The Main Show
: a story-poem stage presentation
(part of Living Poem)
See video of Act 1, Scene 1: The Setting
(A program note reader comes out to read from the program notes.)
Don’t listen, children, and do not hear.
(A monster is coming and there’s no escape
Within this story, and no good way to tell it,
Except to gaze at the horror as at a flower,
A disaster streaming off extremes it breeds
Everywhere and in our minds, disabling our power.)
Distractions are good, puzzles that tease
And please and fill the main scene, which
Includes thinking about certain things.
What are sound reasons for optimism or
Romanticism, the will to believe that a quest
For virtue is not just its own reward, but more?
Why strive? To feel more alive?
To answer another’s need and achieve rapport?
To align with forces important to support?
First off, let’s turn to the universe,
Coming at us as swirls within swirls, and invest
In the evidence of something larger than ourselves.
Although one’s life presents just one of countless views,
The complexity, integrity, and connectivity
Of any one experience is more than enough news
To fill time, as we see in the life-dream-envelope
Developing now at hand, a loop to the reel
Of fantasies that had captured last century’s youth.
Movies entered villages, screens, and experience.
American mythology reached its zenith.
Other influences curled around the era.
A nameless dread, banned from thoughts in bed,
Blew through the minds of the walking dead
As they sleep-walked through history.
The temperature-evaporation-salinity spiral
Measured in oceans on a government dial
Tended toward the vector of suicidal.
Let’s not talk about that, let’s talk about
“Havenglade Downs” and the poem now coming out
With its ready-for-prime-time title.
Act 1, Scene 1: The Setting
(A narrator as author comes on stage to narrate the setting, either aided by audio-visuals or left up to the imagination.)
The Yucca flats and the planet Mars coalesce
In the minds of those from the era of missiles.
In radioactive zones, anomalies multiply
Like planets where laws of reality don’t apply.
There was gel in the hair and an apple in the box,
While at the back door a night thought knocked.
All you need to do is look at the back door screen.
How can you not? You do see what I mean?
If you look, it’s an entrance to a haunting plot,
A 20th century romance with greed and glut.
Ore had been the big score for power-mongers
Whose egos were huge and engines humongous.
It was easy to tell bad guys from good, except for
Spies and aliens who could be anywhere.
Even good-guy spies, John le Carre showed,
Had to be double agents to be any good.
It was a world of shadows from above and behind,
And from below the complacency of the mind.
Geniuses were curried as essential ingredients
In an existential fantasy of scientific dominance.
What print hangs on the wall? Einstein? Teller?
A Manifest Destiny wagon turned interstellar?
Narcotics, gadgets, incubus-homes,
Robotics, spaceships, tricked-out genomes,
A science gospel with a martial mission
All form the backdrop of this exposition.
What is the point of technological dominion?
To defeat nature and obliviously lock in oblivion?
Act 1, Scene 2: Author Comment
I popped up as a boy genius in our 1950s house
And took the position of never taking the crown.
The crown, my parents believed, was a dirty affair,
The poison milk, the gilt of a millionaire.
There was no allowance for the space, though little,
Provided the camel through the eye of the needle.
In a twilight zone with a sci-fi penumbra,
The Unknown approached with an ID number.
Now, let’s fade into the illuminated sheen
Of the story filling up the wide screen,
A wet dream ‘50s kids thought dope:
Rocket wars in Cinemascope.
Goddard invented the liquid fuel rocket
And now any madman has a silo to dock it.
See the proof here as paranoia in the air
Is ignited by a strike from, it seems, nowhere.
Act 2, Scene 1: Lost City
(The author comes on stage to narrate action represented in images, movies, dramatic enactments, or the imagination. This is called the “retell mode.”)
A strange electric storm shocks a ship at sea.
Experts warn it augurs the end of humanity.
Flood tides and earthquakes mark the geographic
Center of the disturbance as central Africa.
“The resources of the nation are at your disposal,
Bruce,” men greet Bruce’s expedition proposal.
Deep in deepest Africa on a set built by crews
In Hollywood studios, natives ooh at news.
“Murderous giants are on the loose; and at the gate,
White men come,” led by Bruce the brazen
Who raises his head, eyes all lit, as he learns
Of Magnetic Mountain, where occult fire burns.
Bruce knows from his mineralogy instructor
That he’s hit upon the equivalent of a gusher.
In the mountain’s core, an evil emperor’s set on
More and more power in the face of Armageddon.
Act 2, Scene 2: An Aside
Here’s where the epic writer’s mind starts to spin
Into a jig grinning a Strangelove grin.
The emperor’s scientist when quizzed,
“Why didn’t you warn us about this?”
Says, “I guess it was the hypnotist.”
“Even when the dictator shook his fist,
Shouting, ‘The cosmic condenser, I insist!’?”
The scientist pleads, “I didn’t mean this.”
It’s like Dr. He, laboratory baby concoctor,
Who snipped and re-stitched genetic structure,
And quipped, “This has nothing to do with horror.”
And now we return to the main show.
We’re all on dope, on a yoyo,
On a rolling slope, groping for hope.
Act 2, Scene 3: Lost City, continued
Help! The dictator uses magnetic waves
To turn thrashing natives into soldier-slaves.
How can someone with many ways to hurt you
Be defeated? The secret answer is virtue,
Which blinds Bruce, who hears a damsel’s cries
And follows it to the Hut of the Mysterious Voice.
He and his pal fall through a trap to a fate
That ends with the spool, and so must wait
For a month, while in the Chasm of Doubt,
Bruce has exposed weaknesses to contemplate.
Act 2, Scene 4: Author Interjection
I’ll tell you what I am feeling in all of this.
Bruce’s claims on virtuous truth stir uneasiness.
But, man! Winner self-love feels good,
Whether you come from the mansion, mill, or hood
And super-power dreams are in your blood
And you share your dream with a new breed,
Needing only the flag of liberation to succeed
Once upon a winner’s time in Nod.
The problem is the angel of righteousness.
How does its goodness cause blight in us?
How does redemptive light un-enlighten us?
This is like Spencer’s The Faerie Queen,
In which the queen can be not-what-she-seems
And the hero walks a crazy rhyme scheme,
Which is like Bruce’s date with the oracle,
Except that his troubles are not metaphorical
And he has less hope of a miracle.
Designs with symbols and flashing colors,
Slow down, slow to a crawl like a tumbler
To reveal the next story number.
Oh, number what? Another random inanity?
An analogy, you say, to humanity,
Clicked to the pitch of tick-tick insanity?
Act 2, Scene 5: Havenglade
Author in retell mode:
In Havenglade, where the spotlight dwells,
Gods and changelings open themselves
To affairs of the heart.
One day, a godling arrives in the glen,
A soft-hearted naïf with an appetite
That sometimes rules in the end.
He brings mead and pours himself
A big cup, and you, half a demitasse.
He sluices his gulp.
Do not think this tale a comic strip
Of archetypes. The icons are themed
With idiosyncrasies and multiple identities.
The godling, when an emblazoned babe,
Had once discovered that the suck
On his nectar feed was stuck.
This would not do. The occult brew
Contained rising-from-ashes power
And he felt supernatural hunger.
It’s not fair to make a babe gargantuan,
No matter how soft the medium
Or clear the brassy tone.
The pap that lads lapped all over the map
Gave sweet dreams to baby’s nap
Like a sap sucker enraptured by sap.
Sprouts that survived history’s ash
Blossomed in America’s prosperous flush
And emitted a long held-back breath.
The potency of the dream scene, boosted
By fantasies on big screens, produced
Godlings, avatars of greatness.
(Stage lights off. Curtains close. A spotlight shines on group of figures.)
The birthplace of godlings suddenly goes dark.
Stage left, figures nurture a spark
In a pose like a commemorative landmark.
“Stagehand, please, will you now take the cue
To break the suspension that attaches to
The godling’s lair and usher in an oracle?”
Bertolt Brecht, crossing the stage:
“We who wished to prepare the ground
For friendliness, could not ourselves
Be friendly, but you who come after,
When man’s no longer a wolf to man,
Remember us with forbearance.”
Thus goes the love-song of parents
Whose lives have shed their naïve appearance
In exchange for making a difference.
But what if the sacrifice and suffering,
The nursed hurts and kindled faith,
Could not control the cycling dynamic?
(Curtains open. The spotlight goes off. Stage lights go on.)
Curtains re-open on the godling’s turf,
With the gargantuan taking things unto himself,
Unmoored from that forgettable time
When his contract had been up, and he’d cried,
“Do not reduce me to clay, Creator,”
And the Creator complied.
Freed from history, the heroic golem
Wandered city streets with a nowhere problem
Until entering a home where he played a godling.
You’d be right to think this the end of the story,
But there’s a plot twist just beyond its boundary.
I saw the golem leave the godling’s body
And the godling’s now in his natural element,
Generous, patient, relishing every moment.
Then light flickers, and up shows another revenant.
Act 2, Scene 6: Nyoka, the Jungle Girl
Author in retell mode:
“We must go to the Lair of the Eagles,
Then the Tunnel of Bubbling Death,”
Nyoka says, interpreting pictographs.
Searching and subbing for her absentee
Father, she shoots guns and swings from trees
As her skirt flounces above her knees.
“The Tunnel of Bubbling Death?”
“Yes. Passing through this tunnel,
We will reach the Valley of the Tauregs.”
Wait, are you saying Tuaregs?
The ancient nomads of North Sahara,
Today, stateless migrant workers
And exotics wandering in Bamako?
What we hear at this point is a keening.
Does this wailing warrant interceding?
Someone lifts a lid on a proceeding
And it’s like a trance.
“We are here, the will-not-be-forgotten,
Traversing dunes, guided by the stars,
Humming the tune of the nodding camel
And praising Allah.”
Meanwhile, the women, matriarchal,
Laugh, and the blue-clad sisterhood
Follow their drums home to the desert
To deliver some news.
In the 1950s, when the overlords left,
They left behind a wickedness,
The division by race of slaves and bosses,
Hatreds cloned and alliances cleft.
Onward! Nyoka is reading the script. Hidden away
In a cave (where, Chad?), lay
The Golden Tablets of Hippocrates
And a cure for cancer! I recall
Another medical takeover story, Apollo
Ripping from a woods-nymph his child,
Asclepius, future high priest of medicine.
It’s the dictator and the scientist again!
And the fatal obsession with cheating death.
“We must get the tablets first,” says Vultura,
Queen of the tribespeople. Untold treasure
Lies buried beneath Africa Obscura.
Like the fraying rope of a bridge tether,
Or a fire pit over which fights teeter,
Nyoka’s luck proves a bottom feeder.
“The Tunnel of Bubbling Death,
Well-named,” quoth Nyoka’s lieutenant
As she tumbles into a flaming froth.
Nyoka’s a good girl, Nancy Drew-curious,
Fay Wray re-wrapped as an Army nurse,
Dorothy of Oz with a Scout knife in her purse.
What would it be like if she occurred in
Scenes with Bruce the Brazen or the godling
Or with other morphs or forces in the unraveling?
Stay tuned, though this journey may go nowhere
Except into flames and a thermonuclear
Erasure, but that’s not the popular wager.
Act 3, Scene 1: The Return of Bruce
Author in retell mode:
Behind a row of brownstones, lying low,
There’s an infirmary where wasted heroes go.
No one talks about this.
The inmates rarely have anything to say,
But when they do, it’s as if a break
In a seal reveals a world beneath a lake.
A disturbance in the ward where Bruce lies prone
Has people hurrying to hear his moan
Turn into something intelligible.
Off to the side, a nurse named Joan
Sifts through papers. “Who’s this one?”
Her aide calls out, adjusting a microphone.
Joan questions Bruce in a mysterious voice,
Something about one of his exploits,
He thinks, and tries to find the edges of his cell.
No? Well, is there anything he has to tell?
And then he hears the tolling of a bell
In a church in a town in the scrub of a foothill.
They’d smiled and called him the infidel,
Citing a term that they knew well,
Going back to Vasco da Gama.
“Mr. Brazen, is there something you remember,”
Joan asks, “about your time in Kenya,
And encounters with the Kikuyu or Akamba?”
“Lokop,” Bruce said. “What, lock-up?” “Loikop,
What the chief says when I drive my truck up.
To his village. He’s waving and shouting, “Njoo!”
“‘Come, come this way, quick!’ he says, leading
Me to a stick-and-mud hut, and to the pleading
Eyes of a girl who’s having trouble breathing.”
Joan dares not interrupt this recitation,
But notices she needs to get the patient
A cup for his unwelcome expectoration.
Act 3, Scene 2: CSI: Cytoplasm
I interrupt this program to report
That the agents assigned to halt the dying
Neurons in my gestalt are striking
Out, thus drawing attention again to cures.
As I lay me down to sleep,
I try imagining what’s happening
Deep down in my mystery disease,
And latch onto drifts of news
Of ALS riding the thought-stream.
Author in retell mode:
Suddenly I’m on Neuron Street,
The “CSI: Cytoplasm” beat.
At the crime scene,
Up pops Mutant Gene
As the cops’ top guilty candidate.
Glossies spread. There are stacks of
Shots of possible gene malefactors,
And FUS/TLS, three
Prime suspects on which to focus.
“Rob, have you a stake in this hustle,
Stalking the murderer of your muscle?”
“No, my jam’s not genetic
But may still be connected
With genes being complicit, not causal.”
The inspector has doubts about my angle
And my tendency to rephrase and wangle
Words into a pattern
Like a Japanese lantern
Or like a dung beetle’s tidy dung apple.
“This gene,” says the chief, “fabricates
The protein, super-oxide dismutase.”
“SOD! the enzyme
That prevents super-oxides
From shooting off ion-grenades.”
The inspector points to a pile-up
Of proteins at the gates where cells dial-up
Instructions for actions
To embolden nerve axons.
“See here in this protein? There’s the foul-up.”
The observed malformation, D90A, is
The twist found in all kinds of cases
Of ALS, its fold
As genetically old
As the ascendance of Homo sapiens.
“900 generations ago, the chief said,
Is when D90A first appeared,”
Fred informs old Job
Whom he’d wheeled to the rope
At the crime scene and told what he’d heard.
“30,000 years ago,” Job recalls,
“That’s when humans wiped out Neanderthals.
The Biblical kill
Caused a mutant allele
To lurk in genetic materials.”
“It is also possible,” Fred opines,
“The gene rode the tail of a bloodline
As Neanderthals fled
And conquerors bred
With Neanderthal campsite lag-behinds.”
In the meantime, the crime scene’s boring.
You have to sit while workers keep poring
Over scans and data
And chemical quanta
And everything except what they’re ignoring.
“This investigation,” says the detective,
“Also points to O-2 negative.
Excuse me, you guys,
Must I sensationalize
Ion exchange to make it more electric?
“Why, this case is a clinical challenge
In which meaning hangs on a valence,
And transmitters angling off-balance.”
Act 3, Scene 3: Nyoka’s Journey
In the mirror I see that my face is scarred,
But in my mind and others’ eyes, it’s unmarred
By the bubbling death pit I’d endured.
My innocence is my shield, and feels as right
As when I swing from vines and take flight;
Or, recover from a breath-smothering fright.
Weir, her lieutenant:
Nyoka, are you all right? It’s been several
Minutes since you’d fallen into the hole.
It felt like several weeks in that bubble,
Most of it in that minute when I’d fainted
Into timelessness and became acquainted
With the forces involved in how I’ve been fated.
Mary, a girl, entering:
Nyoka, your father is in trouble!
They have him before a tribunal in a hut,
For a death he’d caused by having touched
That’s such a farce.
But I don’t know. In my time of unconsciousness,
I saw my father’s heart weighed on a balance dish
Against a feather. I rushed to give my heart for his
And the ageless official told me with tenderness,
“Nyoka, I am sorry that you have to witness this.”
“But she does not,” a woman screamed, and soon
A blanket decorated with an eclipsed moon
Wrapped me up and sent me to a sunless room.
Nyoka, a government official is coming down the path.
Does he have a pointy face and a forked staff?
Mary, looking out:
No, a washed-up look. Nyoka, you make me laugh.
Excuse me, Miss Nyoka, I’ve been assigned
To question you and determine your state of mind.
I don’t really have the time.
May I sit here?
Sit here in this rocker.
Why did your father study archaeology, Nyoka?
I’d never before viewed my life as an onlooker,
But now I see my childhood as through a lens
And recall walks with my dad in woods and fens
When he enjoyed the world around his head.
One day I asked to take a friend, Debra Hyde,
A thin girl who looked at you from the side.
My father yelled at her stupidness, and she cried.
That, dear Inspector, was my first compromise.
It cleared the way for many others, for I’d lied
About the importance of science over human feeling
And made an altar for my father, the all-seeing,
Who worshiped me as his perfect seedling.
Why was it archaeology and not hot air balloons,
His hot air balloon landed in a dune
And his digging was for something personal to prove.
Do you feel that, Weir, the ache for greatness?
I must admit, my family was quite conservative.
Only fancy folk can give their greatness license.
Speaking of licenses, Weir, go grab the car keys.
And Mary, pack my suit, cap, and stockings.
The pay-to-go mode goes with giving a good show.
(Old man Job appears in a spotlight with his aide Fred, stage left, as Nyoka’s scene fades.)
Fred, where have you taken me?
To the gravesite of the birthplace of humanity
Where archaeologists reconstruct the origin scene.
It’s a big draw for seekers of what life means,
The Edenic valley tucked in the glacial Pleistocene.
Cover me up, Fred. I am shivering.
Act 3, Scene 4: Bruce Tells All
Here drink this, it’s good for allaying
Upsets. Mr. Brazen, you were saying
About that girl who needed saving?
Ah, I took her to my car, her arms clenching
My back, her breath wheezing. That's when we
Heard shots and smelled thatch burning.
For a few weeks I visited the hospital
Where Naeku, that child, lay throttled
By pneumonia, and I read her Maasai parables.
God says to Maasinta, the first Maasai,
“Maasinta, build an enclosure.” He asks why.
“Just do it, wait there, and show no surprise.”
Then down a giant thong numberless cattle came
Descending into Maasinta’s pen. His friend,
Dorobo, panicked and severed the leathery lane.
What did God say? God said, “Maasinta, you
I make Maasai, cattle-driver. Donobro
And his kind I set aside for servitude.”
After this telling, Naeku’s face turned
Into the old man’s and she said his word,
Not Swahili “Njoo,” but “jaayá,” Maa for “Our land.”
The truth? I’d killed him in front of his granddaughter.
Who hadn’t had pneumonia, but asthma.
I’d carried her out, then gave the word for slaughter.
Mr. Brazen, might we go further back
In your memories as we drift and tack
On our journey on the Good Ship Union Jack?
(Light flickers on stage.)
I lodged at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi,
Where white settlers gathered over coffee,
Having arrived by iron chariot to view the
Latent estates in the land below the Kikuyu.
The pastures all about were creatureless
For the Maasai cattle had died of rinderpest;
And the Maasai themselves lived on reservations.
Kenya was the chosen next British nation.
Carts churned in mud past raised-up huts.
A Norfolk bloke relayed the latest scuttlebutt.
The commissioner had said that “for plunder,
The Maasai and other tribes must go under.”
(Lights go out in the nursing home; and the stage is dark.)
I am the lie and the devastation,
The demonizer and avatar of civilization.
When I picture that girl’s ancestral face,
I disbelieve the superiority of my race.
Act 3, Scene 5: Intermission, The Animal Cavalcade
(A simulation of a carousel with six animal figures is brought on stage.)
The animals are together again for a show
To celebrate their friendship with someone you know.
Round and round on the carousel they go.
The orangutan is a supreme top-of-tree liver.
His swinging limbs bulge. His walking ones quiver.
Up in the leaves, he spreads his nest, pillow and cover.
Look into his eyes and see his old soul loll
Within a long skull as he swallows a fruit ball.
He’s hill folk from long ago. Time slows.
A prehistoric squid appears in the deep sea.
The specimen of it at the Smithsonian in D.C.
Is a waterlogged carpet, devoid of mystery.
But look into the eye of the superior beast
As it sees and seizes a challenger or feast.
Tentacles lash, tear and explode living meat.
From your childhood bed, gentle stories spread
About Squid and Friends at a pool on a beachhead
And fugitive tubular aliens living below a workshed.
Tubes, tentacles, tendrils and dreamsicle junk
Fascinate, frighten, squish, flow and clunk
Until out spills a tough, tender elephant trunk.
Now see how the squid’s grasp-and-rasp function
Becomes in the elephant a mitten with suction
And an arching osculator and triumphal trumpet.
In the interval between approaching carousel clients,
Take a moment to consider how love and violence
Can share forms. Then heed the unheard silence.
Silence comes hushed, brushed by owl wings
Riding the night sky of triangulated rustlings
To deliver deft talons to the backs of underlings.
It dawns on us that the animals’ commonality
Is that they each represent a godlike, epic quality.
As up swims the next old world singularity.
Swimming past dinosaurs to an algae mat
Flush with fish and birds, the snapper, rapt
By the moment, enacts his classic snap.
In turtle memory, a hundred eggs are laid.
Those orbs fated to escape jaws graduate
To a scramble of prey. Hey, here comes tardigrade.
The carousel has slowed to the pace of breath
Of a turtle in mud up above its carapace. Next,
The tardigrade slows things to a long near-death.
Oh, to lay back in a crisis and go flat, requiring
Nothing. Then a click and the ride keeps riding
As the series cycles within its micro-environment.
--Rob Neufeld, 2019