceful coup de grace. (CP 258, TL 54)

He employs in these lines the rhetorical device of polyptoton: gracefully, graceful, coup de grace. After “Being Shot” Wagoner depicts the victim (you) “Waiting in a Rain Forest,” resting and presumably recuperating “under a green sky / In a land without flowers” and “Flourishing in silence” (CP 259, TL 55). Wagoner’s frequent use of verbals, often gerunds, may be regarded as another hallmark of his style (eight of the nine poems in the Travelling Light sequence feature gerunds). His composition of this poem in a single eighteen-line sentence reflects Wagoner’s preference for loosely flowing syntax that promotes intentional ambiguity and occasionally, as in poems like “The Best Slow Dancer” from First Light (1983), double entendre.

            The sequence ends with the magisterial title poem in which the speaker joins the “you” of the sequence in a winter-scape as “we” move across the snow over what had been in summer a confusing terrain, “a cross-grained hummocky bog-strewn jumble of brambles,” and build a fire, “then turn in each other’s arms” and embrace (CP 260, TL 56). The movement in the Travelling Light sequence from distinct “characters” (in effect, the speaker and “you”) toward a unified persona (“we”) recapitulates the process of “A Guide to Dungeness Spit,” except that the latter begins with a unified persona, moves away from it, and returns to it at the end. Like “A Guide,” “Travelling Light” concludes with visionary images as the couple discover “The simply amazing / World of our first selves where believing is once more seeing / The cold speech of the earth in the colder air / And knowing it by heart” (CP 261, TL 57). Wagoner’s reversal of the cliché, “seeing is believing,” might be regarded as his signature here.

            The imperative voice of the earlier poems may come across more often as that of teacher, guide, or preceptor than as that of stage or film director, but Wagoner has tended toward more explicitly dramatic contexts in his recent poems. We seem to be hearing the director, perhaps of a made-for-TV movie, in poems like “The Lookout” from the Partners in Crime sequence in Good Morning and Good Night (2005): “Your job is to wait outside and be nobody / Standing there alone, spending some time” (90). For “job” one might readily insert “role.” The director tells “you” how to look and think: “You have to look / As if you’re waiting for nothing / To happen here, as usual.”

             The initial poem of the Partners in Crime sequence, “Wanted,” concerns wanted posters at a post office, and it is not constructed as a dramatic scenario: “By the stamp machine, they hang on their own hooks, / Looking our way and sideways” (89), but the second poem is “Lookout,” described above, and the next, “The Kidnapper,” is composed in what might be best described as the narrative mode: “Sometime after midnight she’d been taken / Out of her bed, out of her own room [. . .]” (91). The fourth poem, however, “The Detective,” constitutes a dramatic scenario: “When he arrives, the worst has already happened, / And half of what went wrong / Has become the remains lying in front of him” (92). As the 39-line poem progresses, we follow the actions of the detective as he assembles the suspects at the “scene of the crime”: “He watches the corners / Of their eyes and the places where their lips / Seem edgy as shadows, all ending / Around other corners.” He invites “the man who had noticed something / Unusual,” the woman who “thought / Something very strange / Had to be happening,” the “close friend” who “Hadn’t been herself,” and the “beautiful neighbor” who “Felt she had lost touch” into an “innocent evening.” The “suspicious persons who never dream / They’re reenacting the crime” reveal everything in “their faces as they tell stories” (93). Wagoner employs the ambiguous pronoun “it,” which at first appears to refer to the case: “When it breaks, / It breaks cleanly.” But in the remainder of that sentence the pronoun signifies the culprit, gender neutral: “When it breaks, / It breaks quickly, suddenly opens up / And comes clean.” The detective then “Takes it into custody, leads it away / And leaves no traces but some matters of fact.”

             The fifth and final poem of the sequence, “The Getaway,” provides something of a surprise ending, and in it Wagoner returns to the past tense narrative mode

            They had to act natural. They had to look like

                 They were still parts of an ordinary day

                      Together on the sidewalk across the street

            To the unfamiliar car, yet they had to be

                 Quick about it without running. (94)

The unspecified “they” leave behind a clamorous “scene” from which they pull away “As calmly as possible, staring straight ahead / Straight-faced, not glancing once / To either side or backward, let alone / At each other.” To the reader’s surprise, the perpetrators of the crime drive “Under the limit [. . .] steadily, legally home.” We have witnessed yet another performance.

             In four of the five poems from the Partners in Crime Sequence, as in 57 of the 92 poems that comprise Good Morning and Good Night, Wagoner employs a subtle form that has figured increasingly in his three most recent collections, what I call a “stagger-three” construction that works something like a free-flowing tercet. As in the passage from “The Getaway” cited above, the frequently enjambed lines run openly, slashing from left to right in a sort of dynamic but orderly fashion. Except for the terminal period at the end of the eighteen-line poem, only one other line is end-stopped. One result of the stagger-three form is that sentences generally end mid-line with medial caesura.

             In “The Driver,” from A Map of the Night (2008), Wagoner writes out a full scenario, as if composing a storyboard; that is, he sets out the sequence of images that might accompany the script: “It’s a safe car. It belongs to someone else, / and you’re parked legally near the right doorway” (81). Okay, then: “You’re going to sit here / as if you were supposed to sit here, which / you are, minding your own business.” But complications begin to accumulate at a comical rate, including a “fat old lady / in a twenty-year-old Lincoln” that backs in ahead of you, a double-parked hotel limo, and “a kid in an orange Edsel” jammed in behind. Then a cop shows up, “resting his pale-blue elbow on the roof / of the passenger side and looking in at you / as the others scramble out of the door behind him.” At the last minute, the cop strolls away while the bank robbers jump into the getaway car, and at just that moment the vehicles blocking the escape move or are moved away. The poet-director allows a brief shot at the audience: “Crowds on the curbs / are cheering as loud as sirens” (82). “You” are then directed to raise the sun roof so “the guys in back” (the rest of the cast) can wave and grin and toss handfuls of greenbacks.

            But what particularly appears to fascinate David Wagoner is performance itself, and of course the performer, broadly defined: actor, dancer, musician, magician, speaker/lecturer/poet. His fascination, if not obsession, with performance and the performer can be traced to his first book, none of the poems from which Wagoner decided to include either in his first volume of collected poems, published in 1976, or in his more recent volume, Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems, which appeared in 1999. Among the voices who speak from the grave at the end of his debut book, Dry Sun, Dry Wind (1953), we meet “Sam the Aerialist (b. 1871—d. 1903)” and “The Great Bellado (b.1851—d. 1940).” Significantly, the would-be flyer speaks to us on his last day, and he sees himself not just as a man who would defy human limitations, but as an entertainer, a performer listening to the brass band play and envisioning himself as part of the grand spectacle:

                                                                        I must go

                        Hang like a puppet from the charred ropes

                        And soar, as the wind wills it, anywhere,

                        While the hawkers spiel their carnival

                        Below and away from me. (42)

Sam’s sense of obligation or obsession here strikes us as a perverse impulse to “soar” birdlike above the limits of his nature, even as he recognizes that he possesses no real freedom: he must go, and he hangs in the air “like a puppet,” moving only “as the wind wills it.” Like Sam, The Great Bellado, a tightrope walker, imagines himself defying gravity as he performs over the heads of a gawking and admiring audience, strutting above the “yammer of the burning dirt” (46). He reflects on himself as “a freak angel” during a performance in 1922. These performers distinguish themselves from the ordinary humans that make up their audience: they are literally “above” them.

            In “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” from his third book, The Nesting Ground (1963), Wagoner describes himself in performance, first at a band contest “playing a wobbly solo” on his cornet, then getting bawled out by his basketball coach for having forgotten his uniform and shoes, and finally playing football in his first game and heading the wrong way with an intercepted pass (62, TL 99). Three of the poems that involve performance in Staying Alive (1966) reflect the broad range of this topic as Wagoner deals with it. In the short (nine lines), humorous “The Poets Agree to Be Quiet by the Swamp” he imagines the poets holding their hands over their mouths and trying to keep quiet, but to no avail: “They stick their elbows out into the evening, / Stoop, and begin the ancient croaking” (24, TL 95). One suspects that somewhere the ghost of Aristophanes is smiling approvingly. In the sprawling 105-lines of “The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934” Wagoner indulges his penchant for all kinds of play as he concocts a speaker who poses loaded questions about the Chicago gangster after the ballad tradition: “Why was Johnny Lonely?”; “Was Johnny a good lover?”; “Was Johnny a four-flusher?” (17, TL 63). The back-story draws on the movie Manhattan Melodrama (1934), in which Clark Gable plays the part of racketeer Blackie Gallagher, who is executed. The real-life drama recounted in the poem featured Anna Sage as the “Lady in Red” and FBI Agent Melvin Purvis; accordingly, the theatrical performance occurs on at least two levels. After Dillinger’s death, Wagoner depicts his continued success as an entertainer (of sorts) when “thousands paid 25¢ to see him, mostly women” (20, TL 65). Dillinger’s last performance occurs at his funeral, when he flips the bird at the minister who suggests he might have become a preacher himself.

            In “Speech from a Comedy,” also from his fourth book, Staying Alive, Wagoner plays God, setting the scene in “The wreckage of Heaven”:

                         I am God. But all my creatures are unkind to me.

                         They think of themselves. Why don’t they think of me?

                         I’m holier than they.

                        (Chorus) God is lovely. (48, TL 88)

Again, the cliché-driven pun whereby the predicted “thou” is altered to “they” is pure Wagoner, admired by some readers, despised by others. He sustains the irreverent humor for some 76 lines:

                        When I show them a bad example, plastered and confused,

                        Chances are he’ll be headlined and idolized.

                        The only law of mine they like is getting circumcised.

                        (Chorus) God is not amused. (49, TL 89)

Eventually, Wagoner’s exasperated deity feels compelled to call on Death, for, as the Chorus notes, “God is sick and tired” (50, TL 89).

            It may be the common denominator in all of these poems that somehow, in very different ways, concern performance is failure. Laughing, or perhaps smiling indulgently, at failed performance cuts to the heart of the matter. From his earliest writing on that topic through his most recent, Wagoner’s thesis appears unchanged: There is something inescapably funny about failed performances, and most human performances do fail. Perhaps that is because, as the conductor advises the vocalist in the opening lines of “Recital” (from the 1999 collected poems),

                        During your song, the audience shouldn’t know

                                  You have any longing to breathe

                                            The same air as they do. The art of singing

                        Is first of all to conceal the art

                                   Of breathing. (275)

In other words, the true artist aims at impossible perfection: she or he breathes a different air from that of the audience, and the “art” entails somehow concealing or denying one’s human nature. Although “Your mind is dying to reach the end of that passage” where you may take another breath, “You must seem completely at your ease” and not “show under your makeup the crow’s-feet / And creasing of heavy labor.” Even at the end, amidst the applause, the performer must permit herself or himself to seem only “half-pleased,” and must “show no signs of breathing.” As a poet/performer himself, Wagoner appreciates both the sublime possibilities of the art and at the same time the folly of smug self-satisfaction. And he recognizes, as all serious performers do, the necessity of creating the impression for the audience that their art has come effortlessly, although that is rarely the case; the last thing an audience desires is to read strain or duress in the performer’s face or gesture.

            “Recital” is followed by “Recitation,” in which Wagoner portrays a boy, perhaps a memory of himself, reluctantly reciting a poem he has memorized. Predictably, his success is minimal: “[. . .] just when they all thought / He wasn’t going to say it, he said it [the poem] // Loudly in a slow sarcastic singsong, / And they never asked him to recite another” (276). In “Introduction to a Poetry Reading,” a more recent poem from Good Morning and Good Night (2005), the first-person speaker portrays himself as a poet-performer in a world of carnival freaks like Unthal the Armless and “The Pedal Paganini” who “could play the fiddle / With his bare feet.” He stoops so low as to include himself in the company of

                         Joseph Pujol, the Fartomaniac,

                              Who could reproduce the tearing of calico,

                                   Cannon fire, thunder, whistle “Au Claire de Lune”

                         And blow out candles. (43)

In effect, that is, the poet includes himself in “that wobbly line / Of entertainers, who are almost all / Grateful to be dead.” For his play on The Grateful Dead, read “typical Wagoner.” Not surprisingly, the muse as Wagoner presents her in “Trying to Make Music” is no glamorous goddess of inspiration, but a “grizzly hag,” and he imagines an audience responding with “catcalls” (45). In the next poem Wagoner creates a dramatic scenario, “A Date with the Muse,” in which he offers her a gift, tells her she is “beautiful,” and asks her to dance. She “smiles vaguely” and turns him down (46).

            Without going into detail, simply listing the titles along with brief citations of several poems from recent collections will exemplify Wagoner’s ongoing enthusiasm for various modes of performance. From The House of Song (2002): “The Actress and the Rat” (prompted by Chekhov’s letter to actress Olga Knipper, later his wife); “Backstage”: “You’re standing behind the scenes in the near darkness / By a real door set in a canvas wall” (112); “At the Door”: “All actors look for them—the defining moments / When what a character does is what he is” (113); “Curtain Call”: “After the final scene, the final curtain / Takes it all back, and here come the actors / One more time” (115). From Good Morning and Good Night (2005): “The Three Trolls of Henrik Ibsen”:

                                                [. . .] When a difficult scene

                        Was lying flat on his page, when it blurred

                             And came to a halt, the way a young hero might

                                 At a crossroads, unsure of himself, not knowing

                        Which voice in the back of his mind to follow,

                             Ibsen would open that drawer, bring out a troll,

                                  And set it upright by the right-hand margin

                        Where it would demand tribute from his pen

                             As it faltered nearer and nearer [. . .] (53)

In this passage we see not simply Wagoner’s bemusement with a bit of literary lore, but his fascination with the challenges of dramatic composition.

             Other poems in Good Morning and Good Night, like “The Magician” and “The Models,” concern performances that are not dramatic or theatrical, exactly, even though they may have similar effect. In the former, the first-person speaker remembers watching a magician perform at a carnival, but already at age fourteen he is an “insider”: “I’d read all the books I could find about magic. / I’d practiced sleight-of-hand tricks and fooled my friends” (22). After the show the speaker (almost certainly Wagoner himself, as the poem appears in a section of such autobiographical poems as “My Father Eating Ice Cream”) performs card tricks for the magician, who asks pointedly, “What do you really want to be?” (23). This poem recalls the novel The Escape Artist (1965) mentioned above, and it reflects Wagoner’s sustained interest in magic, the magician being another incarnation or avatar of the poet.

             In “The Models” we also encounter a variety of performance that does not involve a written script: “The music begins, and here they come toward us, / Not walking or dancing along the ramp, but making / Angular progress with no destination / But our poor eyes” (59). Clearly, as the poem progresses, the models are distinguished from “us,” the audience, and at the end they “turn and disappear behind curtains,” like actors in a play. Even the next poem, “How to Meet Strange Women,” although the title appears to suggest origins in the how-to manual, essentially concerns performance as “you” are playfully instructed in what amounts to acting lessons:

                                                [. . .] If some small part

            Of your mind or body registers an attraction

                 For a strange woman, first, you stand nearby

                      On both feet within arm’s reach of her

            And the hors d’oeuvres. You smile,

                  Not showing your teeth. You say to her directly

                        Into her face, No, I don’t think you can

            Possibly be as hungry as I am. (60)

In effect, the director of this imagined scene even supplies, here and elsewhere in the poem, something of a script.                                  

             Other poems in the volume, like “Rehearsing the Death Scene,” obviously concern dramatic or theatrical performance: “The light man and the director are downstage  / Looking up and pointing and arguing / About invisible shades” (62). In this poem Wagoner gives time to the leading lady, the prop girl, the tragedian, the “pale director,” the heavy, and the understudy—a complete dramatis personae. In the next poem, “For an Old Woman Singing in the House Across the Street,” the performance is not intentional, but here Wagoner celebrates his thesis that humans are always on stage. He describes how the woman “holds herself” with “her clenched fingers / Under her chin, eyes shut,” and he depicts her in costume, so to speak: “A floor-length pale-blue terry-cloth bathrobe” (63). When her mouth closes, it is “as if she’s hearing / Applause,” and she glances around as if surprised by the response to the “private performance.” At the end of the poem she departs from the imaginary stage

                         With the practiced ease of a diva 

                             About to make her way into the wings

                                   Over the patent-leather pumps of the concertmaster

                         And second violinists, and she’s gone

                             Offstage, returning almost at once, in her arms

                                   A load of laundry, the blossoms of flowered prints.

             In A Map of the Night (2008), we encounter additional poems that focus on theater, including “An Assignment for Student Playwrights”: “I told them to go listen to people talking, / to write exactly how some people really / talked to each other” (31). The student returns to class bewildered that although the couple he has listened to are “’making up their minds / about something important enough to change / their lives maybe forever,’” their conversation appears to be trivial and fragmented. If they had been good actors, he reports, they would have improvised something “more interesting.” At the end of the poem it appears that the student has not learned much from the assignment, but the attentive reader may glean something of value from his frustration: “’Now what the hell / am I supposed to make out of this crap?’” It may be worth noting in passing that for some lovers of poetry a poem that ends in the word “crap” does not merit the appellation of “poetry.” But setting aside such distinctions as his academic credentials and his chancellorship in the Academy of American Poets (1978-99), Wagoner remains preeminently a poet in tune with the American vernacular, a poet fully in command of colloquial, sidewalk English, puns, clichés, profanity and all.

             In “In the Green Room” Wagoner shows us an actress: “She’s sitting there between acts / She’s knitting and purling” as she reads an “old romance” (32). Ironically, in effect, the professional actress appears less concerned about her role than the old woman singing in the poem cited above. She is skimming “an article / on how to revive a marriage / on the rocks” when she “hears her cue” and takes the stage: “Her face / is full of a self she follows / into a dazzling light.”

             David Wagoner has accumulated an impressive range of voices in his arsenal, but in the following short poem, “The Heaven of Actors,” he captures the magic of performance in his most casual and understated way:

                         At rise, the house lights darken.

                         The overhead lights and the lights

                         in the wings and the footlights

                         go on, and our gray actors

                         shine again, no longer

                         merely themselves, but the many

                         they were always meant to be [. . .] (33)

The sixteen short lines of this poem are fashioned into just two sentences—the opening line is one sentence and the remaining fifteen lines constitute the other. The performers’ assumptions of an alternative self or selves reflect the poet’s creation of personae or masks whereby he, like the actors, will no longer be “gray” but will have the opportunity to “shine.”

            Although I have focused this survey on dramatic or theatrical performance, Wagoner by no means limits his scope. Not only are the models performing in the poem cited above, but also in such poems as “The Fan Dance” and “My Father’s Dance,” both of which appear in A Map of the Night, he reflects on two very different kinds of performance. “The Words-and-Music Men” and “Aerial Act,” from The House of Song, reflect on other kinds of performing arts, and in that collection Wagoner portrays his adopted daughters Adrienne and Alexandra in the poem “Dancing Daughters”: 

                                                                        My daughters

                        Want to dance all day, and they don’t care

                        Whether the samba or frug or Macarena

                        Is the thrill of the moment or whether the hanky-panky

                        Includes a grande jeté.

By comparison, or contrast, their “dance-deprived daddy’s single gift in the Land / Of Terpsichore is a kind of work-release polka.”  Wagoner’s wife, Robin Seyfried, former editor of Poetry Northwest, is author of a book of poems entitled Balancing Acts (2000). In “Dancing Attendance” she features herself as a young student of ballet, “dying again / to please the audience” (21). In Wagoner’s “For a Man Dancing by Himself in a Tavern,” from Good Morning and Good Night, the inebriated, lone dancer “waltzes to rock and roll” (64) until the bartender escorts him out the door.

             All of us are onstage in this life, Wagoner appears to be saying. All of us perform.       Even as his father responds with belly-laughs to “Burns and Allen or Jack Benny” or to the Marx brothers in “My Father Laughing in the Chicago Theater,” from Walt Whitman Bathing (1996), he becomes a performer: “I watched with amazement / The spectacle of a helpless father, unmanned, / Disarmed by laughter” (9). Wagoner’s usually somber, unjoking father reveals a concealed self, presumably a self hidden intentionally, that might well be preferable to the self or role into which life has cast him. The poem closes with a tribute from one performer to another:

                         Once, Jimmy Durante stopped, glared down at him,

                        And slapped his sides, getting an extra laugh

                        From my father’s laugh, then stiff-leg-strutted away,

                        Tipping his old hat in gratitude. (10)

Perhaps one performer’s positive response to the shtick of another parallels in its significance the admiration of one poet for the achievements of another.

             Even the boy “left alone all afternoon / In that house at the edge of the woods” in “Whistling,” from Good Morning and Good Night, becomes a performer when he finds a whistle to serenade the “sky-high red-tailed hawk” and “the rabbit singing / The only song it knew” before being carried away by a coyote (67). A wildcat appears as the boy’s audience at the end of the poem “wondering what he was.” The lone boy, reminiscent of a persona out of Robert Frost, a swinger of birches perhaps, is transformed by his performance into something new and strange. What critic, one might ask, could demonstrate more convincingly the success of this boy’s (or musician’s or poet’s) performance than the wildcat?

             In his most recent collection, After the Point of No Return (2012), Wagoner employs metaphors of dramatic performance in a set of four poems beginning with “Never Let Your Characters Sit Down” and concluding with “Striking the Set” (48-54), but with particular effect in an early poem, “Onstage,” where the first-person speaker, presumably Wagoner himself, takes a director and an actress, “his younger mistress,” to a waterfall “to show how wild the world could be / offstage” (19). But the director defies the speaker’s purpose, for he cannot remove himself and the actress from the stage, but instead leads her across a “bad bridge, a “mossy, half-rotten trunk” of cedar. Wearing their street shoes, they make the dangerous crossing as the speaker/poet watches nervously, reduced to playing only a “minor part” (20). “Her stage and backstage lives / were already in his hands,” the speaker notes, and the “cast and crew” have predicted “she’d disappear / at the end of the season.” A little over halfway through the poem the speaker leaves them “midstream in this melodrama” and turns his attention to the woman with him who “in her early years / had majored in wanting to go to Hollywood.” This woman, presumably his wife, as she is wearing his ring, watches uneasily—“another actress losing herself in her role.” The falling water, the speaker observes, is “still performing / what it was meant to perform,” drowning out their lines and leaving them “speechless” at the end. In effect, they are left without a script and so have “no more / to say to ourselves or to the other pair” (20).

             The language and technicalities of theater enter at times quite unexpectedly, as in “In the Nursing Home,” where “you find yourself prepared / at last for opening night / in darkness at the edge / of a curtain where stage-light / has brightened a place for you, / where spectators are waiting” (127). What the “spectators” are waiting for, “through a spirited overture / and a solemn introduction,” is for “you” to “justify / your appearance and their attention.” Here and elsewhere in his poems, but by no means consistently, the “you” appears to be self-addressed, the poet as performer, late in life, who will “will show all of them now / or never why they’re here / watching and listening,” and, we might add, reading.

             In “Roles,” from the new poems of his Collected Poems, 1956-1976, the speaker wonders whether he could be “a spy, an actor, / Or a hard ship’s captain”:

                        Performance after performance

                        In public or deadly private

                        I dreamed my self-contained

                        Self in the dead center

                        Of dangerous attention. (266)

He imagines himself timing his “best breath / Through a final curtain.” In the last two lines of the poem, however, the speaker, surely David Wagoner himself, indicates what he is: “I’ve become a man in a room / Marking time on paper.” He is a poet.

 

 

Works Cited

 

McElroy, Colleen, Editor. Page to Page: Retrospectives of Writers from The Seattle Review.

            Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

 

McFarland, Ron, Editor. The Slackwater Review. David Wagoner Special Issue. 1981. See also

            Ron McFarland, David Wagoner, Boise: Western Writers Series #88, 1989, and The

            World of David Wagoner, Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1997.

 

Roethke, Theodore. The Collected Poems. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1975.

 

Seyfried, Robin. Balancing Acts. Spokane: Eastern Washington University Press, 2000.

 

Wagoner, David. After the Point of No Return. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2012.

 

---. Collected Poems, 1956-1976. Bloomington, Indiana University, 1976.

 

---. Dry Sun, Dry Wind. Bloomington, Indiana University, 1953.

 

---. “First Class.” Georgia Review 60.2 (Summer 2006): 345-376.

 

---. First Light. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1983.

 

---. Good Morning and Good Night. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2005.

 

---. The House of Song. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2002.

 

---. A Map of the Night. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2008.

 

---. “Mr. Thoreau Tonight.” Georgia Review 61.3 (Fall 2007): 536-571.

 

---. Nesting Ground. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1963.

 

---. Traveling Light. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1999.

 

---. Walt Whitman Bathing. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1996.

 

 

 

RON McFARLAND lives & writes & hunkers down in Moscow, Idaho. His forthcoming book of poems & prose is entitled Professor McFarland in Reel Time (yeah, it concerns fishing).

 

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