The Memory Trick
by Lee Rossi
Shadow Play, a novella in verse, by Jody Bolz, Turning Point Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2013, 79 pages, $18.00 paperback, www.turningpointbooks.com.
WHY DO WE REHEARSE our past? How does it change from one telling to the next? How much is fact, how much invention? Is the final version any truer than the first? These questions are explored, teased and worried over in Jody Bolz's new book Shadow Play. Bolz, editor of the long-running journal Poet Lore, calls Shadow Play, her second book, a novella in verse. The title alludes to the wayang kulit, the shadow puppet theater of Java, and, by extension, to the imaginary nature of all storytelling.
The book, which took a year to write and which, thanks to its hybrid nature, took ten years to find a publisher, chronicles the dissolution of her first marriage. Part travelogue, part postmortem, the book balances keenly observed narrative with deeply felt lyric moments. Yet it is not simply a series of linked narratives. Interpolated between the narrative segments are (imagined) dialogues between the wife, passionate, adventurous, and more than a little reckless of herself and others, and the husband, an artist, cooler and less daring than his partner. These conversations comment not just on the accuracy of the story elements, but on the epistemological and moral dilemmas of the project itself. He complains that "…you're making me up./ This voice is another trick," while she contends that "It's not a trick,/ it's artifice—…—and true." (page 26) But she also admits, "If memory's a trick, my friend,/ everyone's been taken in." (page 73)
The book begins with the young couple traveling across Indonesia: "On the train across Java/ we slept in a knot." They always seem to be traveling, distancing themselves from themselves and their past. We note the "knot," symbol of binding, homonym of "not," hint at their unbinding. The beauty surrounding them rushes by in a "Whirr of palm and banyan,/ gibbous moon, skewed night sky—." (page 17) They visit "the Hooghli in Calcutta—/ sludge-gray, chest-deep water/ blossoming with saris," beauty and filth co-existing unselfconsciously. In this exotic pilgrimage, this self-imposed exile, they are surrounded by the not of Otherness: "we made," she tells us, "a home/ out of our bodies." (pages 18-19)
Bolz's Far East is not just a tourist destination, but a spiritual refuge. We wander with these pilgrims through Java, India, Nepal, Japan, Bali and Burma, finding wonders, lovers, and guidance. There are memorable portraits, as of Theo, a Dutch Indonesian, born into Java's royal court, "who once danced for the Sultan," and moments of indelible revelation, as when a Hindu holy man tells them:
You have seen songbirds
at the market in Denpasar—
…each in its cage:
I know our minds have wings
perfect but useless
unless we break the bars.
Narrative then is one mode in the book. There are others, as when the author comments directly on her method: "I'm shaping a mosaic/ out of broken bits…" (page 19) Soon, the voice of the ex-husband, ironic and suspicious, joins the conversation. "We have other lives now," he says, questioning her motives. "This isn't a betrayal," she answers, as if to say 'I'm not out for revenge.' Together, they quarrel, quibble, comfort and conspire. The husband, reluctant as he is to be drawn once more into the maelstrom of the relationship, this abandoned past, becomes in the course of the book a more willing participant, capable of genuine sympathy, as for example, when the wife reveals a serious heart condition. In fact, their commentary on the story becomes part of the story, as they reveal themselves, not just as they felt in the past but also in the present.
Surprisingly, the wife too is sometimes reluctant to delve into her past, especially when the subject is her infidelity. "In the age of confession," she tells him, "too few secrets go untold." (page 65) And yet the secrets get told, and the accusations re-surface. She admits that she had other lovers, but insists that the betrayal was mutual: "I made a vow and broke it." says the wife, but "You made vows you wouldn't keep," alluding to the husband's refusal to have children. (page 47)
Holding the pieces together is a formal strategy borrowed perhaps from one of Bolz's teachers, A.R. Ammons. Even on second and third glance these skinny poems, consisting of short, two and three-stress lines, remind one of Ammons' tour de force, Tape for the Turn of the Year. Bolz handles the short lines with brio, wringing from them narration brimming with energy and speed, lyric moments of limpid melancholy, and dialogues that span sarcasm and incredulity, complicity and hurt.
The formal pressure of these poems is extraordinary, and Bolz, for moments of particular intensity, gives additional shape to her poems, forming sonnets and quatrains where needed. One especially lovely moment occurs at the Javanese Hindu shrine at Pranbanan, where we see her "chanting for Shiva":
Whoever carved the face
must have been surprised to see
how gracefully, implacably,
it registers each death
and stands accountable—
how lovely the look
of all that besets us.
She is chanting for Shiva (Hinduism's God the Destoyer, the Transformer, patron of yoga and the arts) but also sitting shiva for her marriage (Judaism's rite of mourning).
She's making it all up, he tells her. How can she possibly remember it all? And she responds that she is someone who has "lived [her] life// hopefully, lived as if/ each measure had consequence,/ listening to the sounds of chance…How can you tell/ your story/ unless you sing it?" (page 67) And then she tells the story of the bou-bou shrike, which is not a story but a winnowing of habit and inheritance, of genetic necessity,
Mated for life,
bou-bou shrikes in couples
make a single song.…
And if one bird's lost—…
the mate will.
for the first time in its life,
sing every note.
Because they are part of the natural world, human relationships die, but something of that relationship survives in the survivors. "Our story's over," he tells her. "But what if it survives us?" she responds. (page 31)
In "Tape for the Turn of the Year," A.R. Ammons beseeches his muse: "let this song/ make/ complex things salient,// saliences clear, so/ there can be some/ understanding." Ammons, I think, would approve how well Jody Bolz has turned the story of her life into something complex, and salient.
Lee Rossi's most recent poetry book is Wheelchair Samurai. Among his previous collections is Ghost Diary. A staff reviewer and interviewer for the online magazine Pedestal, his poetry, reviews, and interviews have appeared widely, in Poetry Flash, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry East, Chelsea, and elsewhere. He lives in San Carlos, California.