April 25, 2013

The power of words

Son #3, front row, just to the left of the mike.  A truly outstanding and talented group of young men and women.

It seems fitting to post about my son again today--his play The Madwoman of Chaillot opened last night, and on Saturday my family will gather to watch his final performance on stage at college.  We have enjoyed so many finely crafted performances over the last five years, and I'm sure this production will be no exception.  I may sound like a 'mom' but he is an amazing actor and I love watching him on stage, bringing life and meaning and spirit to what started as just words on a page.  But before he set off for college, I 'knew him when'--the night he turned in a performance of a lifetime with a poem that moved everyone in the audience.

The morning after his performance we were heading out of the hotel when the father of the Minnesota representative (who I swear, looked EXACTLY like Doogie Howser!) stopped my son in the hallway and proceeded to tell him that he had come with his son to the competition, not really knowing what to expect.  An attorney, he confided he had never had much time or patience for poetry.  But, after hearing my son recite his poem he was anxious to go home and attempt to experience for himself a little of the magic and mystery of poetry--that my son's powerful recitation and the poignant story of the poem had touched him in a way he never dreamed possible.

And that, my friends, is what a fine actor does.  He takes the words of another and carefully transposes them into something so real, so vital that time stops and you are alive in the moment.  Nothing else exists but the actor, the words and the reality he creates for you. So here is the heartbreaking poem that left me, and the rest of the room, awed and for a second, struck with silence-- James Dickey's The Lifeguard.

The Lifeguard

In a stable of boats I lie still,
From all sleeping children hidden.   
The leap of a fish from its shadow   
Makes the whole lake instantly tremble.   
With my foot on the water, I feel   
The moon outside

Take on the utmost of its power.
I rise and go out through the boats.   
I set my broad sole upon silver,
On the skin of the sky, on the moonlight,   
Stepping outward from earth onto water   
In quest of the miracle

This village of children believed   
That I could perform as I dived
For one who had sunk from my sight.   
I saw his cropped haircut go under.   
I leapt, and my steep body flashed   
Once, in the sun.

Dark drew all the light from my eyes.   
Like a man who explores his death
By the pull of his slow-moving shoulders,   
I hung head down in the cold,
Wide-eyed, contained, and alone
Among the weeds,

And my fingertips turned into stone   
From clutching immovable blackness.   
Time after time I leapt upward
Exploding in breath, and fell back   
From the change in the children’s faces   
At my defeat. 
Beneath them I swam to the boathouse   
With only my life in my arms
To wait for the lake to shine back
At the risen moon with such power   
That my steps on the light of the ripples   
Might be sustained.

Beneath me is nothing but brightness   
Like the ghost of a snowfield in summer.   
As I move toward the center of the lake,   
Which is also the center of the moon,   
I am thinking of how I may be
The savior of one

Who has already died in my care.   
The dark trees fade from around me.   
The moon’s dust hovers together.   
I call softly out, and the child’s
Voice answers through blinding water.   
Patiently, slowly,

He rises, dilating to break
The surface of stone with his forehead.   
He is one I do not remember
Having ever seen in his life.
The ground I stand on is trembling   
Upon his smile.

I wash the black mud from my hands.   
On a light given off by the grave   
I kneel in the quick of the moon   
At the heart of a distant forest   
And hold in my arms a child   
Of water, water, water.

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