Monthly Archives: December 2012

Review of Leaves

leaves1 from the Royal Court Theatre production

Leaves by Lucy Caldwell is an Irish family drama. After attempting suicide during her first term of university, Lori returns home to her parents and two younger sisters, Clover (15) and Poppy (11.) None of them know how to act around her. Her father David has no idea what to say to her. Her mother’s conversations with her all revolve around how she’s feeling. Poppy desperately wants to prove to her big sister that Poppy is grown up enough to talk about things. Clover is furious that Lori would even consider taking herself out of the lives of those that love her. Together and separately, the family tries to cope with the after-effects of the suicide attempt and wonders if they can ever go back to how things used to be.

Caldwell’s writing style is very much of the current time: fast-paced, overlapping dialogue and sparse action make up the play. Like many playwrights, Caldwell covers a heavy topic, but few do it so well as she does.  She bravely covers the family’s feelings of betrayal and Clover’s unabashed anger. During one of Clover’s verbal lashings, Lori begs, “Please don’t do this to me.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” Clover snaps. “I forgot for a second that it was poor you. I forgot: You’re the one that swallowed a whole bottle of fucking sleeping tablets and almost died and I forgot that we had to be nice to you because of it.” Caldwell also doesn’t shy away from Lori’s struggles. In the first scene of Act II, Phyllis finds Lori outside smoking. She begs Lori to tell her where the parents went wrong and how they can fix things. “No, Mum,” Lori says. “Listen- you can’t- there wasn’t any- one thing– Mum. Look, Mum- I think- thinking about it- I think it’s always been there, inside of me- the sadness- like a shadow, you know- and you can’t- you can’t- lose- your shadow, you can’t- bundle it into a drawer you know? It’s not you, but it’s a part of you […] There’s nothing that you can do. There’s nothing that you or anyone can do, or say, or  be, that will make things alright again. Just- don’t you see, Mum. Every single word you say make things work.”
Unlike some storytellers, Caldwell does not fall into the trap of feeling the need to please the entire audience. The play does not end on a happy note. The conclusion of the second act has the family gathered all together around a fire, singing old childhood songs. It could potentially be a cliched see-everything-will-be-all-right happy ending, but in the middle of laughing with her family, Lori suddenly becomes pensive. “I wish-” she begins, but can’t say what she’s thinking until finally she  says fiercely, “I’d give anything- anything- to start again. Anything. I mean, if I believed in God or the devil, or- I’d give anything.” In the act that follows, the final one containing a single scene, we flash back to three months earlier, the day that Lori left for university. Just as David and Phyllis and their younger daughters have probably done a million times, the audience watches (or reads) the scene carefully, looking for anything, any sign of what might have warned them that this was coming. And just as it is in real life, there’s nothing. Lori seems happy- nervous but excited to travel from Belfast to London to start this new chapter in her life. Nothing points to her imminent suicide attempt.

A great part of the play as a whole- and perhaps the thing that might also keep it from being produced as often as it should- is how Irish it is. The subject matter and the family dynamic are universal, and they are written with dialogue that is very, very Irish. The characters use words like “Ey”/”aye” frequently and David is writing a book on Irish place names that seems to be written for an audience who is aware of said locations. The songs, too, appear to be written into the play to illicit nostalgia from the audience, but as an American, I had never heard them and so had little reaction. Obviously, plenty of plays and books are written with a specific readership in mind, but it pains me that such a powerful play might be avoided because it alienates part of its audience.

Despite the risk of it not being produced, however, Leaves is an incredibly moving, well-written piece. It speaks the truth about the repercussions of suicide (or suicide attempts) and doesn’t flinch in its storytelling.

Choice quotes:

PHYLLIS: It’s funny, isn’t it, but I can’t remember reading you this [story.] Did I ever read it to you, do you remember?
CLOVER: I don’t know, Mum. Probably not, no. Because it’s a true one, isn’t it, and we never liked the true ones much. It was the fairy tales we liked.

PHYLLIS: You’re right, Poppy. Get out of here as soon as you can. Go as far as you can. And never come back. You  don’t want to live in Belfast. You don’t want to bring up children in Belfast. In fact, you don’t want to bring up children anywhere at all. Don’t bother with children, Poppy. Whatever you do, you’ll never be able to make things safe for them. One place is as fucked as another.

PHYLLIS: I’ve been thinking about it- when they were younger. It’s always Clover running after Lori, doing what Lori does, going where Lori goes, wanting what Lori wants. And now […] Lori’s been to a place where none of us can follow. A place where none of us can reach her.

LORI: I want to believe in things they way I used to believe in them, the way I used to believe in them without even thinking about it- without even knowing what I was believing. But I can’t, Mum, I can’t- and so I can’t see how I can go on- go on- living- because- because- I don’t think there’s any such thing as a future, Mum.

Review of Ararat by Louise Glück

Ararat is one of Louise Glück’s earliest published collections of poetry, first released in 1990, but her voice and command of language and imagery are still compelling and well-developed. This collection predates her position as US Poet Laureate and even her reception of the Pulitzer Prize. While I have read poems of Glück’s on their own, my vision of her changed within this piece. Collections of poetry which I have read (most recently, Ballistics by Billy Colins and Atlantis by Mark Doty) contain thematic links between certain groups of poems and perhaps some overarching underlying tone or message the poets themselves assert. With Glück, my experience was altogether different.

The piece as a whole is a narrative, a story and a characterization of the truth of family and the relationships contained therein (for me, this was first noticeable in “A Novel” in which Glück’s speaker talks about how a novel couldn’t talk about her family). Each poem is an additional characterization, development of familial conflict and disagreement. From the contention between siblings evident in “Widows”, “Animals”, and “Yellow Dahlia” to the struggles of motherhood in “Lullaby”, “Brown Circle”, and “Cousins” and later the intimate pain in “A Fantasy”, “Labor Day”, and “Lost Love”, Glück portrays a family at its greatest and worst moments with raw, visceral feeling through subtle, nuanced images.

The titular piece, “Mount Ararat”, is of particular note not simply because of its obvious connection to the piece as a whole (something Glück may well have intended) but also because of its masterful inclusion of all the prominent themes and conflicts within the piece. In this poem, the speaker talks about her mother’s and aunt’s shared “suffering” as each “donates one girl child to the earth” and how they “don’t discuss this ever”. Glück incorporates the main character’s struggles with the distant-feeling death of a father when she expresses that “it’s always a relief to bury an adult, / someone remote, like my father”. But the most poignant aspect of the piece is Glücks religious invocation at the end, when the speaker describes with such acrid bitterness that “every stone here / is dedicated to the Jewish god / who doesn’t  hesitate to take / a son from a mother”. This is heavy as it contains a twofold underpinning: her religious sentiments and her own state of motherhood. To me, this seems especially fitting as Mount Ararat (below) is twin-peaked and has religious significance among many sects of Christians, particularly those of the Western tradition.

The entirety of Ararat is rife with religious diction and even contains a piece, “Celestial Music”, which depicts death through a dialogue of images between the speaker and her friend “who still believes in heaven”. Glück uses vegetal imagery, frequently as an analog to the cycle of death and birth, throughout the entire collection, using metaphors of planting bulbs, grass scorched in the sunlight, red orchids discovered by her son, the death of poppies in the rain. She reflects this repetition in “Brown Circle” and “Ararat”, the shift from being a daughter to being a mother.

On the whole, Ararat was very approachable and relate-able. While Glück does not necessarily delve into sociopolitical issues, she addresses issues which are universal: the human experience of family, of troubled, bittersweet relationships. She is straightforward and genuine without being harsh or terse. Her abilities with language and imagery are immensely compelling as well, making Ararat an excellent work not only to read but to experience.

Some favorite lines:

But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward. And just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss. ~ “A Fantasy”

my sister’s body
was a magnet. I could feel it draw
my mother’s heart into the earth  ~ “Lost Love”

It’s the same thing, really, preparing a person
for sleep, for death. The lullabies–they all say
don’t be afraid, that’s how they paraphrase
the heartbeat of a mother ~ “Lullaby”

The soul’s like all matter:
why would it stay intact, stay faithful to its one form,
when it could be free? ~ “Lullaby”

That’s what I did, at the door to the taxi.
Like him, waved to disguise my hand’s trembling. ~ “Terminal Resemblance”

once you can’t love another human being
you have no place in the world ~ “Mirror Image”

Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken. ~ “The Untrustworthy Speaker”