Friday, June 14, 2013

In the School of Shakespeare: Making Intangibles Real

How do I love thee, Shakespeare? I cannot count the ways for there are many. Foremost among them are the mini-essays in poetry.

In the History of Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare opens Act 3, scene 1 with a vivid little essay on insomnia:

How many thousands of my poorest subjects 
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep, 
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down, 
And steep my senses in forgetfulness? 
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, 
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee, 
And hush'd with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfum'd chambers of the great, 
Under the canopies of costly state, 
And lull'd with sound of sweetest melody? 
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile 
In loathsome beds, and leav'st the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common 'larum-bell? 
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast 
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains 
In cradle of the rude imperious surge, 
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top, 
Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them 
With deafing clamour in the slippery clouds, 
That with the hurly death itself awakes? 
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude; 
And in the calmest and most stillest night, 
With all appliances and means to boot, 
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down! 
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Shakespeare reveals that the King enjoys “perfum’d chambers” and sweet melodies while his subjects must lie down “in smoky cribs, / Upon uneasy pallets.” They enjoy “forgetfulness” on their “vile / … loathsome beds” even as the “dull god” of sleep denies the king the same “respose,” requiring Henry to conclude that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

In Hamlet, Act 1, scene 2, Shakespeare provides a succinct essay on grief:

…'tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, 
Nor customary suits of solemn black, 
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath, 
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, 
Nor the dejected havior of the visage, 
Together with all forms, modes, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem, 
For they are actions that a man might play; 
But I have that within which passeth show, 
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Here Shakespeare shares the customary dress of mourning: an “inky cloak” and “black suits.” The grieving also sigh, sending forth “windy suspirations of forced breath” as they cry a “fruitful river” and look downcast or “dejected.” Hamlet contends that any man or woman might manifest these behaviors but his grief is not a show; his grief is deep “within.”

With such mini-poetic essays, Shakespeare proves his encyclopedic understanding of human emotions. He also proves his mastery of verisimilitude (the quality of truth in literature). As all great writers do, Shakespeare teaches us about ourselves. He holds up a mirror and shows us the human experience. Therein we see anew what we have seen and felt; we comprehend our very hearts and souls.

Reading Challenge:

Read Shakespeare to discover grief, doubt, jealousy, arrogance, love and so much more.

Writing Challenge:

Write like Shakespeare, trying to bring to life abstractions. If you have the gift for iambic pentameter, use your gift, but if you are not confident about meter, then write prose. For example:

Photo by Al Griffin: Evening Sky, Westheimer Field, OK

Consider grief. What does it look like?

I don’t know them well. In fact, when I heard about their loss, I wasn’t at all sure that I could match the correct faces to the names given. And I didn’t see them for several weeks, the time, I suppose, when they withdrew from the world, when they drew together to find some reason to enter into this world again. Upon their return to the group, I watched them, trying to see if anything in them would betray their grief for its weight is unimaginable to me. They’d lost a son, a soldier who’d been to a killing field for the U. S. and returned home whole, a firefighter who’d danced with Jeopardy on many occasions. With him was his wife, the mother of his children, grandmother to his grandchildren, a woman who encircled his waist with her arms as they rode the highways on the two wheels of a motorcycle. He’d crossed the centerline on a curve and slammed into an oncoming car, and they were vulnerable. Little shielded them from asphalt, gravel, dirt or metal that crushes bone. His parents, the ones I know but slightly, are much too old to bear such a loss, too old to outlive a son and daughter-in-law, but that is the truth they must embrace. I catch them sometimes, eyes seeing something not present, looking into a distance I hope never to reach. Theirs is the knowledge that this life delivers harsh blows randomly; it is a knowledge that the fabric of this universe is as thin as old, yellowed paper.

And what does grief sound like?

You try not to wake me. You’re thoughtful that way, but I often bubbled into consciousness as the doors clicked softly behind you on your way out to photograph the sun or bask in the morning’s dew, strong brewed coffee in hand. You preferred the TV at a deafening level, and your blues sent forth tiny tremors as if a Louisiana earthquake opened crevices beneath the floor. But now, as I wake, I listen, eyes closed. Silence, only silence, pulses. Another day in this silence is unthinkable, but rise I must and somehow, the deafening pulse of the universe nudges me through another day.

Does grief have a taste? I believe it does.

I see a parade of shoes in dark, tasteful colors of dove gray, steel gray, ebony, and a brown so dark it masquerades as black. Voices that inhabit those shoes tell me to eat; they urge me to eat something, and I nod as if the advice is new and welcome. They cannot know that even Auntie’s moist rum cake, prepared just for me each holiday, becomes dust in my mouth. I sip water, then coffee, some strong brewed sweet tea, but none of these wash me clean. They force themselves into a tight throat, one that will scream your name if I open my mouth to eat. So I just nod as if at any minute I will fill a plate and gobble it down. I won’t. I can’t. I cannot swallow the sour taste of losing you for it is all that’s left.

What is the texture of grief and its scent?

I don’t know how long your towel hung across the bar in the bathroom. I only know that one day, I noticed a thick layer of dust across the fold. Still, I let the dust fall until we broke a record for our part of this world, the temperature climbing to eighty degrees. In the spirit of spring, I ventured outside and cut every hyacinth, using those heavy Anchor glasses you love the shape of as vases for each bloom, one in our bedroom, another on the kitchen table, several in the family room. I spent a half hour walking from bloom to bloom, setting a sweet scent swirling through rooms you once visited. With the promise of brighter tomorrows pulsing like sap through my veins, I snatched up throw pillows and tossed them in the dryer with a lavender scented sheet. In twenty minutes, they were dust-free and plump. I pressed my face into two of them and breathed in the clean smell of Highland moors. I knew then that I could wash your towel, and I almost did. But the soft feel of it reminded me of you, damp and hot, just out of the shower, bending to kiss me and with that towel, mop up a droplet of water you let fall upon my cheek. So I left the towel across the bar and lay down to breathe in the dust of all those hours without you.