“The Parts We Play”: Jesi Buell Reviews THEATRIX, poetry plays by Terese Svoboda (Anhinga Press)

chance but a chain
of electrons vibrating
[almost
endlessly]        only error shitting life

I watched Matthew Holness’ Possum right before I picked up this book. That may be why I felt the puppet on the cover of Terese Svoboda’s Theatrix: Poetry Plays held such a sense of foreboding. Both puppets have that same disturbing anthropomorphic face that is at once inhuman and somehow familiar. The title itself, too, added to the tension. Is it Theatrix like “theatrics,” the drama of it all? Or is it more like a theatrical dominatrix, forcing you to submit to her will? At any rate, I felt a tangible apprehension before even beginning this work, like something was waiting for me within its pages. 

Like any play, this poetry collection starts with a cast list; however, this cast list contains an unusual mix of characters, like Jack Benny, Me, WE, a corpse, and several lovers. It is an incredibly smart collection that is littered with allusions or direct call-outs to Shakespeare, Beckett, Emma Goldman, and plays like Hair and The Rivals. At first, I thought it was driven more by language play than by plot. It can seem like a surreal fever dream of a collection and, admittedly, there were many times I was not sure what was going on. There are entire poems, like “Out of Ringing Ears” and “Malaprops,” that I never understood despite multiple readings. Sometimes it seems as if the intelligence and knowledge in these pages obfuscates the message and could render certain parts indecipherable to an audience who may not know everything about the theater world. I’m not a Shakespeare expert but I know enough to catch some allusions like “The Scottish Play” and “[Exeunt, pursued by Bear].” However, I also was sure that I was missing other cues throughout. All of this is to say, the following is what I discerned while freely admitting I was probably missing certain subtexts as well.

On one level, a fairly obvious level, these poems use theater tropes as a way to examine how we “act” in everyday relationships. The pieces seem to fall into three categories: mise en scène, vignettes or character studies, or elements of the physical theater space (“Sandwich,” “Bad Boy,” and “Emergency Exit” as respective examples). Svoboda uses elements like uniform and being fed lines to examine artifice and how we all are playing roles in an “all the world’s a stage” way.

This level also uses theatrical movements as fodder for how we root our narratives. There are numerous references to ancient Greek theater, namely in the form of the chorus WE character as well as a source of critique. In “Out of Ringing Ears,” we see the chorus turn its back to Greece and the narrator says, “A canon signals The End,” both of which are symbolic turnings-away from tradition. But Svoboda plays with this paradox because, again and again, the poems call out to their Greek roots and we see the work so firmly rooted within it.

As it continually acknowledges its origins, this collection also actively struggles against it. Most of the work seems to find comfort in a more modern interpretation of the “theater of the absurd” where comedy and tragedy are separated by a thin line and each encounter poses existential questions. In “The Cast,” we’re introduced to a comedienne who asks questions like “Why did the man cross the street” but never delivers the punchline. We only laugh to release the underlying dread. It is this character, the macabre comedienne, succinctly summarized its main message of the first half of this collection when she said, “sex and death are my two best subjects”:

MARCHING SOLDIERS: Drape the pretty flowers on the muzzle.
[Whereupon the put upon i.e. ladies, leap like petals falling off, each a drop//of solder
for the soldiers, their feet lead.]

The contentious play between men and women is introduced within the first lines of this book. Strewn throughout, there are symbols of flowers and acorns and pink, all associated with women and their fragility, beauty, and youth. Pink, in particular, is associated with girls and pairing youth with sexuality. In “Blank Pink Mall,” Svoboda writes “it’s not a color, / it’s a code.”

Halfway through Part 1, we’re also introduced to the Mother, in pink, drinking coffee. She is an ambivalent character, described as “a dog who turns her head away.” Svoboda makes a palpable disconnection between the narrator and the Mother. She is mentioned infrequently and always in half-interested ways, between scenes of lovers.

The first half continually intensifies the sense of foreboding, not only through the distance between mother and daughter or through the idea of self as being a construct rather than an innate quality. She does this through quiet hints at violence. In “USAIB Title IX Report,” she writes:

Consensual is

she wrote
[trigger warning]
[trigger warning]

The male malevolence is then personified in “Let Freedom Ring,” where we see freedom as a man hiding in the bushes outside, as a voyeur, as a thief:

Would we recognize freedom amongst us
if he peeled
the pantyhose off his face?
if he romped through the waving grain?

If Part 1 “sets the stage,” Part 2 seems to solidify these poetry plays as an extended metaphor for the relationship between Svoboda and her parents. Part 2 belongs almost exclusively to a Father character, who we are introduced to in the poem “Dad or God?” as:

The dictator hung from the ceiling,
the doves looking at his feet,
an old lady saying
clean your wax out, cruelty’s everywhere:
only when the outside pretends
it’s different
from the inside
is it news.

Her father plays a much more central role than her mother ever does in Part I. He comes to embody all of the perceived violence and fear to which the first part alludes. “King Leer” (spelling intentional) is told “[f]rom the fool a/k/a the daughters’ pov.” Svoboda transforms herself into a foil but also someone that is the advocate for the King in Shakespeare’s version and one that is able to point out his faults through use of humor (again, tragedy/comedy as interchangeable or interrelated). Though never explicit, the audience is aware of something sinister in the Father. In “Dark Daddy,” she writes, “You bet he’s bent, said the alligator, alleging more.” The most damning evidence is presented in “She Said He Said.” The title itself inverses the traditional saying, putting the woman in a position of potential power in situations where traditionally a woman’s account is unproveable. This poem, one of the biggest highlights in the collection, is all about silences. The Father is dying and says he’s sorry but Svoboda writes that “So sorry meant something else,” implying that the sorry is not saying everything it should.

Throughout Part II, we often see a young boy and his dog and, here, he “lies, crumpled, on the cement.” I realized at this point that the boy seems to be a symbol for her father, as something he once was, innocent. As the father dies, that child dies as well as the potential he once held. While the father and the boy die, everything good and bad in them continues to live, in the daughter, in the memories that they shared and the stories that she had heard about a boy she never knew. “The boy will die and so will I,” the Father says but the narrator is still very much alive, living with what she knew of her Father and with what she didn’t as well. In a sense, she’s mourning for what he could have been, instead of what she knew him as.

“She Said He Said” is a confession, but a silent one. “The wind came up and no one could hear what she said but she said it for forty years. As if smoothed”: Svoboda is showing us something that perhaps can never be fully articulated, outside of play, outside of the fragments that surrounded them while they played their roles, of ruler and ruled, of king and fool.

While, again, I am sure I did not understand everything these words held, what I could understand was very powerful, sad but still somehow funny, in a bittersweet way. Things threw me off like “An Audio of Helen Jewett’s Murder in Downtown New York City.” The inclusion of this poem in the midst of the Father poems of Part 2 seems like an anomaly, when everything else revolves around her Father’s performance and elements in the theater that support it (poems like “Usher” and “Emergency Exit”). But these stumbling blocks for me were not enough to diminish the beauty in these pages. Svoboda mirrors the flowers in the first stanzas at the end in “Viscera” where she says:

Think of the self strewn, a constellation hunched,

a shadow so dark it can’t be seen.

The language of fruit tears my throat:
smashed petals, fruit rotting in process, [the green] one

red.

This passage highlights how, moreso than a sustained narrative, the triumph of this work is in its language. My favorite pieces are “What? Is Your Line,” “Moon Theater,” and, again, “She Said He Said.” They highlight Svoboda’s talent for intelligent and original word play as well as her ability to finding the beauty in tragedy.

Theatrix: Poetry Plays, by Terese Svoboda. Tallahassee, Florida: Anhinga Press, March 2021. 84 pages. $20.00, paper.

Jesi Buell is a librarian and the head of KERNPUNKT Press, a home to experimental writing. She lives in Upstate New York with her husband and beautiful daughter.

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