As a child he knelt down to pray
He knelt down to puke
The results were roughly the same
As a child he knelt down to pray
He knelt down to puke
The results were roughly the same
There’s a feeling you get in Grizzly country when you’re passing too close to what looks like a perfect location for a bear’s day bed. Maybe a thicket of huckleberries, maybe an island grove of cottonwood with plenty of downed limbs and new undergrowth. But whatever it is, you stop in your tracks. Silent alarms are triggered, your hackles rise to attention, you forget to breathe.
That’s how it feels to come to the end of Doug Peacock’s latest book, In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene. The challenge he presents, vividly and unapologetically, of just how to respond to the effects of our long and brutal war against our own climate commands our focus and demands a decision.
Peacock’s writings, in one way or another, always elicit such a response. The difference is, in his earlier books, Grizzly Years and Walking It Off, the alarm is vicarious. One reacts to his harrowing experiences in Vietnam and close-calls with charging bears, or to his memories of walking the fine line between life and death in a southwestern desert or Himalayan snowfield. In this new book, the danger is not in his past, rather it’s in our collective future. And it’s a future so looming and imminent, that if we are to survive at all, we had better accept the idea that it is our present.
In the Shadow of the Sabertooth lays out the story of the great adventure of the first Americans in a visceral way that only a true American adventurer could. But more than that, it gives us the profound and desperately needed hope that we, today, can learn from our ancestors. That we can choose to preserve the one thing that can possibly sustain us through this current upheaval: wilderness, that primordial memory of our evolutionary success that Thoreau rightly addressed when he wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” And finally, that we can heed the threat of the sabertooth lurking in the shadows, and once again rise to the challenge.
I’ve been working on a book that digs up my old tales of being on the road, and as a consequence, I started listed tips for hitching rides that I’ve learned over the years. Here’s what I have so far:
Having work published online still feels very strange to me. The poems flash like a blip on a radar screen, then disappear into the dark ocean of too much information flooding our brains, eyeballs and computer screens. However, the poems are still out there, floating in minuscule life rafts, surviving on emergency rations and albatross meat. Here’s a map to the coordinates of some of mine that haven’t sunk yet. Give them a visit, they must be lonely.
Fragile Arts Quarterly
(Okay, this search surprised me by just how many have sunk. It used to be a much longer list. If you come across any others, let me know. Thanks.)
For the past several years, I’ve written a poem on my birthday that serves as sort of a barometer of my state of mind-soul, a winter count in spring. I just finished this year’s poem, composed while freezing my ass off in my tent up in Yellowstone Park. Before I post it, I figured I should post all the previous ones.
Birthday Poem, 2009
A night filled with dreams of grizzlies
and waking to the sound of redwings
The landscape hushed under a fresh whisper of snow
and the voices of sandhills
lost in cloud
Pancakes kept warm on the wood stove
eggs and bacon, strong black coffee:
Doug’s “Lumberjack Breakfast”
and I eat enough to fell trees all day,
instead huddling w/ a book and a mug
by the fire as the cats make their rounds
and the snow stops
Another dream: my father this time,
no bears, just something left unfinished
Magpies rouse me
so I open a beer move out to the woodshed
split logs till I’m sweating
and the big ax shines with the new flesh of wood
and the air is heavy with pine
and my beer is gone
I have sixteen dollars in the bank and,
in my pocket, enough quarters for one more game
of Eight-Ball at the Owl
but I’m seventy-seven pages into my second novel
and another poem closer to writing the next one.
I have good friends and great family.
I have the mountains and the birds
and the bears and the deer
and the trees and the snow and the sunshine.
I have a good pen
and Brahms and Mingus and Mozart and Blakey
and another cold beer waiting inside
All in all,
I’m the richest man I know
and the only reason that it’s true to say,
“Today is a good day to die”
is because it’s also true
that today is a great day
to be alive.
–Marc Beaudin, April 14, 2009
Birthday Poem, 2010
and every window in the house
sings about the wind
as fragments of strange dreams
scatter for the shadowed corners of the room
Later, Beethoven’s Third
pounds ripples in my bathwater
contending with the wind
losing, thank gods, in the end
If the heights of human-made beauty
ever could best the earth’s power
then the depths of human weakness could too,
and the wind and all its music would cease
But now the Eroica has ended,
leaving a more beautiful silence
which is, of course, the composer’s greatest work
so I dress and step outside
to feel the air of another year
on my face and in my lungs
Juncos and magpies remind me
that we are all creatures of flight,
passing from earth to sky and back again
with every heartbeat and blast of wind and
turn of the seasons which move
with the perfect pitch and tempo
of the symphony of silence
which sustains us all
–Marc Beaudin, 14 April 2010
Birthday Poem, 2011
A night of rain gives way
to a morning of snow
falling reluctantly from hawk-filled skies
with a bad back I hobble,
slower than my grandfather ever did,
out to the barn to feed the horses
and break the pane of ice
that seals the water trough
I don’t pause to see my reflection
I don’t ponder the possible symbolism
I don’t touch or smell or taste the metaphor
offered by windows of ice
revealing the depths of life
I simply stab with my fingertips,
shake off the water and replace my glove
realizing that the last twenty years or so are a blur,
though every memory before that
is as clear as the icicle hanging
from a strand of the mane on the white mare
(the years now
pass faster and faster)
a single magpie
blossoms in an apple tree
a new year begins
–Marc Beaudin; April 14, 2011
Birthday Poem, 2012
Dreams of the Bomb over D.C.
but all we can find on TV are sit-coms
& action movies
A trio of swans at the lagoon
disappointed in me for not thinking
to bring them some bread crumbs
This picnic table says, “I Heart U”
but I don’t believe it
Fresh snow on the Sleeping Giant
glimmers like a new pair of shoes
as shadows are peeled from his face
w/ the plodding round-dance of the sun
This is another of those years
where I can’t quite remember how old I am –
it’s somewhere between 43 and Surrealism
but I don’t feel a day over Armageddon
Two days from now,
at the Boiling River,
an elk and an eagle will leave calling cards for my soul
& I’ll fair slightly well at being a gracious host,
there’s that pawn shop bike
I’d like to buy & ride all over town
to get my blood flowing
-Marc Beaudin, April 14, 2012
“Birthday Poem, 2013″ coming soon …
Learning to Listen
by Marc Beaudin
“Listen to the reed
and how it tells a tale,
complaining of separation”
–from “Mathnawi” by Rumi
by Faruq Z. Bey (1942 – 2012)
With dusk descending on Marcus Garvey Park
suffused w/ the tones and stones of Harlem,
the dreams and deliriums of Harlem,
the history and heresies of Harlem,
I’m surrounded suddenly from within
by your music –
here, though not your Detroit, yet here.
Having heard the news just before boarding a plane,
having heard the news that your sax was in its case, the lid closed and latched,
having heard the news, having heard
The shoulders of buildings rise to meet the song
The play of light off your shape-shifting tenor
dances in the imagined water of the empty pool
I hear something in the yells & laughter of playground children
I hear something in the poetry of evening birds
unseen in every tree
and a million fragmented souls
separated from Source
and the reed calling out
The truth that I squeeze tight in my hand
and thrust into a pocket
is that I’ll never hear you play again –
the vibration emanating directly from your breath,
through your horn and the prismatic air,
to my ear, cradled by a nest of nerves that imitate each wave
The other truth I try, but can’t bury:
Have I yet learned to really listen?
or have I been letting sounds bounce off my surfaces
like a drum head without its resonating tree-body
that takes the sound deep and
tells the story to itself again and again
until, growing beyond the container of self,
echoes into the world?
The wintergreen leaf plucked from beneath a foot of fresh snow
contains every past summer in its flavor.
Tasting is time-travel.
A walk in the woods alone is a meditation.
A walk in the woods with another is a communion.
A walk in the woods with two is a fellowship.
A walk in the woods with three or more is a walk in the woods.
Nighttime Suidie, excerpted from the “Circe” Episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, adapted and directed by Marc Beaudin.
Elk River Books‘ Bloomsday celebration at Livingston Bar & Grille, 2012.
The Seeley Lake Manifesto
A Statement of First Principles in the Art of Theatre
The following is an attempt to elucidate a starting point, or points, for further study, development and discovery in the practice of theatre. It was conceived and mostly written on the back porch of a cabin overlooking Seeley Lake in western Montana, with the accompaniment of calling loons and strong coffee. It is a work in progress.
1. Theatre is the Art of Sharing the Experience of Living Truthfully, in The Moment, within Imaginary Circumstances.
A. Theatre is Art
To state that theatre is art may seem self-evident; yet it is one of the most commonly forgotten truths we encounter. Actors forget it, audiences forget or never knew it, boards of directors and producers have so perfectly forgotten it they cower in fear and loathing at the mention of it.
This is primarily due to the fact that there is something out there very similar to theatre: It uses many of the same techniques and the same language. At times, it is very artistic and once in a while, becomes theatre; yet, it is profoundly different from theatre.
It is different in its goal and its direction. Its goal is to entertain, “to show-off,” to say “Look at me!” Its direction is from the surface, outward to the audience as mere spectator.
Conversely, the goal of theatre, while still highly entertaining (when it chooses/needs to be), is to explore; to challenge and transform. Its direction is inward. Into the psyche, into the emotional truth of being human, into the soul and to the creative, timeless and nameless universe that lies both beyond and within. Further, the audience is more than spectator: the audience is a participant, a fellow-traveler in this exploration.
This other thing that is not theatre, though it is called that, is what fills nearly every stage in America from the grotesque spectacle of Broadway to the most insular, small town, community playhouse. This not-theatre (call it “staged entertainment,” “spectacle,” “play,” what-have-you) can be fun, can be moving and artistic; but it is not art in the same way that pop music may be brilliantly performed, fun to dance to and carry a poignant message in its lyric, but it is not art. Its direction is outward rather than inward.
The confusion of this not-theatre with theatre results in great frustration. Artists involved in it are constantly accused of not catering to the tastes of the audience; of taking too much time with so-called unimportant details like character development, script analysis and “philosophy;” of not being “marketable” enough or “accessible” enough or “practical” enough. In other areas of creative work, we might expect these criticisms to be leveled toward the builder of an office building but never a sculptor, a house-painter but never a painter whose canvasses are meant for gallery walls, rather than drop cloths on the floor. It’s the lack of a definitive border between theatre and not-theatre that causes the problem, rather than a shortcoming of the artist or of the non-artist.
Not-theatre can be great fun, and sometimes it can pay the bills, and sometimes audiences love it; however, the same is true of theatre. So what’s the advantage of not-theatre? Why does it seem so much more popular? The answer is the same as for any such question in America: it’s easier. Easier to do and easier to receive. It places very little demand upon anyone. It is enjoyment without the challenge and risk of change. This is a happy circumstance for anyone asleep and not wanting to be awakened, but it is absolutely intolerable for those who are awake or ready to become so.
Art is, along with wilderness and solitude, among the most effective means for becoming awake. Theatre must reclaim its duty to serve this end, and not settle for less. The not-theatre serves that other function superlatively. It’s been said that all art is revolutionary. This is true. All art carries the potential for transformation, to change who we are and what the world is. This is, and should be, frightening. This is, and should be, dangerous. This is, and should be, vital to human evolution.
B. Sharing the Experience
Art without an audience is therapy. Art in which an audience merely spectates is exhibitionism. What must happen for something to become great art or true art is a sharing of the experience, not between artist and audience, but between Art and audience.
Sometimes years or centuries separate the creation of the art and the sharing, but this is of little consequence (save for the artist who starves and dies unknown). In the fire of creation and inspiration, time is of no matter as long as the sharing eventually takes place. This can happen, and often does, in the non-performing arts: the genius of a painter or writer can go unnoticed for generations. However, in these cases there is often present from the beginning an astute audience of one – the artist.
With many arts, the artist can also be the audience – she can read and be moved by her written poem, he can gaze into and through his painting. But with the performing arts a special situation arises in that the audience must be present at the moment of creation since it only exists momentarily. And because the actor is the medium in which the art is created, he or she cannot be the audience, for at the moment of creation the actor is fully consumed by and drawn into the act of creation. The paint cannot see the painting, the sounds cannot hear the music. The medium may or may not be the message, but it is certainly not the receiver of the message.
Now imagine a painting where the paint disappears the moment it is applied. For that art to exist, the audience must be fully present as the artist dances with his brush. Not just watching, but fully engaged. The painting gains immortality in the memories, imaginations and inspirations of this audience. And, as in all arts, this audience must truly share in the experience of creation, rather than remain a spectator.
A spectator passively “sees” a painting, but doesn’t really “look” at it. A spectator passively “hears” a piece of music, but doesn’t really “listen” to it. Seeing and hearing are automatic functions of the sense organs: if your eyes are open and functioning, you’ll see whatever is before them, but to really look at or listen to something is a conscious, intentional action of the intellect and will.
So in theatre, as well as in dance, the artist becomes the medium and enters into a compact with the audience to have a true experience – to travel together into the unknown, to create a collective art. Otherwise no art occurs.
C. Living Truthfully
Living truthfully in theatre does not mean to limit oneself to realism. Theatre can be as real or as fantastic as one wishes. Living truthfully means that no matter how realistic or super-, un-, or sur-realistic the play is, we believe in the truth of it. Truth can be real or imagined, concrete or abstract. Truth is a much bigger concept than so-called reality.
This is similar to the distinction between “scientific truth” and “poetic truth.” Years ago, a friend described to me how she once danced in the end of a rainbow. As she recounted her experience, her eyes lit up – zoeticly glowing in the prism of that memory. However, science teaches that the position of a rainbow is dependent on its viewer. Since the image is a product of the angle of light refracting and reflecting from drops of water, as the viewer moves the rainbow moves accordingly and as we approach it, it recedes at the same rate. Yet, she did dance in the rainbow’s end.
This is the distinction between scientific truth and poetic truth. And there is no reason to assume that scientific truth is more “true” than poetic truth. In fact, the opposite may indeed be the case. The Russian esoteric philosopher P. D. Ouspensky writes in his Tertium Organum, “The poet understands that the mast of a ship, the gallows, and the cross are made of different wood. He understands the difference between the stone from a church wall and the stone from a prison wall. He hears ‘the voices of the stones,’ understands the whisperings of ancient walls, of tumuli, of mountains, rivers, woods and plains. He hears ‘the voice of the silence,’ understands the psychological difference between silences, knows that one silence can differ from another. And this poetical understanding of the world should be developed, strengthened and fortified, because only by its aid do we come in contact with the true world of reality.”
Ouspensky makes the distinction between the perceived world of reality (“phenomenon”) and the true world of reality (“noumenon”). Kant (and most modern philosophers) would argue with him over the “know-ability” of the noumenon, but for our purposes in theatre, as artists, we must be willing to know and live this truth that waits beyond what the world calls “real.”
We must develop the ability to live the truth of the world of the play and of our characters. We must remove the wall of reason that reduces our work to “make-believe” or “pretend” even though the phenomenon-detecting machine of our brain knows that it is.
D. The Moment
When a child is at play, fully immersed in his imaginary world of dragons or cowboys or astronauts or dinosaurs, he, without work or study or training, is living in The Moment. This is why when his mother calls him in for dinner he doesn’t hear her. It’s not that he’s ignoring her or not “paying attention,” it’s because in The Moment, within that world, mothers and dinners don’t exist.
Monks and yogis spend lifetimes developing the ability to exist within the Moment. Supposedly Bodhidharma cut off his own eyelids to find it (and from them, the first green tea plants sprouted – an image to entertain next time you’re enjoying a cup). But he had it easy: all he had to do while existing in The Moment was stare at a cave wall. We have to remember our lines, blocking and business; enunciate well; and pick up our cues.
But in those blissful moments when we are in The Moment, Truth takes over and Art happens. We become Art, rather than artists trying to make art.
E. Imaginary Circumstances
Theatre, like most art, is telling the truth while lying. A painting may show us a landscape of trees and mountains, but it’s a lie, a counterfeit: it’s “really” just colored pigments on canvas. However, it contains the truth: it gives us the emotional and intellectual truth of the trees and mountains; it gives us the energy and soul of that moment of light and shadow, of rock and leaf, of ourselves. For art is ultimately a mirror. It shows us what we are stripped of our masks and egos. Art tells us the truth, but only if we are willing to allow it to.
In theatre, we – actors and audience together – form an agreement: we decide to come together in a certain place, for a specified amount of time, and pretend to believe that which we know to be false in order to create/receive truth. We suspend our disbelief.
The world of the play, its “atmosphere” as Michael Chekhov would say, is what we take to be true. If we say yes to the setting and relationships of the characters, and also to the “rules” of the play’s world – its physics and geography, its history and culture – we can then allow the imaginary circumstances to be true.
There is an important distinction between “real” and “true.” You’re not “really” the Prince of Denmark, but you truly can be. To believe you “really” are is madness, to believe you “truly” are is genius.
The actor must be able to maintain a sort of voluntary psychosis: to concurrently hold two opposing realities. He must be fully in The Moment: living truthfully, absolutely believing in the reality of the characters and situation. But at the same time, he must remain aware that he’s on a stage, in a theatre, doing a play.
The Prince truly is desperate enough to consider suicide, but at the same time, he knows he better be in his light when he does it.
2. Acting is Listening.
Listening is not merely hearing. Hearing is what the ears do whether we want them to or not. But a vibration on our eardrum is utterly devoid of meaning without listening. Listening is a function of the intellect, the psyche, the soul. We listen with our entire being.
Listening is reaching out with our will to connect with the Other, whether a fellow-actor or the world-at-large – it’s how we form the interrelationships that make life comprehensible, meaningful … bearable.
By this definition, listening should be taken to refer to all of the senses available to us – a deaf person is as adept at this as anyone. Without this form of listening, there is no possibility of relationship. Actors must connect with each other as their characters for theatre to happen. An actor who merely waits for his turn to speak his line is not acting at all, he’s reciting – a trained parrot could fill the role just as well.
Not only is listening what connects us to our world and each other, but listening, through this connection, is what keeps us in The Moment.
3. Art is a Process without End.
There is never a moment in an artist’s life when she says, “I’ve learned my art.” Art is always and forever a process, a great “ING.” We are learnING, creatING, doING; not learned, created, done.
With this in mind, we must always be seeking more. We should study those who have made the great discoveries of our art: Stanislavsky and Shakespeare, both Anton and Michael Chekov, Brecht, Grotowski, Arthur Miller, Uta Hagen, Sandford Meisner, Stella Adler, Anne Bogart, Tadashi Suzuki and all the others. Every script we encounter is also a vital teacher – every fellow-actor, director, designer, musician, scene painter and audience member. But more importantly, we must study ourselves. We must study Life.
I believe the most important lesson on how to paint a tree is simply to learn how to look at a tree. To really see into it and discover it for what it is, not our preconceived notion of a symbol in our brain we label “tree.” The difference is immense. The same is true for theatre. We are seeking to “live truthfully,” and there is no better example of truth than life.
Therefore, the major component of our study should be to develop an awareness and understanding of all the nuances, rhythms, music, colors, patterns and feelings of the world around us, of the people and places we encounter, of the moods and qualities of light, sound, texture, taste, smells and emotions that dance around, between and within us continually. We must become increasingly open and aware – hungry for experience.
Everything, everyone and every moment is a teacher. All of us are students. The learning never ends. If we ever become convinced that we’ve learned what there is to know, we at the moment cease being artists. We join the ranks of the walking dead.
4. Theatre Can Change the World.
If you ever doubt that theatre can change the world, remember the Nuremberg Rallies, but also remember ordinary German citizens taking sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall.