Marianne Boruch
Fire in the Black Box

Halfway through the semester when asked how it was going, I liked to say “My Archangel got Covid” because it was funny, because it was tragic, because the whole idea had wings and mystery regardless. And the fact was, my Archangel was smart and tough. Really our archangel, no, the archangel: that qualifier kept morphing. In fact she—that particular archangel—did get Covid. And the battle of lyric vs. narrative kept on. Poetry vs. Theater. Inside vs. Out There. The individual and the great world. And why oh why this dilemma in the first place? And why that Black Box Theater, closer to a shroud or a crypt? Everything is time on the wheel, whatever.

Hold on. Because I wrote it down—




February 2022—Colby College, Waterville, Maine


—It’s the end of the planet I worry about, in poems for the page, in real time out of which poems come, in the unreal time of observe-to-imagine. Dream or not, solace or heartbreak. What happens if poems get reconsidered, dismembered then reassembled by the young, to be performed on stage? Destruction or evolution? If the poem blinks, is it still a poem? And if it’s your poem? As if that matters, past what’s immediate and short-lived like embarrassment. 


Because experience gets staggeringly weird, starts personal to go haywire bigger, strange. Was has a way of turning into a wasn’t at all or never what we . . . But behind it all, this time— 


1) The dumb luck of a visiting writer spot for a semester in a faraway, most beautiful state. 

2) A big cellar room turned into a black box theater, not one bit fancy, painted black every which way—ceiling, floor, four sides, much like that basement from childhood (well, gray all over instead) where dads (but who really had/has one like that?) descended after supper to whatever dubious hobbies, like putting thumbs at risk by way of a table saw. 

3) But context context context: the triggering element, my 2019 Fulbright to Australia to witness the most astonishing wildlife in the world. To write poems about it. Thus the oddest book came out of that, one I never predicted but simply ammo, here and now. 

4) The why. To carry forward in another form, another genre via the “Devising Theater” method (the what?) with brave students who will write a play from that book, direct and rehearse and perform it. Their work entirely, start to finish. Not mine, even to veto. 

5) In any case, I’m here for a term. A residency funded by the generous Forese family at Colby College, Waterville, Maine. My scheme and question: can a book of poems morph to the stage, fully reengineered by young writer/actors? The “Devising Theater” method. More puzzling. . . . What’s lyric in any Rube Goldberg machine which seeks an end if there’s no end in sight? Does the stage auto-naturally and insistently mean narrative? How will they mix, these two road warriors, poetry and story; how will they talk to each other? 

6) Tonight before the term begins, I’m staring down the class list again, trying to imagine them. My students came to Colby for a wild assortment of majors—Chemistry to Sociology, Classical Civilizations to Physics to French Studies, Literature and the Environment, Philosophy, Econ, Music, English and Creative Writing, and beyond. From all over the place—California to Kentucky to New York City. A one-room schoolhouse then; majors and minors colliding; first, third, and fourth years in the mix. 

7) What’s also true: eventually it will be spring here regardless of the pandemic, the frozen river below our fifth floor window, all this snow, this snow, this snow. And yeah, the pandemic, there’s always that.


—Geez. What is this? Soho, 1959? said Michael Burke—writer, colleague, head of Creative Writing at Colby—taking in the worn/stained/cement floors, questionable lights, wandering over for the first time to the Black Box theater today where we will perform this thing in April. Such a history: once an underground shower room for the gym upstairs (now the real theater), part of the “Women’s Union” built in 1939—yes, separate and unequal, natch—but now the quirkiest, most beloved stage in Runnals, the Theater building until the new one goes up in a year or two. 


Soho. 1959. Praise or alarm? Michael is hard to read. A crypt, I think again, love calling it that, even more than his wily definition.


February into March


—I keep thinking back to my initial tactic, first week, which seemed reasonable. We read the book aloud, my Bestiary Dark, all of us taking turns, poem after poem, straight through toward the most practical question: WHAT WILL WORK ON STAGE? No pointing to “Gee, I like this part”—no sucking up. No English Major blah blah, I said, no holding forth on “meaning” though they’d be good with that, good at rounding up and leveling out, straight into theory. Good students, all. But more’s required here. New habits. 


We’re underscoring the imagery straight, I tell them. The parts that stick, i.e.: can you SEE it? Bits to be acted out on stage? Come on. Let’s talk. Imagine what might happen is happening. 


The killer caution inside me: how to keep my mitts off of it, 


off of it 

off of it— 


It, a definition: a remaking of what I made, into something beyond my recognition. 


Which is to say, who cares that I wrote these poems, drew them painfully, weirdly out of the Bardo, that Buddhist pause between life and death? No, this will be their play. These twelve students. Me, worried bystander, aider and abettor, the roadie, table and chair setter-upper, reluctant believer—but a believer nonetheless—that anything’s possible. Sure.


—It’s getting scary fast. Therefore John Keats. (Isn’t it always Therefore John Keats?) I brought him in today to join us. His “negative capability” thing, a lodestar—


accept uncertainties, mysteries, doubt, without any irritable reaching after fact and reasons. 


Over and over, our mantra. Or is Keats merely cold comfort? Clearly 1821 NOT a fun year—but what stunning poems came out of him, TB or no TB. 


No one mentions it much but all around us, the Covid. The. Like my grandmother, born 1883, used to call The Shingles. As if a herd of wild horses coming at us, a sharp horde of murmuring bees just under what’s audible. The College shuts down to strangers, tests us for the virus three times a week. They call right away if you’re toxic. I keep alert; my handheld might ring with bad news any minute.




(This “devising,” a mode of inquiry, a method, the word from Middle English—“prescribed treatment,” out of the Latin methodus or the Greek methodos, from meta- “among, with, after” + hodos meaning “way.” First use: 15th century.) Note that “with” and that “among. . . .”


—Class meetings at times euphoric in spite of our blundering and blurring. ”Devising Theater,” this working as a group, making/remaking. The HOW of it mystifies, seems lucky, wildly uncertain, pretty much random and way too multiple. But doesn’t a poem come like that, too, out of one person’s many layers? Many minds in us clamor at once. The bored-to-death one in our heads, the upset/pissed-off one, the wronged or joyous one, the one asleep at the wheel, the connecter of dots, the one who rehabs over days and weeks or months, the hive that runs things, the flock in us, the grove of trees whose roots talk to each other, warn against the terrible buzzing saws, humankind—disaster—coming closer in big noisy trucks. Now this we working together in a classroom are that hive, that flock, that grove. 


How I amuse—maybe stupor myself—with these analogies. I blurt this out to the students who look back: what ARE you talking about? How many minds now in the many us-of-us, I wonder, in our ONE mind brought together for this crazy-ass project. We need sealing wax and glue.


—This morning I offered them the essay by enduring poet Ellen Bryant Voigt—“A Moment’s Thought”—about how Elizabeth Bishop drew from the many minds in her mind to cull and winnow a shape for her exquisite not-quite-villanelle, her wry, heartrending “One Art” unfolding from its famous first line, on repeat, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master . . .” Really, how many brilliances—definitely plural—in there? The villanelle’s addiction full force is its tireless repetition. It will run you ragged. 


In her draft’s margin her sometime unreadable cursive, her dogged initial stabs at a first line. The thing to do is to begin by ‘mislaying’ . . . Is she just prose-talking herself into it? As for the title, one earlier (or later?) reads like someone trying to find a topic sentence—“The Art of Losing Things” then “The Gift of Losing Things?” ending with that question mark, surely poking around. But finally it’s “One Art”—bingo. 


I tell these writers/actors that Bishop’s draft—plus its sprawl of voices scribbled at the margin—shows process, aspects in the self at odds, Bishop’s famous “mind in motion,” what Voigt calls in this case the “bossy logical” up against the “ethical.” Or “the adolescent . . . talking back and acting out.” Then the ache of the “sentimental.” Finally this counterpointing merges all “assertions and contradictions” into what could be/should be/surely IS Bishop’s finest poem. Voigt’s analogy is colony, the ants’ meticulous, ancient unity. It’s the colony in us that whispers or roars. That repairs and laments. That does the deed. Our making here, in this class, makes us a colony too. Noted: The colony will meet in Runnals Hall at 9:30, Tuesdays and Thursdays all winter into spring.


—I brought in another model today. The Doors’ keyboard guy, the late Ray Manzarek (his 1998 Terry Gross/NPR’s Fresh Air interview), where he unraveled the actual making of “Light My Fire,” a collaborative effort of those (it turns out) very trained musicians coming out of various traditions. Ray tells us their backgrounds in jazz guitar, flamenco, Latin, blues, hard rock, classical (his own lovely, surprising “turn-around” on keyboard off Bach’s “Circle of Fifths”), Morrison’s drug-soaked impersonation of the end-of-time. (Go to, I told them, to unglue and rivet yourself whenever you want.) My students, unborn, still in the clouds somewhere when this interview took place. I play it off the web for them. Mystified or bored or transfixed? How to read their faces? 


Come on, we know this song! they insisted as I tried to introduce. But now they’re inside it. How cool is that? It’s actually being made again, right there, Runnals Hall, Manzarek as excited on the air as the day the song came bit by bit into being, noodling around on the keyboard to show the communal build, its exact moves. It’s a most lovely Ray against the 70s memories I have of those Doors, scary as hell, their deliberate fuck you stance. He’s thrilled to be spilling the workaday secrets to Terry Gross. A regular soccer dad, upbeat, all Gosh and Gee and Robbie Krieger what a genius he is, just the greatest guy! Which is sweet. And funny. And stopped me, standing stock-still in my kitchen, then 48 years old, hearing that late 20th century interview running for real, and utterly—well—enchanted. . . . Those guys were human, after all!




—One of the first ideas, a kickstart assignment I feared might die on impact, i.e.: write as whatever animal in the poems (Roo, Emu, Wombat, Pelican, Platypus, Koala—research your favorite). Then write us a monologue that begins I have a bone to pick with you Humans. Because isn’t climate change political? There’s extinction hanging in the balance. Drought and fire. Three billion animals (plus!) burned alive or their habitats destroyed by thousands of fires all over Australia, 2019. 


They write engaging things, reading them aloud. The “bones to pick” multiply. Their take all outrage, even a wildlife uprising to retaliate. What comes is also comic—is that more suited to narrative than the timeless, earnest-as-hell lyric impulse? 


The dialogues start, that serious/comic mix in there. Today’s case in point— 


A bored (or just sleepy?) low-key Koala, in fact a creature awake only one hour out of 24, wanting only to eat eucalyptus leaves, studiously ignoring an Emu insisting on an animal federation against the greedy humans. This Koala’s physical comedy, examining every leaf before each nibble, her occasional wry, disinterested eye cast toward the pleading Emu. A sudden human charm and passion and whimsy. And real edge though truly funny at times. Those of us watching go from laughter to amazement to gulp, to yeah-let’s-make-it-like-that! 


So it is. Vignette by vignette, the doing they do. Their play. I mean, they’re playing, for god’s sake. PLAYING! Something’s come loose. How great. 


A confession: I could stay here forever, moved by delight and sober realizations by turns, surprised when the final monologue/dialogue in each class session ends. Unhappy that they do end. I snap-to out of the waking dreams they make: No more? What?! What time is it? Is class really over? But sweet time machine of now: days and days, more of this ahead.




—Bloodline and gene pool alert: 5th century BCE, out of poetry’s polar opposite comes theater. Out of the most private of literary shapes, a public display. Or is poetry at heart the ancient Greeks’ cutting stone for the first stage, named for Dionysus, high on a hill in Athens? The first readings, my husband tells me tonight, probably outdoor recitations of the Iliad. Okay. Matter and anti-matter—poetry and drama, lyric and narrative, out of time and right in the double-sighted, Janus-faced human middle of it. 


Have poems always been mere seed?




—Habit makes for prediction, a kind of hope. Or so I hope. All will be well is my mantra now. Under that, my worry and my question. Does this in-your-face public thing erase poetry’s deep interiority? Will we lose that? Or the reverse: that voice in my ear—is it in every ear? 


The semester keeps on with its chance of glorious failure pinned like the tail on a donkey at some deranged birthday party. I mean, what to do next? My syllabus, We Learn by Doing: Poetry into Theater, said so. I should have added—full stop—Really? I’m perfecting the shrug, just in case. At least to say, “Well, it was a great learning experience.” Classic reason-to-be when all else goes dark.


—What I am learning: these theater people have nerves of steel. And I do not. Or they’re Kevlar, those nerves, out of which body armor is made for blood-soaked battlefields. We don’t have much time. Never enough time to make plays, these tough and delicate structures, I’m told. “Trust the process”—my colleagues in theater keep chanting in my ear-o-anxiety. The process? Trust it? But what IS the process? Their wishful thinking hits like a big fat cliché and I get more hopeless. Still, William Gass wrote somewhere: clichés are the only friends we really know. And I desperately need friends.


—A famous exchange keeps at me. Hardy to Laurel: This was YOUR big idea! Except that I am, by turns, both Laurel and Hardy. OMG. It seems, seemed a good idea, the long established “Devising Theater” method where it’s the actors who write the play via grit and consensus, the bicycle big enough, in our case, for twelve. I think of the Wright brothers on their windswept beach, re-engineering bicycle parts for actual flight. Now that’s wishful thinking.


—Today I remember again how certain birds flock, then those bees that gather and crowd. And termites building their massive palaces out of endless spit in the Australian outback. Again, how they do it, the many turned one, the mindful mindlessness into a single brain—enough for species survival over thousands of years. Why not the likes of us? Just for a semester—if only to make a more or less engaging hour for others to see. 


This for sure: heartbreak and shock at stake. Climate change, extinction, look out—we’re next . . . These young actors/writers get that. They feel for the creatures. Thank god they want some spine in there.




—Only one person among these twelve has written for the stage. Three or four, serious fiction and fewer than that, poetry. Acting?—three hardy veterans of a few plays, the generous one who volunteered to do the lights, and the wry, steady one who had been a “theater kid,” and the theater minor who knows her stuff. Then there’s my own long-ago in Taiwan once directing The Matchmaker, my feeble English attempt, my husband running a parallel version in Chinese. Did it kill us? Oh yeah, it did. I remember now. But what a rush. A miracle that we lived through it.


—Practice. Practice. Practice. We need more ammo, I tell the class. We need practice knocking out vignettes and performing them. Plus more research. Remember that animal you chose from Bestiary Dark, diving into life habits, each creature’s “natural history”? Now find where they stand in the Indigenous Dreamtime stories, the oldest origin narratives in the world, baseline of the oldest culture. The very thing we must honor. 


So far, they’ve taken one early exchange from Bestiary Dark, lines I didn’t invent but simply recorded, an actual real conversation back in Canberra in the early days of my Fulbright. Behold: know-it-all white ignorance/meet aboriginal wisdom/equals get-a-grip.


I understand, I said to the Indigenous Elder.

No you don’t, he said.


—For weeks now, their wild, often funny, wounded monologues and dialogues ebb and flow.




—What next? How to move on? A desperate act, my questionnaire went out on Tuesday: Sure, we LOVE talking about this “project” but which animals/humans from the poems to invite into script? Possibly a few embodied abstractions on stage too, the way medieval playwrights did it—say, Doom or Greed, even Hope walking around, holding forth. Or Fire as a character, weird and spooky. 


My key question for them: what parts would you NEVER want to play in a million years? And those you would? First choice, second choice. . . . 


Thursday: now we know WHAT EVERYONE IS! And who will write and act each part. 


The Archangel = Ellery Kenyon. ’22. 

The Archivist = Samantha Chilton ’25. 

Fire = Kayla Murphy (Borah) ’22. 

The Roadkill Emu = Irfan C. ’22. 

Pliny the Elder = Houston Newsome ’22. 

Wombat Twin One = Paula Dauphinais ’25. 

Wombat Twin Two = Leah Montello ’22. 

The Kangaroo = Daniel Hormigo (grad assistant) 

The One-Winged Pelican = Harry Kassen ’23. 

The Koala = Anna Danielski ’23. 

The Bowerbird = Lindsey Merolla ’22. 

The Platypus = Claire Gussler ’23.




—Oh but the script, we need a damn script. Ugghhh! Note to self: Robert Hass’s phrase “the shape of its understanding” that I’ve always loved, to describe form working itself out in a poem. Why not a play? I need to tell them that.


—I’m desperate. Nothing for it but to get visual. Two days ago I asked them to draw their ideas most literally, maps of possible overall architecture and movement for this thing. So they turned up today with images on paper or screens—elaborate sketches of scenes and circumstance in whatever order. They explained, argued, gave up when the pushback made too much sense. 


Example: our inventive Pliny, his elaborate highly lyric blueprint that moved from “Droughts/desolation” to “Fires” to “Rescue Centre” came with an instruction: “Continuous Cycle: pick your starting point.” Many nods from the “meta” fans around our big table. How cool. Yes! 


But options narrowed to a more breadcrumb-after-breadcrumb design: a clear start, clear middle, clear finish. It appears people love stories—they love TIME and how it moves no matter how fragmented: grounding! rising action! falling action! OMG—plot! Vignettes linked, going forward; repeated imagery set like stones to cross dangerous water. Is this why a beloved piece of music stays in the mind, all that double-down insistence and release? BUT YOU GET SOMEWHERE. A world via cause and effect with surprise now and then to break the spell. (And which to love more? The spell or how it shatters, gives way, disrupts, deepens? My god, don’t say both, I tell myself; don’t weasel out of it again.)


—The plan starts to gel by omission:


Gone! the all-creature chorus singing to jump-start it all.

Gone! Our Pliny’s scheme to begin wherever you wish.

Gone! The Wombat trio (reduced to twins, but we got a sweet kangaroo in the deal). Etc, etc. . . . 


—We go on and some bits are sticking. Our Bowerbird, that famous feathered suitor, offers funny, specific advice on getting-the-girl, DIY instruction for the infamous bower, a love shack built to lure a mate with all-things blue—bottle caps, pens, various whatnots from human trash in cobalt or indigo picked off the ground, literally a massive messy chick-magnet pile on stage now. People love this one. It will go in. And teach the real fact of the Bowerbird’s obsessive nature. Then this exchange this morning between the twin Wombats while lugging stones and dirt to rebuild their flooded burrow on shore.


WOMBAT 1: Ugggh! Being a wombat is the worst thing ever!

WOMBAT 2: Woah! What’s got you in a foul mood?

WOMBAT 1: This work—this work is what’s got me in a “foul mood”! We keep rebuilding just—and for what?—for our burrows to be destroyed again?!

WOMBAT 2: Could be worse you know . . . 

WOMBAT 1: How so?

WOMBAT 2: At least we aren’t humans. 


Outright dreaming too, also coming from accurate research of these creatures’ lives. Our dear Koala, huddled up high in her tree:


I had another dream about this tree. I said to everyone: This tree gives me all the water I want! A lyre-bird heard that. He was jealous. He wanted my water. He wanted to know where my water came from. Maybe the tree was hollow, he thought. That would make sense. He’d NEVER imagine it all came through the eucalyptus leaves! 


Which is to say, the vignettes! Taking on a life of their own. . . . 


—Again though, hard, hard, hard, this figuring out an overview, a larger design. Add to that the great peril of consensus. We’re good at theories, setting out parameters, defining from scratch, urgently talking to death what could be possible. COULD, but no cigar. Meanwhile, the script, the script! 


Can we just get on with this, please? says FIRE, throwing up her hands as the pure flame she is. 


Good point, I say.


—In conference the endearing Kangaroo says to me, “I like this class because when I walk in here, I never know what will happen!” 

“Me too,” I blurt from the same boat, lost in the waves. 


Still, all this talk-talk—“about the about” as Heather McHugh wrote in a poem—is crucial to how we inch along via this “Devising Theater” method. Another thorny point: what to call this play, clearly so many worlds apart from my Bestiary Dark? I notice our Bowerbird madly at work on her iPad at the big table we share. No one asked her but she suddenly turns her device outward and breaks our urgent ongoing discussion: hey, how about this for our poster? Poster? What? 


OMG. Perfect! So wise-guy beautiful, and how we actually work, the haggling involved in making something together, this brain-warping, most annoying, shared process. 


There, on the spot, on the poster itself, our messy, aggravating, finally (we hope) rewarding collaborative approach to everything. Plus her images—a furry threatening paw, a big lick of flame in the corner. Equals good job, we say the way the Australians do, lovely! brilliant!



March into April


—We finally descend to that legendary space, into the Black Box, our rehearsal-unto-performance site now and forever, down from the airy sun-splashed, big-windowed classroom where we worked for weeks, pulling this script from the ether. 


I slip out of my jacket, spread it out mid-stage for the Roadkill Emu to lie on, he being the heart, the moral center of the play—also my poems in fact. Around his spot, center stage, the other actors will speak and move, careful NOT to step on him. 


The Emu is standing, staring at me, at the Kangaroo, at our FIRE, the twin Wombats, the Platypus, the Bowerbird, the Archangel, Pliny the Elder, the one-winged Pelican, the Archivist, the Koala who all look back, not a word. 


My jacket on that grotty floor. 


Then this shy pre-med Senior gamely lies down to be the dead Emu who will—must—nevertheless sit up repeatedly to speak truth to power though we all know power does not listen.


—A major perk of the whole business. I’m learning it again, watching THEM find it—the power of image. Poetry’s slip knot, its matter-of-fact deep happenstance. How much patience is required is flooding back to me. The step-by-step quiet and surprise even (maybe especially) from the seemingly clichéd and obvious, for instance, fire characterized by “the red flower” in an early monologue. My interior groan. But the class LOVED IT, that image, that metaphor. It’s worming its way into other vignettes, morphing to an honest-to-god trope that repeats to welcome order, to give meaning. But it’s great, it is. I finally see that. So Mea culpa to my knee-jerk stupid bias. . . . 


Fact: I’m watching story getting made and deepening—the way human history does it, strategy set to work over time by the many, the why and why-not à la this sometimes cranky, mostly amazing group of writer/actors. Spotty, inch by inch, however confusing. “Only trouble is interesting” famously wrote novelist Janet Burroway. Narrative—giving body to the standstill, timeless lyric—unfolds and can’t help keeping on, no matter what. 


What beautiful red flowers, says the Kangaroo to the Wombat twins at a key moment. 


That’s fire, you idiots! roars out the cantankerous, spot-on Pelican, who just happens to overhear.




—Today it may be coming together. We heard/saw the start of it, first shot. Here, the very cheeky Archangel (cheeky in my poems, cheeky in the script) takes us straight into the fray, first scene of maybe a play, after all. 


You know what always struck me about the Australian bush? The color!


Then her—


Oh this look? It’s just the form I take to not frighten you fragile humans. Really I have like a thousand eyes and eight wings and am the personification of god’s burning light. . . . Like heaven, like hell. The red of the fire even. That red and orange and blue raging across a continent. . . . According to the indigenous people’s stories, the cockatoo, like all the birds, got its colors from flying through a rainbow, but the cockatoo flew too high and as it passed through the clouds they wiped all color from it, except for the lightest hints of yellow. I think the sun must have kissed its head in greeting when they met that day . . .


I could be a cockatoo! I would kiss the sun back! 


Thus the Archangel just set us on course. How to evolve. How to become what we’re not. Still snarky, but this refugee from the angelic orders goes into full—howbeit whimsical—rebellion, trading her white ball cap worn backwards as a sort of halo for a bright yellow one, insisting to the Archivist (our quasi-narrator, our guide through all madness) that she, the former Archangel, is NOW, by god, a sulfur-crested cockatoo! Take that, you know-it-all Archivist. 


Poor thing, the Archivist says twice. Because It’s a hat, It’s a hat! she intones back flatly, clear-eyed and unconvinced by each of the Archangel’s redefining, infuriating claims. 


Hilarious. And done in the razor-sharp raucous timing of that vaudeville bit, Who’s on First? I remember hearing tapes of old radio shows, lost world of my grandparents.





—Early on, the class did agree: comedy as well as tragedy, a crucial balance underscoring theater back to ancient Greece. A degree of sweetness AND snark. It’s William Blake all over again: without contraries there is no progression. And—take another gulp here—meaning by-way-of our fear for—and on behalf of—the creatures. (Never to get pedantic though. No No No. . . . They held that caution high, like a flag. No beat-to-death righteousness allowed.)


—I’m thinking of examples tonight of that tricky tonal balance. A story in the poems rewritten in the script by George, our one-winged Pelican. He’s confused in my rendering too by the ducks-gone-berserk that murdered his life mate, Mildred, because (fact) wasn’t he involved too?—or so the Rangers told me in real time back in Australia. In the script, George turns pushy, self-absorbed, suspicious, enraged, the Pelican matched by his now-antagonist, the young Platypus, who’s a bit of a brat here, who has written herself way past the sweet state-of-mind I gave that wondrous creature.


PLATYPUS: So in the heat of it all, how do you know it was the ducks who killed poor sweet Mildred, and not you? If you didn’t know up from down, left from right. Sounds like some pretty major blitzkrieg to me.

GEORGE: How dare you suggest such a thing, or even speak her name? You know nothing . . . nothing!

PLATYPUS: That ranger Kaz may sympathize with you, but your moping and moaning can’t fool me. You think yourself superior. You think yourself human.

GEORGE: If Kaz were here, you wouldn’t venture near enough to touch me, let alone be brave enough to taunt me with insults and blasphemous lies. I loved my Mildred. Kaz knew it. Mildred understood me. She saw me for who I truly am, more than just a bird. More than a one-winged—bird.

PLATYPUS: So you want to speak of understanding? Of being seen? No one understands me but you would NEVER catch me moping like you. Cry me a river, George. I’m a hybrid born of a foolish duck and a pushy river rat. I lay eggs for god’s sake. I’m a mammal who lays eggs, George. That’s not normal. That’s not understandable.

GEORGE: I just wouldn’t quite call that tragedy.

PLATYPUS: Blah blah blah—your problems! 


Their grafting of various tones and playful smarts into sobering complications of story. But the secret life in there somewhere, the poetry. . . . 





—The larger structure begins to settle in, early April. But the ending. How to find that? By last weekend, there WAS a plan to finish off with a museum, the animals staring into various glass cages, savagely critiquing the Humans inside who keep doing their ordinary sleeping, eating, even planning to attend some stupid play called “The Outback Chronicles.” Ha! 


Hey, and how about this, the second Wombat twin suggested: I could step up and break the fourth wall and insult the real audience too! What do you think? she asks everyone. Everyone, a YES!


—Is all joy so short-lived? For it’s Tuesday now, a long weekend to reconsider. That ending got bashed to smithereens as too corny and predictable, though a thread—the fourth wall breaking—let’s keep that, the first twin wombat said. 


But it’s not just the Roadkill Emu speaking from the afterlife anymore, sitting up from center stage, willing his truth-to-power. Now all the creatures have plenty to say, back from dying via fire, the real fate of so many in Australia. The script, at this point: everyone ad-lib-arguing on stage, the Bowerbird madly writing it down as they invent on the spot but she wisely adds and subtracts. And the Archangel long ago taking over the directing, as I hoped, as this “Devising Theater” method dictates. 


The feel of it, alive and gulp-worthy, tragic but comic too, the second Wombat breaking that fourth wall after all as she projects her climate rage, pointing out the idiot wardrobe choices—baseball caps, funny shoes—of those humans in the audience we envision. “And look!” she proclaims as only a deeply endangered Wombat can, “a white male!” Much hilarity at that. And of course, a pause under it, like blood spilled under the skin makes a bruise. 


That gulp once more: a meaning more alarming than we dreamed. 


So the inevitable laughter turns up again, making tragedy stick. Not surprising, what we agreed in theory from the start keeps hitting home: a tragic/comic mix in the right now and look at me of theater. Outside AND inside. If the comic IS serious then the serious IS comic. (Thank you, James Tate, beloved teacher decades ago . . .)


—Still so much talk talk about the damn ending! Arguments galore which only tell me how closure doesn’t truly close but keeps going, be it poem or play, a planetary future at stake. So many want a real fire in the Black Box—well, the suggestion of one, à la a fire alarm that will in fact bring trucks from the station, guys rushing down the stairs with axes and thick gloves. Oh god. They want that. But I promise them: I will check on this. 


You kidding? Acting Head of Theater and Dance Marjorie Gallant says, her eyebrows shooting straight up. The Waterville Fire Department rushing in here? The upshot? Big bucks for such foolery. And—Sorry, no way, says the good John Ewin, Department consultant for All-Things-Tech. Ah, but we have a computer board (read cornucopia) of sound-alikes, Marjorie tells me, as usual so helpful. 


Including a fire alarm to deafen us? I ask. 


Anyway, a real fire here? Who would buy that? asks the most reasonable Kangaroo. Those who love the idea of faking it stare back: Since when is disbelief a reason in theater not to do something? What exactly are we talking about here, poetry? 


All the while FIRE, throwing around her tiny tea lights on the darkened stage, offers this part of her stunning soliloquy, for complexity’s sake—


Humans, in their arrogance, think they understand me. They see me as a brute that destroys whatever they touch. But I have a heart. A pulsing energy of heat, fuel, and oxygen. Once humans called me a miracle. . . . 


It’s thrilling, and visually thrilling. A lyric touch. Small bright explosions all over the place bringing the dangerous narrative to life and a brief burning, if not resolution, not yet. 


But the flames will come, however imagined—it’s decided—as on stage the creatures will keep talking, louder, more and more outraged, all back from the dead to haunt forever, pointing their fingers at the audience. In this moment and into whatever is our fate. 


Finally, though, everyone—actors and audience—will flee up two sets of stairs to the lobby, some of the latter not quite knowing what’s really true. That’s something else that rings true, I realize: Finis. 





Now this vivid newly made backdrop: big time spring, 2022. Flowers everywhere and we’re still masked as bandits. The Kennebec River has mainly lost its ice and stillness. The old Hathaway Shirt factory, before that for a century a cotton mill, our wonderful apartment rehabbed out of that place—huge windows, ceilings high enough for massive looms. I look down to the river, writing this. 


At night my husband hears them, the child workers a century and a half ago. Sweet wounded spirits still at those looms, weaving whatever life after death.





—In the end, the not-so-breaking news: we did survive, we did. It was a hit, kind of. At least to us, and maybe the audience. To what end exactly? First, how little things loom large. 


The Archangel, at the curtain call and its Q & A, paused, thinking through someone’s blurted question, Was it hard? 


Hard? she said at last. God, YES, it was hard. I wrote at least 30 pages I threw away! 


I have to say I loved that.




—Thoughts vanish but will not leave. The initial question—private into public, lyric into dramatic, narrative set squarely in human time—and not poetry’s outside-of-it. DOES THAT WORK? The communal life vs. the individual alone within. Is it possible to navigate the river between them? Maybe a dumb question to begin. I’m still not sure. Who cares? It’s the doing that opens and compels. 


It was hard; the Archangel was spot-on. Not to give in but give way, to think a larger “we” made something. In the process, letting others claim their light and dark too. 


It was the sacrifice I feared but that didn’t matter much to the poems, whatever they turn out to be. They’re alive where they are, however solitary, in a book maybe someone will pick up. After the fact—it’s funny—I see a few of my phrases from the poems do turn up in the script, sprinkled there disembodied, little spasms, tiny lead weights those who fish tie onto their lines and cast far out, through the lake air. 


True, what I wrote earlier got made at great cost and time on the wheel, five months in Australia, much longer when later, poems emerged spooked and unnerved. I listened closely, I revised, I went crazy as they revealed themselves to me. 


Goodbye. Goodbye.


—Was it generational, the changes made to my poems by those formed completely by the 21st century? Random, lucky, a fusing of twelve very unlike minds at a certain time, in a certain place, one particular winter and spring in the northeast corner of a vast country? I do understand that the terrible world those writer/actors see appears more hopeful than mine, more multiple, dark—but playfully dark? For good reasons more hybrid, so-many-things-at-once. I should be used to it though, a confusion that works. I mean the Platypus: its mammal fur and duckbill, laying eggs like a bird, nocturnal but when young sent out into the dangerous mid-afternoon to dive and graze, water and land burrowing, the creature I most hoped to observe and write of, the reason I went to Australia in the first place. 


“In the first place”: hard to figure what that means now.


—We were given an occasion—isn’t that what a classroom finally is? What a play becomes? A poem? The point is to be haunted. We got that right.


—Meanwhile, our virus count, by the end: four down, eight spared. First, our brilliant Archangel hit with Covid: Recovered in time. Then three beloveds, one back to perform, two sadly not. (And one of those two also down with appendicitis the morning of the show. Misery squared.) 


That’s showbiz, I guess, in the age of Covid. And poetry’s trap door anytime, the one we’re always falling through.




—Back home, Maple Street, Indiana for a while now, I’ve been grateful for the quiet, at peace in my cave, its stalactites and stalagmites, writing poems again. And struck—stuck really—as usual in the how vs. why of such things.


—In Maine, I read Michael Burke’s remarkable memoir The Same River Twice about his dangerous time running rivers in Alaska’s stunning, formidable landscape. But why did my colleague at times feel such despair? It got me though, his—


I knew the answer: it takes a large soul to handle wilderness, and my soul isn’t large enough at first to match the grand things I am surrounded by. My soul is shriveled by ordinary life, and until it enlarges I can’t deal with what I find in front of me. It never gets very large, only large enough to accept wild places. 


Our stage, yes, was such a place. Fearfully wild in that Black Box through those three months of undone and doing. Still, by the end, all of us upright and intact. And Spring! 


There’s this, though: would that my soul were big and welcoming enough to sort it fully. To will that our beleaguered planet survives, that the narrative-loving lyric in us isn’t simply imagining it might.




All term I began each class with a completely unrelated poem from this century or last if only to remind us why we are in this world, and to widen their reach into poetry. One of us would read it aloud; we’d take about six minutes to say what struck us. The images! That was it. No lit crit. Just hit and run. Then back to our adventure at hand. 


I chose favorites, poems by Charles Simic, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, James Tate, Yusef Komunyakaa, Li-Young Lee, Sylvia Plath, Lucia Perillo, Weldon Kees, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, many others. Our last day, out of the crypt and back upstairs in our light-filled classroom, I brought in a piece that meant everything to me at their age, “I Would Like to Describe” by Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, which begins


I would like to describe the simplest emotion

joy or sadness

but not as others do

reaching for shafts of rain or sun. . . .


Then, down poem—


And just to say I love

I run around like mad

picking up handfuls of birds . . .


And isn’t this exactly what it means to be in your late teens and early twenties? Love and want. I had almost forgotten. Such richness in that poem where the secret life begins. 


Because a new silence took root, grew, shook that otherwise talkative room. At last, the Archangel said it: This the best one you’ve given us. 


For my part, Herbert’s


. . . so is blurred

so is blurred

in me

what white-haired gentlemen

separated once and for all

and said

this is the subject

and this is the object . . .


are lines I’ll never shake.





Found In Volume 53, No. 01
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Marianne Boruch
About the Author

Marianne Boruch's eleventh poetry collection, Bestiary Dark (Copper Canyon, 2021) was triggered by her 2019 Fulbright research scholarship in Australia at the University of Canberra's International Poetry Studies Institute. Her fourth essay collection, Sing the Burying Ground, is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.