Dan Schneider’s Drama: “The Thing After Death” & Our Human Weakness (First Impressions)

Overview

At 11pm Sinagpore time, I received a Gmail notification sent by the Cosmoetica e-list containing the full manuscript of Dan’s 51k word play – The Thing After Death. By 3am, I was 75 pages into the 100 page manuscript. I slept, woke up at 9am, read until 10am and I completed the whole play. To set things in perspective, the average Shakespeare wordcount ranks at roughly 22k words, and Hamlet is 30k words. According to Dan, the play was finished in 10 days.

Now, of course, given that this was the first manuscript – there were countless typos. But the very fact that, despite such supposedly jarring aspects – I was fully wrapped into the narrative of the play, speaks tons about the sheer ability of the author and the strength of his structure. This essay will be on my first impressions of the play.

Now, there are many places to start when talking about a humongous and complex play like this one – but I have decided to start at the place which I probably should start at:

THANKS A LOT DAN. I’m thrilled to think that, 500 years into the future – my name will exist as a footnote in the analysis of some cyborg academian trying to unweave the cultural references of the Schneider Corpus. (I have a WordPress – does that count?)

But, I don’t want to start with this extract JUST to blow my own horn about the miniscule immortality accorded to my name by the very fact of this appearance (although that is one of several reasons). Rather, I want to deal with what I perceive might be an extremely high barrier to proper criticism for those first critics who, in the future, will finally be able to get their hands on The Thing After Death (and, probably, many other Schneider books). I have a feeling that, in a somewhat similar way to the critical treatment of Woody Allen with regards to Stardust Memories – critics might be too caught up with the metafictive qualities of The Thing After Death – without realizing that, even if Dan Schneider were a two-bit hack playwright who just happened to pen The Thing After Death in a stroke of genius while the rest of his corpus was made out of B-movie flicks and bad pulp fiction – Danny Wagner (the metafictive persona of resembling Dan Schneider in this play) would STILL be a great character & fiction device simply because of how he serves more purposes than just to advertise for Dan’s greatness as a writer. On the other hand, it is exactly what makes Dan a great writer that he has the balls to do something like this while simultaneously going beyond the mere metafictive novelty of the character – using Danny Wagner as a mirror for the other characters in the play to bounce up against – fleshing out their faults in contrast to the ideal that he represents.

Metafiction Ho!

Now, with that in mind – let’s dive into the meat of the play. First, I’ll show you the Stage setting instructions & characters of the play:

Characters & Stage

The Thing After Death is a play in 5 Acts – Play 1 of Dan’s new & upcoming Infidelity Trilogy. That very subtitle creates expectations about what the play will be about – the tropes and themes involving infidelity strewn throughout Literature & Film – setting up the audience for the surprise that occurs when so many of these tropes are broken and dealt with in novel and creative ways.

The core of the narrative focuses on a screenwriter in her 50s named Megan who has to prepare for her father’s funeral. She suffers from guilt due to being the indirect cause of her family’s dissolution when she was a little girl – when she caught her father with her 17-year old babysitter named Valerie & went to tattle to her mom about it. She is married to a construction business owner named Michael, is friends with a gay black actor nicknamed Zephyr, and is also a collaborating on scripts with her ex-boyfriend Danny Wagner – Dan’s metafictive stand in. In the meantime, the play also tracks Valerie, also in her 50s, hearing about the Funeral & deciding to pay her respects and, hopefully, make up with Megan as well. The characters interact, exchange words of wisdom, ruminate on life at 50, discuss the past, and slowly prepare for the inevitable confrontation between the two women & conclusion as the funeral looms closer and closer.

Yet, while the Infidelity & the Funeral are the main plot devices of the story – there are so many other themes and moving ‘wheels’ within the play itself that build up into thematic crescendos and parallels throughout the whole story. As such, I cannot really describe the narrative in a linear fashion to you. It moves atmospherically between different scenes that seem separate but cohere together in beautiful and unexpected ways – a ‘Slice of Life’ play in the truest sense – bringing to mind Woody Allen’s Radio Days, Chekhov’s ‘mood dramas’, and Bergman’s movies. But such comparisons do not do justice to the play – which also draws inspiration from & uses devices of melodramatic Soap Operas, American Realist plays, Shakespearean soliloquies, and a plethora of other tricks that have been done in other places – but never in ways as unique and powerful as what occurs in this one. Dan once commented that his aim was to break the idea of what was truly possible in theatre by going beyond the ‘single spoke’ of past dramas.

(Incidentally, this reminds me of an 8-hour Chinese play called A Dream Like A Dream involving interweaving stories by famous Taiwanese playwright Stan Lai – that my father went to watch once. The stage is a 360 degrees stage set like an actual Buddhist wheel or something like that. I didn’t go to watch it since there were no subtitles due to the stage & my Chinese is bad – but he said it was a cosmic experience. I hope it gets translated one day so that I can really see if it stands up against The Thing After Death.)

For example – one aspect of the play is how goddamn delightful it is. The characters aren’t all dead sombre weights like many other serious drama plays. They shoot the shit about things like Star Trek and the Trump election (this is one of the greatest plays to be set in 2017, with comments on technology and our current culture). They make crass jokes to one another and bitch about their jobs. In a way, the levity of their personalities ironically undermine the character’s various melodramas & their own problems – and it all leads to a great philosophical point by the end of the play – about Life itself and the solipsism that humans have to escape from. One example comes from the element of the soliloquy – Megan breaks out into a soliloquy about all her Freudian and psychological hang-ups, exactly after the scene where she shoots the shit with the gay, black & bitchy Zephyr – which ends with him calling her a ‘downer’. In a way, this parallels with the themes as a whole – because the soliloquy is the very epitome of a solipsistic device meant to create poetic exposition on a character’s own miniscule psychology – opening up these psychologies to operatic heights.

Another device that the play subverts is the use of flashbacks. Normally, with regards to this kind of story – and given past works like Death of a Salesman – you’d expect flashbacks of Seamus to be extremely prevalent within the play itself & showcase the full nostalgia & regret of memory. Yet, there are only two flashbacks – never of the event itself – but of things before and after. One is Megan having an idealized recollection of her father when she was a girl. The other one is Valerie remembering how she got pregnant with Seamus’ baby and aborted it – and how he scolded her because he wanted to keep it. I can spoil plot elements like these because one of Dan’s views is that good Literature is cannot be spoiled because the themes manifest themselves from things beyond just the events themselves. There are great bits of wisdom and dialogue that cannot be reduced to the events and cheap revelations. Beyond these two flashbacks, a recurrent memoristic device is the sound of kittens mewing that plays during the start of certain scenes in the play – later revealed to be in reference to an event from Megan’s past where she took care of a bunch of kittens with Valerie. In a way, this is an even more refreshing take on memory than the classical devices – acknowledging the fact that memory doesn’t always just manifest in a full recollection – but sometimes it creeps and subtly alludes, or is supressed. The symbol of the kittens can, when you reach the end of the play, mean different things to different people based on their own view of to what extent Megan has really forgiven Valerie.

Kitten Noises

Also, there’s the use of excerpts within the play itself – which is intertextuality at its finest. This is one of the purposes of Danny Wagner as a character, although other characters can fulfil this role – in that it allows for Dan to use his own poems or other works of Literature within the play, with Danny as the medium for these ‘higher’ interludes. You’re also more likely to see these interludes from the characters who are more entrenched in the arts than those like Valerie or Sarah – although they have their own form of cultural reference with things like lower brow pop culture and rock bands. These excerpts are sometimes recited by the character off-handedly, without any particular higher intent – and yet the passages chosen hide deep import to the themes of the play.

In the first excerpt, Danny talks about O’Neil (in a conversation about theatre in general the play he’s trying to write – which of course happens to be The Thing After Death) & quotes a long passage from The Hairy Ape:

O’Neil Excerpt

This monologue is delivered with seething rage by Yank from the Hairy Ape, commenting about the primitive power that the workers represent which runs all things. When placed in the textual nexus of The Thing After Death, it has great symbolic import. I won’t be able to tell you exactly what import it has until I reach the themes that this work deals with – but, for now, keep in mind this excerpt, and also keep in mind the question posed by the title of the play itself – “What is the thing after Death?”.

Atmosphere & Stage

Scene fading in reminiscence

Let’s go back to the specific instructions Dan designated for the production of the play. He advises it to be told as minimalistically as possible – “things should be suggestive and influence the audience subliminally by the characters’ perceptions of them”. He also advises that many interactions & things aside from the main characters be invisible so that the characters speak to “the wraithic embodiments of such”. The result is that you have a very ghost-like atmosphere where these characters drift about in their interactions – hinting only at the viewpoint which they are present in while the outer universe is obscured. This atmosphere, if done well (in my mind’s theatre, I imagine something akin to the dream sequence from Another Woman – or the atmosphere of Bergman), can also generate visual-symbolic import for the themes of the play. Within the play itself, there are also many scenes that are engineered to fade away, rather than end with the resounding crash of a new revelation or emotional outburst – and this minimalism can help to elevate the effects of those fades.

Yet, normally, when you think about such an atmosphere – many Absurdist type or emotionally sparse plays comes to mind. The Thing After Death, as I’ve noted – with its lengthy banters about pop-cultural milieu and comedic moments – is the very opposite of the austere ‘mood-drama’ that we expect. Although – there are great moments within it that can invoke that very strain of atmosphere. In my mental picture of the play, there are moments where I feel like it would look like a sitcom filmed by Bergman’s cinematographer or directed by Beckett.

But such a contrast isn’t a detriment – though it might place a higher difficulty barrier on the cast – because of how important this tonal shift is to the core philosophy of the play. This idea of matching a minimalist stage with characters that overflow with life & humour helps to support the element that I talked about earlier – about the humour that undermines the dramatics of the character’s personal problems. Actually, I’ve just thought of a better comparison – the way the play feels reminds me of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night – and the ending where Gena Rowlands destroys the mood of the lame serious sombre play that she has to act in by doing improv comedy /w Cassavetes’ character.

Speaking of improv, there are actual moments within the play itself where Dan notes that the cast should improvise actions between characters. You can see one such example here:

Improv in Flashback

Ultimately, this makes The Thing After Death a play of extreme difficulty to pull off. Not only must the cast deal with a script that is longer than Hamlet, and, unlike Shakespeare’s play, where every single scene has import and meaning – they must also be able to deal with the contending comedy-drama moods, the intertextual elements where they have to act out scenes from other plays & Dan’s poetry, the improv moments where they have to be spontaneous to add to the naturalism, and they must also be able to gesturally hint at a string of wraithic ghosts that represents the world outside of the perspective that the characters inhabit. Not only that, but they have to play, convincingly, some of the best characters to ever appear in the history of drama – one of which is a metafictional doppelganger of Dan himself (I can imagine a possible actor focusing too much on the self-praise with none of the subtlety and wisdom – and making Danny Wagner look like a massive douche). And, to top it all off, they have to be able to fart at will. Indeed, the Thing After Death might just be the first high literary work of drama that requires a fart-track to pull off well.

Characters

I’ve talked so much about the characters but I’ve yet to go into detail about them. The Thing After Death is, at its core, a play that moves by the power of the characters and the situations they inhabit. Although I use the word ‘situations’ – you could say that much of the play is made out of small moments, the gel between the big events – and it ends with the major event of Seamus’ Funeral. The Funeral – Act 5 – takes up 30 pages and acts as the philosophical core of the whole play – uniting all the themes that were hidden underneath the surface for the first 70 pages.

The character I’ll start with first is Megan Ann Fitzgerald Morrow.

I’ve told you about the details of her past & her regret – but equally important is her occupation. Megan used to be an actress and is now a screenwriter of B-movie films – and the play itself makes reference to Piranha & The Room (Sarah, Valerie’s friend, comments that one of her films was as bad as “that Tommy Wisenheimer film… where a football game in tuxedos breaks out” – while Valerie comments that she watched a film with “Some shit about a giant piranha and six teenagers losing their virginity before penises and tits are devoured by the fish.”)

In other words, Megan is a bad writer, and she is acutely aware of that fact due to her relationship with the great writer Danny Wagner. This is another burden that she has to bear, but, at the age of 50 – it’s something that she’s accepted and has to live with. In fact, she even ropes Danny in as a script doctor for some of her scripts. To use a Dan-ism drawn from his review of Woody Allen’s Interiors – Megan is a Joey (edit: Dan contends this in the comments because Joeys lack talent but have all the passion – while Megan has some talent but was lazy), except for the fact that she’s better off because of that acceptance even amidst her own insecurities. The other difference is that the characters which surround her, the objective & wise Danny, her loving husband Michael, and her funny friend Zephyr – are a far cry from the poisonous passive aggressive atmosphere of the household in Interiors.

This aspect helps to further develop a core motif of her character – the idea of what she could have been, and probably was – but what she sloughed off in the passing of time and the development of a better environment around her. This comes to the forefront in her soliloquy/monologue where all the neurotic stuff bubbles to the surface. This part of her character is so aptly summarized by the remark she makes at the end of that soliloquy: “Oh, Michael and I are happy, but I know there is more beyond me, beyond life. It’s just the getting there that’s hard.”

First part of Megan’s Soliloquy

Of course, by the end of the play, we will know that this sentiment is more or less WRONG – or, rather, it is correct but in a different way than she probably conceives it (as, for example, the artistic transcendence of Danny Wagner). By the end, it is Megan’s acceptance of her station & her past that allows her to go ‘beyond’ – in a deeper and far more meaningful way than she is probably even aware of. Life, and age, overtakes her own woes, and pushes her into happiness. This is an amazing use of the soliloquy which, before, was used to dramatize feelings with poetic heft and turn them grandiose – but, in the play, delineates neurosis and smallness within Megan while SIMULTANEOUSLY allowing her to commentate on greater things without her realizing it.

But, we have to go back to Megan’s past and talk more about those demons that have been haunting her so.

If there’s one thing I have to hone in on to prove Dan’s expertise at subverting expectations, and getting to the core of a deeper and more interesting reality – it would be his treatment of the infidelity itself. In the end, what Megan latches onto as the most pressing consequence of the whole affair was – out of all things – the loss of her friend & babysitter, Valerie. In a way, it makes more sense that the loss of a friend who babysat & played with you for about a year – whom expanded the narrow horizons of your small universe – would be tons more painful on the subconscious than the larger stuff that she doesn’t really know the import of. It also undermines the importance of the crime – so overdone in a multitude of works and so born from petty human emotions and their selfish desires – that the real tragedy is the lessening of everything else into that thing.

Twist on Infidelity trope

Although, we only know this aspect of the infidelity from Megan herself, who has the character trait of psychoanalyzing everything too far – so it could just as easily be a myth she developed for herself to tide against the trauma. But it speaks volumes about her depth as a character that such ambiguities exist – and there can be many factors leading up to exactly what she is during the timeframe of the play – the affair, the friendship broken, influence from her mother, her artistic insecurities etc… etc… What matters, ultimately, is that she overcomes, either through myth or reminiscence, and is able to face Valerie by the end of the play & pay good respects to her father at the funeral. Although her mind is attached to those details, her body & time is already leading the way. And this grants cosmic import to the recurring mews of the kittens at the start & end of the play.

The next character I’ll deal with is Danny Wagner.

Great poet, great writer, and working on a play. Shunned by Academia. Married to Jessica Wagner – an “artsy type” with the “whole Plathian melodrama thing going on”. Works as a custodian – although has to see a chiropractor because of a hurt back. Runs an interview show & a website called Omniversica etc… etc… – all the other things that we know about Dan. OK – Next!

Just kidding! If Danny Wagner’s existence in the play was merely to recapitulate who Dan Schneider is – he would not have as much potency as he does here.

For example – to serve as a contrast to the bitter tear between the marriage of Megan’s parents. Danny is Megan’s ex, but no bad blood runs between the both of them – merely the acknowledgement that there are ‘insuperable’ things between certain people which prevents them from truly meshing, although it still allows for interaction. She retains his company because she knows that there are higher things than getting mad over a break-up.

His sincerity, directness, and ‘higher vision’ also allows him to quell situations which, in other lesser plays, would be milked for their dramatic value. For example, when Valerie arrives at the funeral, he has no problems going up to her & talking to her – despite his knowledge of what Megan feels about Val. After the funeral, he’s the only one who talks to Val – shooting the shit about lowbrow culture and television shows – while the rest stay by the sidelines & wait for the eventual confrontation between the two main characters.

Valerie’s character developed through pop-culture references

In some ways, he could be ‘harvesting data’ for his own play & literary works – & one of Megan’s hang-ups about her relationship with Danny was that she felt she was “becoming just fodder for Danny and his art” – which is, in a way, true, but also inconsequential because it is precisely this view of the world that allows Danny to have deeper relationships with & better those around him. This places Danny Wagner as the opposite of the cliched ‘aloof artist’ – but rather an entity that dives deeper into life than anyone else and is more grounded than anyone else, and his relationship with Megan failed because she could not plunge into his depths, not because of his distance. This makes Danny Wagner possibly the best representation of an artist-character to ever appear in the history of drama – which is a bit cheap because all Dan had to do was to write himself into the play.

Character implications for Megan + Meta-comment

And, to push the character even further – Dan also engineers the perceptions of the other characters to Danny’s personality. I’ve just pointed out Megan’s selfish appraisal of him – even as she’s bettered by the acquaintance. In her soliloquy, she chastises herself for wanting to live life comfortably without being able to live up to his integrity. “He was too dedicated to the arts. I wanted to live, to have life and some comforts” – and this statement is ironic because Danny is the one who is engaging in life more than her, having fun with her husband and her dad at poker games while she’s caught up in psychic shit, being able to talk to Val with ease, and moulding the environment that he sees fit for himself – doing all this despite his bitching about his lack of artistic recognition & his having to put up with blue-collar jobs and custodian work. As I pointed out earlier, critics could easily be misled by this element, should they come into contact with the play – in that they view Danny as an insecure artist egoistically flaunting his own art, when, in fact, all of his actions proves that he is simply more grounded than all of that. Megan only gets a sense of all this by the end of the play – how much life has given to her and how much she should cherish it – when she eulogizes at her father’s funeral.

“I have had the good fortune of a loving husband, one whose own success has allowed me the luxury of being an artist, even if not a high one. I know great artists…. who lack the time and support I have. Some handle it better than others, yet how fortunate I was, and am. I know it. I feel it, and, before I get too carried away, let me just state that I appreciate so much of this, even if I fail, in the end, at expressing it.”

But, if I am to talk about the character of Danny Wagner, I also have to talk about the character of Jessica Wagner as well. Jessica doesn’t appear in the play at all, and it is a running gag throughout the narrative where various characters make fun of her & share anecdotes about her tempestuous artsy personality. I have no idea if the real Jessica Schneider is like this – but within the framework of the play, she serves as a kind of foil to Megan even though she doesn’t appear. She is the great artist that Danny marries in the end, but her ability to write great novels & grasp that higher vision doesn’t save her from her own neuroses – although her marriage to Danny does – and there are many implied similarities between her & Megan, although Megan tries to distinguish herself from it:

“Well, once Danny and his wife, Jessica, visited Michael and me. She’s smart, but like me, she has difficulty making friends with women. It’s different reasons with her- the usual artsy bullshit. With me, it goes back to Valerie.”

She also notes that Danny once told her “But she’s the Sylvia Plath sort, and he has to handle her with Kid Gloves, as they say.” – the irony being the fact that Michael, her own husband, is also handling her with kids gloves by not revealing to her that he’s been playing poker with her father.

Pissing on Jess

Jess is portrayed, through the words of Danny & the others, as the person that is bitter about the lack of artistic recognition for her own & Danny’s corpus – and so she’s unable to slough off the burdens of her life in the same way that Danny, and later Megan – are able to. And it’s a resounding truth that some people can be great artists, with the ability to dive into the core of humanity – yet be less oriented towards life than others – same for people who excel in many other professions.

Zephyr (John James Johnson) is one of the primary comedic relief characters of the play – but this in no way means that he lacks characterization, depth, or meaning. On the surface, he seems like a character defined by a series of quirks – gay, black, bitchy, and sole coloured person in a group of white friends – but through the use of multiple subversions, as well as great writing in general (because, unlike what some people might believe – a 3D character can’t be created solely through subversions). Dan uses the character to criticize various and stereotypes (“Let’s face it, a short, gay, black man is boring, these days. If I really wanted to stand out, I should be a drag queen. But I don’t even have that gay lisp thing going for me. Damn my ‘hardy Negro’ voice”) – but he also uses the personality as a foil to many other characters, such as Megan or Sarah, within the cast.

Zeph’s hang-ups

Take a look at this bit of dialogue which succinctly defines his character hang-ups – providing a comparison as a person hung-up on his parents –  just like Megan – but manifesting in different ways. He also reveals a great truth about how it is those that are proximal to himself with a greater chance of causing him harm in subtle and insidious ways – rather than any overt racism. As such he wishes for an enemy, but finds none. Yet, he has enough integrity not to defer responsibility completely – which comes up in a later scene where he disses an article he saw online about a triggered Clinton supporter. His personality is bombastic and aggressive, but self-effacing. He also happens to be stuck doing lowly jobs – having to work jobs that a temp agency assigns him because his acting job isn’t paying the bills.

Unlike Megan, Zeph also has to deal with the loneliness intrinsic with his sexuality & his inability to find a companion. As a result, he frequently visits a shrink. In an Allen-esque fashion, he jokes about it and other such problems. This allows him to undermine Megan’s woes, especially when he makes fun of the affair in his own open manner – comparing it to other movies and melodramas:

Comedic foil

Yet, there’s a bit of a pathetic nature to him that surfaces during the funeral scene. Until that point, we’ve seen him as an aggressive and bitchy character – and during his eulogy, he tries to go after Seamus in a diss speech (“Bitch tried to steal the show. Now it’s homeboy’s turn.”) – only to realize that now’s not the time and place for his bullshit, and he falls into a spiel about his own childhood before petering out, leaving the floor for Danny Wagner (but not before dropping a hilarious “Thanks for saving my black ass in front of Da Man!”). Later, when Megan faces Valerie, she admits that Zeph is “all bark and no bite”. Compared to Danny, Michael, Marina, and Pastor Steege – all of which have grand philosophical points to make – his speech reveals the extent that he still has things to face. When Megan comes up, her speech begins in that kind of wavering fashion – but gradually builds up tempo into the same philosophical tremor of the other speeches, with Danny as a clutch to help her through.

Vulnerability, humour, and symbolic purport. Zephyr is elevated to a great character in lieu of this, but he gets to contribute to the bigger ‘overtone’ of the play when he drops in an excerpt from Macbeth, which speaks a lot about himself, as well as the themes of forgetting and memory:

Macbeth quote & farts

Now we move on to the other side of the equation – the character of Valerie, and her ugly friend Sarah.

The dynamic of these two characters mirror Megan & Zeph – but it represents more of a view from ‘below’. Both work at a supermarket and are lower brow, while Megan & Zeph are entrenched in the arts (although Zeph also has to work shit jobs). Even when positions apart, Valerie is just as much steeped in her own woes as Megan – while Sarah acts as the comedic emotional foundation to pull her out of it. This is a great twist – where the beautiful woman has less emotional resilience to deal with life compared to the ugly one, and she relies on the emotional support a person who has been through the rough and came out all the better and hardier for it.

Valerie is, to use her own words, a slut. She can list more than 60 past lovers – 3 divorces and once widowed – and has, by her age, gotten used to her own passions (“She seems resigned to the scene, as if she has done this many times before”). It’s especially interesting that, despite being a main character that is tracked for two acts – her troubles are not as openly signalled as Megan’s, at least until the confrontation. She even has her own soliloquy – but she lacks the Freudian terminology to ruminate about it, and focuses more on going through mementos and commenting on various things. Compared to Megan’s, hers is also funnier (“That time at the chiropractor- ten minutes of therapy and I let him take me from behind”). This soliloquy segues into a Seamus flashback – the moment when her emotional past is clearly revealed – and then goes into her waking up to her 68th lover. But, she’s troubled by things – she calls Sarah at night, calls out Seamus’ name in dream, and is said to have ‘pensive moods’ by Sarah.

What she’s been through, and a deeper sense of how she feels, is directly revealed during the confrontation:

Val’s emotions

Its implied that her parents are a lot worse, or, at least, as bad as Megan’s – and that fact, combined with her initial position in life – were what might have contributed to her personality being what it is. Throughout the confrontation, the two main characters discuss about how the affair & destruction of the friendship was both their fault (in the agency that both of them took to lead to that conclusion), and how it was also something out of their control (in that they were already in a bad situation that was bound to crash, and that they were also moulded by their circumstances).

Now, with a play as thick as this one – I have to admit to some critical inadequacies. There are still certain areas that I have not grasped given that I’ve only done one initial reading with a couple of flip-backs to concretize my points. This is, in the end, still a first impressions (even though it has already taken on the wordcount of a full-scale analysis, which just shows how much the play has entered into my thoughts for the past stretch of time). On my first reading, my mind oriented itself to certain characters versus others – such as Zeph, Megan, and Danny – due to their proximity to my own concerns & interests. Michael, Valerie, and Sarah are, as such, less concrete in my mind. I am uncertain about the details in some areas & am less sure about my interpretations – such as the extent to which Valerie is attached to the affair – whether she has sloughed it off more than Megan or not. Certain ambiguities with regards to the characters, certain depths and symbols – might become clearer to be upon re-reading, or, if the play actually, by some miracle, manages to appear in a visual format. Some of my analyses above may also be over-reaching – and a re-experiencing might tighten my view of the details.

So, to end of this lengthy section on the characters, I would like to point out one last thing about Sarah. Many who first see or read about her are likely to compare her with Zeph – as both are bitchy characters that have weaponized the negative sides of their lives into snarky and funny personalities. Yet, I was also thinking about the differences that are manifest – even with these apparent similarities!

Sarah is, in her own ways, a character foundationally closer to Danny while further away in terms of vision, and the ability to express this. She is fully aware of her station and has decided “when life fucks with me, I reach for my trusty strap-on, bend life over, and make it squeal like a pig”. This works positively for her life, but negatively towards others – in how it hardens her to make quick cruel judgments of Megan. As such, her aggressive personality feels as though it is born from her will – while Zeph’s feels like it is born out of his inadequacies.

Sarah’s Acceptance (note the view of randomness, which parallels Dan/Danny’s)

I wish I could make a greater comment on Michael – but I feel that on first reading he is overshadowed by the other characters, although he is so important to Megan. On first glance, he seems like the overall nice guy – grounded individual that helps to root Megan down & is concerned with the pragmatic parts of life. This doesn’t mean that he’s separate from higher things, because he interacts with Danny & also understands aspects of his art (“Jess is more classical in her themes and style, and very pungent in her prose’s poesy, whereas he’s the great experimenter, and his poesy is not as obvious”)

His standout moment is in the funeral scene, where he eulogizes with a quote that has less poesy than the other speakers, but is just as philosophically potent – from scientist Carl Sagan:

“On this dot everyone you love, ever heard of, every person who ever was, lived out their lives. Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every young couple in love, every corrupt politician, supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there- on a mote of dust suspended in a shaft of sunlight. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a tiny fraction of that dot.”

The Thing After Death

1

We return to the question implicitly posed within the title – What is the Thing After Death?

Now, I have talked and talked about the play for several thousand words or so, and yet I feel as though I haven’t even gotten to the meat of it. I have talked, mainly, about the characters and their interactions with one another – and, if the play were solely about those characters – it would probably be a good to excellent play. What drives the play into greatness is something more intangible that exists in between the cracks of those words. It is about the truly beautiful repetition of ideas that play off one another – like chords and melodies in a song.

2

There are many answers as to what is The Thing After Death. It is forgetting. It is remembrance. It is a start. It is an afterlife. It can even be Time Itself.

3

Or, more likely, Life, plain and simple.

4

And, to me, if I were to give my own personal opinion as to what the title implies – I would say that it means the End of Human Weakness. Because The Thing After Death is a wonderful play about many things – but one aspect is how much understanding, recognition, and dignity it gives to human weaknesses – even while it makes fun of it, mocks it, and shows a higher view:

5

Because the subculture & medium that I love – to which I started this WordPress for in the first place – mentioned in the very title of my site itself – has a certain fondness for human weakness. They love the act of self-effacement, the comfort of self-pity, the refuge of the cute, and the allure of the minuscule little kingdoms that they can protect – database animals that they are. And, even though the play is not necessarily about those things – I cannot help but feel those resonances that are molded into its structure – calling out to the things I love. Perhaps, a later re-reading, when the years have passed, might expand my view of it – cooling the passion while increasing the insight and appreciation.

6

And it is this ability for the play to be so joyful, dreamlike, and life-affirming – even while it deals with the most sombre of subjects and criticizes aspects of human character – that makes The Thing After Death both a great play, and undeniably one of my personal favorite works of art. I cannot help but wish that everyone gets the chance to enjoy it as well.

We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep–
Whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey
Soundly invite him–his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only: when in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
The unguarded Duncan? what not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?

(All excerpts from The Thing After Death are copyrighted by Dan Schneider)

Dan Schneider’s Poetry: Not Sisyphus (bonus – This Is Not About Stalin)

The best of poems feels like a great riddle being posed and can be more intriguing than the tightly crafted mysteries of many detective novelists. Varieties of meaning can hinge on mere shifts of words – and nothing is more interesting than tracing back how the poet led you down a certain pathway. A clear example of this is the poem Not Sisyphus by Dan Schneider – which grabbed me with its puzzle the moment I read it – and, even after I’ve come up with my own interpretation of it, I still feel as though there is something simply uncanny about its construction.

Copyrighted by Dan Schneider

The way the narrative voice sounds, the re-interpretation of the myth, and the revelation of the last line – reminds me a lot of some of Kafka’s parables, except that the sonnet is greater because it layers more paradox through the enjambment and has a wider span of techniques. The intrigue starts from the very beginning, with its title.

There are a few such works in Dan’s Collected Poems that does the same thing – overtly negating a certain subject, which all the more serves to draw your attention to it through reverse psychology. He has a bunch of poems named ‘This Is Not About Stalin’ (edit: as noted in the comments, its a 3 poem cycle with slightly different names)  where he mixes metaphors that bring to mind Communist elements like factories or mechanism – but uses it to talk about a completely different subject. You can see one example here:

Copyright by Dan Schneider

Using the destruction of individuality that Communism brings as a metaphor of the ego-negation that occurs during sex/love is absolutely wild – but let’s go back to Not Sisyphus.

Now, the very first thing that Dan does in this poem is call up the myth of Sisyphus itself. An unnamed narrator describes being stuck in a punishment much like Sisyphus, but we aren’t exactly sure yet. The next two lines begins the narrative twist. The narrator is someone sitting on the side – most likely a God – watching Sisyphus. This creates a mythic parallel & ironic re-interpretation – where it is the God that has to suffer the punishment of watching Sisyphus – while, to reference Camus & his existential interpretation of Sisyphus – Sisyphus remains blissfully happy. Incidentally, Dan has used Camus’ book before as an epigraph for his poem First Murder – although I do not know if he had the quote about ‘imagining Sisyphus happy’ in mind when he wrote the poem. In any case, when he writes how Sisyphus ‘smiles’ – that reference comes to mind.

The voice of the narrator, with words such as ‘old ghost’, ‘demeanor’, ‘sipping my ice tea’ and the barrage of alliteration in the later lines – recalls less of a God and more of a grinning Dandy or Clown musing lackadaisically about the vision before him. It is this jesting voice that brought my mind to Kafka – and it shows the range of voices that Dan can encompass in his writings.

The reinforcement of the idea that the narrator is a God comes from a ‘nymph’ that tells him of Sisyphus crimes. Notice how the rhythm & jest abruptly picks up during the nymph’s descriptions, manufactured by Dan’s intuitive poetic feeling – which could draw the reader into what Sisyphus might have felt (the thrill and whirl) at the moment of his crime before being caught. It returns to a calmer rhythm after ‘But all fails’.

The actual nature of Sisyphus’ crime is left unknown – but we merely know of the act of swindling. This helps to leave this aspect of the poem open to a multitude of possible interpretations. Yet, at its core, it describes a person full of bullshit, the transience of his moment (and his lack of awareness about its transience – Death), and the eventual downfall. Knowing what Dan loves to rail against – it could easily be a hack artist or writer like Andy Warhol that he had in mind when writing the poem – the punishment, of course, comes from the narrator having to watch these antics from his own higher understanding of Art – shaking his head at the sheer baseness of it all. Or, it could be about Crime in general – or Politics. The divide between Sisyphus and the narrator is heightened through the “Now only I bask” enjambment – and this kind of thing places it in the same element as Dan’s poem about killing a spider.

And then, we are left with the banger of an ending – which really knocks it out of the park by adding layers to the title and giving the poem so much intrigue. It is unexpectedly emotional too – throwing away the jesting voice of the previous lines with the rough and sudden ‘clutched to my core’. This is the true tragedy of Sisyphus – who, when he imagines himself happy – does not allow for the progress of the stone. In a way, it reflects cycles that are reinforced through the crimes or lacks that people commit. Lack of progress through pettiness and smallness in art, through deception in politics, or through corruption and crime. This makes the stone a large symbol that can encompass many facets of humanity that are limited by the constancy of certain lesser elements – the ignorant that are unaware of knowing when to give up. The narrator, the god or higher visionary, can laugh it off – but ultimately there is a tragedy to it all – things that need to be transcended.

Such lines are what makes these things memorable built through the great technical and intellectual labyrinths of the poet. Watch, read, and learn.

Dan Schneider’s Poetry: Stevens on Safari

Great poetry blooms in its individuality, yet it doesn’t deviate from certain fundamentals – seeking music through subtle flow, escaping from the realm of clichés, and teasing out multiple meanings through good line breaks & enjambment. These tenets might sound simple, but they hide 3 vaster domains that every writer must be somewhat aware of – Form, Content, Structure/Narrative. Or, to draw another comparison in painting & art – the style of the stroke, subject of the painting, and composition of the elements.

Escaping from the realm of clichés requires some knowledge of previous (good) poets to stake out a future. When Dan posted up his video of writing the poem Ed Gein Becoming – you can see this process in action. He thinks about the subject, weighs out how other writers might have approached it, and chooses his own path.

Which then leads to the question – how would you apply the same method to an enigmatic and abstract poet like Wallace Stevens?

Let’s try to imagine how Dan might have thought of the process in writing this poem – Stevens on Safari – much like how he does in his Ed Gein video. So, without further ado, let’s get into the ‘planning phase’:

In order to write a poem about Stevens that escapes from his grasp, I feel as though dropping a ‘calling card’ is necessary to set up the narrative shifts and twists in the later parts of the poem. Something that declares the lineage of the sonnet clearly. When I think about Wallace Stevens – I think about his beautiful lines that are steeped in abstraction, and his own philosophical symbology that he repeats throughout several poems (e.g. winter & the idea of coldness).

As an example – let’s look at Man Carrying Thing. Within this poem of 14 lines – there are only a miniscule amount of concrete (relative to the rest) elements to cling on to: brune figure in winter, first hundred flakes of snow, storm, night – and some things that seem like concrete elements but are steeped in ambiguity – the thing that the man carries, the certain solid, the bright obvious. Yet, it is the ability of Stevens to bring these abstractions into fruition, allowing something higher to glimpse from beyond, through his placement of the elements on his canvas – that distinguishes him from other poets who try abstraction and fail.

From this idea comes a flicker of possibility – of stretching that core abstraction to its very limit. And so, we find some inkling of our ‘calling card’.

It can not ever change. What once was there
is still there because it will not be changed,
but something is changing. A feel for change
can be attained- yet not through change itself,

I have a feeling that any lover of poetry who understands the significance of this style might lightly snicker. The repetition of ‘change’ and sheer ambiguity is parodic to the extreme – but this is not merely reference aping the style for its own sake. For example, the sly use of ‘can not’ rather than ‘cannot’ in the first line forces a pause that implies much. The enjambment in the first line makes it ambiguous as to whether it talks about a past element remaining past (e.g. memory) or the past element carrying over into the present as a tangible thing – and allows for both views. Yet, even when we get inklings of a fixed element or stability, there is also something moving and changing – ‘a feel for change’. Then, it remains fixed again – “yet not through change itself”.

So, in this way we approach Stevens and his love of abstraction – as well as his frequent philosophical theme of the need for stability & clarity. This sets up how the poem will flow, and where Dan prepares the cut from his predecessor.

STEVENS ON SAFARI

It can not ever change. What once was there
is still there because it will not be changed,
but something is changing. A feel for change
can be attained- yet not through change itself,

but rather without- through a change in view;
this pain beyond logic just rearranged,
like a leopard sneaking up into range,
of a young gazelle in ignorant health-

then the chase begins, the break from all things
thought as commonplace, yet hoped for as rare,
in a dutied life subsumed in a blue
besides color, or its recognition:

from a bower a glower, and the cat brings
forth the death of youth, this love of clear vision!

Once you read the poem, note where the first concrete image comes in, and also note the moments where the poem veers away from that great abstract voice of Stevens.

Setting up the image of the leopard going after the young gazelle, Dan starts with a permutation of ‘change’, where he escapes from the abstraction of the first stanza to lead it into something else – a ‘change in view’ (mirroring the line before in grammar). Then, he brings in the direct element of ‘pain’ – as though a foreign element were contaminating the hermetic universe of the first stanza. In terms of form, he also sets up the transition through the rhyming sounds ‘range’ in lines 6 & 7 – giving a feel of actual re-arrangement. The sounds in line 8 are light and they linger off which hammers in the chase and hardness of ‘break’ in the next stanza.

Showing that Dan can have as beautiful abstractions as Stevens – there’s the line “thought as commonplace, yet hoped for as rare” – which grabs us in terms of how so many of us want the world to be – stretching out from tedium in the constant into a ‘safari’ of the unknown. Here comes the great shift in Stevens’ symbology – his love for that Zen kind of clarity that comes at the end of many of his poems. Instead, that clarity over here is a “dutied life subsumed in blue/besides color, or its recognition” – which can also be read biographically if you knew about Stevens as a poet who chose to remain an office worker – but doesn’t have to be. This life of blue lacks color or recognition of such. The philosophical paradise of Stevens is an empty realm separate from the wild color of life. In which case we might get a bit of a laugh to see Dan so blatantly pounce on his style in this poem.

from a bower a glower, and the cat brings
forth the death of youth, this love of clear vision!

Would Stevens ever write such a shout in his poems? Not from those I’ve seen – so this is probably Dan, right down to the love of assonance, internal rhyme & rambunctiousness. The great big cat cleaving ‘clarity’ in two (although, the comma means that there isn’t exactly a clear link between the death & the love) – allowing the safari to manifest.

This poem is fun. Any lover of poetry would be thoroughly entertained by how Dan treats the subject – the stuffy elegance of Stevens (although, of course, there’s also a greater philosophical comment about change & reality) – in his own distinct manner. More importantly, it communicates that fun rather than just existing as fun in itself – as many of Stevens’ lesser poems seem to be in their idle abstraction. You can hear the laughter behind the words. That, really, is how things should be written.

Dan Schneider’s (Unpublished) Poetry: Congoleum Footfalls – The Logic of Moods

Those of you who have read Dan’s essays on Cosmoetica may have remembered this little claim that he made in his Wallace Stevens/William Shakespeare essay.

  OK, Yellow Afternoon 1st. This is a poem that conceptually is light years beyond the Elizabethan mind. It is in my view probably Stevens’ best poem, yet it is almost absent from anthologies or discussions of Stevens. Not only is it a great poem but it is damned near a perfect poem- something that is a quantity parallel to greatness in that great poems can have flaws & still be great while a perfect poem merely has nothing which could replace it without lessening it. It succeeds so well at what it endeavors that to change it is to destroy it. Oddly, a perfect poem is not always a great poem. I’ve written a few perfect poems & a lot of great poems. Once I wrote a poem called Congoleum Footfalls that was as perfect a dream poem as I’ve ever read- it so totally invoked the dream states, yet in doing so it could not be great. It was just a perfect illustration- nothing else could be construed nor imbued into it. Not a great poem but perfect. Yellow Afternoon, however, achieves this dufecta! I think it stands as both a summation of & a turn away from the rest of Stevens’ corpus. It rivals Plath’s Among The Narcissi, Frost’s Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, Crane’s The Broken Tower, Cullen’s Incident, Shelley’s Ozymandias, & Berryman’s The Ball Poem as great poems which are perfect, & poems which top off, turn away from &, yet, embody a poet’s oeuvre.

And for those of you who might be wondering exactly what this ‘Congoleum Footfalls’ is all about anyway – well, that’s exactly the poem I’ll be touching on in this article!

Now, my usual method of analysis so far has been a line by line reading of a poem, teasing out the meaning – and showing various interpretations that could be taken by different frames of mind. But I feel that I cannot do such a thing for Congoleum Footfalls for the reason that Dan stated – that, in the end, CF is more of a mood poem than a meaning poem – and it is more about the effect it invokes than a specific comment. Of course, this isn’t to say that interpretation isn’t possible – but that I feel it is a better strategy to attack this poem from the direction of mood, and compare and contrast it with other poems of the same sort that invoke such things – and see how Dan innovates to push CF above many other poems of its sort.

So, before I move into the poem – here is a modest selection of many other poems (taking the entire spectrum good to bad) that have been described as dreamlike, or have had that kind of waking/sleeping imagery imbued into them. If you Google ‘dream poem analysis’, the immediate first result you get is the definitive dream poem – Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. But here are a few others:

Plath’s Ariel

A random prose poem from Trakl

Morning of Drunkenness by Rimbaud

A Dream Within A Dream by Poe (less dreamlike than the name implies)

A random prose poem from Surrealist Don Andre Breton

John Donne’s The Dream (Contains more meaning than just being about dreams)

Parisian Dream by Baudelaire

On A Dream by Keats (Also less dreamlike than the name implies)

Relating to Robinson by Weldon Kees

The Solar Anus by George Bataille

And, just for an extra, the short story Super-Frog Saves Tokyo by Haruki Murakami

And, after going through that modest selection – we move on to Congoleum Footfalls!

Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.

This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.

 

Now, this label of ‘dreamlike poetry’ has been constantly abused for the sake of slapping together varied imagery that has a loose internal logic. Yet, our dreams are a lot more structured than we think – and there is a shifting logic between states even though the content itself is less structured. There is also the overall structure of sleeping to wakening (best shown in Plath’s Ariel) itself. It is more powerful to create a dreamlike vision through enforcing a strong sense of environment, and then twisting it – like what Kees, Coleridge, and Trakl have done. On the other hand, Breton is sloppy:

“The black crown resting on my head is a cry of migrating crows because up till now there have only been those who were buried alive, and only a few of them, and here I am the first aerated dead man. But I have a body so I can stop doing myself in, so I can force reptiles to admire me. Bloody hands, misteltoe eyes, a mouth of dried leaves and glass (the dried leaves move under the glass; they’re not as red as one would think, when indifference exposes its voracious methods), hands to gather you, miniscule thyme of my dreams, rosemary of my extreme pallor. I don’t have a shadow anymore, either.”

Imagine if you had placed this chunk of text as the stuff that Robinson begins spouting in Kees’ poem. It would have made the poem worse, and more overwritten, but it would have given Breton’s text a greater sense of the uncanny through the context it was placed in.

Dan’s poem is one where form follows function, and his structure makes it one of the most cohesive invocations of dream to have been written. The 5-part structure is built like this:

Primary Invocation (process of sleeping)
Sestina (hazy slumber)
Proem (core dream)
Whitman/Ginsberg-esque Anaphora + fragmentary poesy (regaining control)
Repetition of Primary Invocation (process of waking)

Besides that, the environment comes together in spurts through the first part & the sestina, hardens into a concrete place in the Proem, and loosens up by the fourth part. There are even little transitions in between the parts (L’envoy & the “…congoleum footfalls dopplerize”) to further create the flow between states.

I feel like the greatest innovation of the poem is the Sestina in Mindstorm, because of how well it syncs to the title. The repetition of last words in differing order, combined with the setting of the nightmare corridor where the footfalls thud on the Congoleum pushes the sensations all the way – and, in fact, the first connection that my mind made was to the Silent Hill series of horror games, where you wander in dark nightmare corridors fighting off mannequins and twisted body shapes.

But, the structure would also fail if there was no music in its parts, and here are some examples of the music:

Internal rhyme ‘ing’ in “Bedouin scrambling down the halls shrieking

‘O’ sounds in – “building dark diapasons loosing forth in the congoleum

footfalls, renting a dream dying from the limb” – ‘O’ sounds cut off with the comma, segueing into two internal rhymes & ‘e’ or ‘I’ sounds.

rolling down the chambered hall churning as it envies” –motion invoked through ‘ll’, ‘ch’ and ‘ng’ sounds.

gangrened in the dissected dolor of this congoleum” – ‘O’ sounds in latter part.

And there are also alliterations in all the lines above.

Then we come to the proem, which shows how you should actually do rhythm for such a form.

Night. Alone. In a dormitory. Congoleum footfalls dopplerize.” – the repetition of this 7 ‘O’ sounds opening creates a strong sense of somnolence.

A knock. I cast back shadings of the lunar glow as I rise from my bed. A knock. Katydid chirps return to the background fuzz. A knock. I walk to the door and open. Two girls. Fear in their eyes. Congoleum footfalls mean trespassers to them. Two girls fearing for their safety, I reassure. I will check things out. To their room across the hall I send them.

The starting part of this proem utilizes short bursts of sentences before the later parts will go into longer lines with less punctuation. Notice how tight the mood is as opposed to either the Solar Anus or the Breton proem. But it’s a lot closer to Trakl in its style of setting up a dark expressionist environment. When the narrator actually steps into the corridor to search, only then does the poem expand.

Tenigued, I venture down the bare lit hallways suffused in dim amber with footfalls just ahead, just around the corner, just beyond the closed door to the stairwell. Up to the second floor I stride still behind the footfalls cynosial to my quest.

And there are also a lot of Latinate science & medical/biological invoking terms to create that abandoned hospital/zombie movie atmosphere – ‘petri’, ‘fetus’, ‘hypnogogy’, ‘hypnopompic’, ‘corneal’, ‘jaundiced’ etc… I am not sure what cynosial means because nothing comes up on Google, but it reminds me of cyanosis, and the word itself has that medical mood that fits.

(edit: As Dan clarified in comments – Cynosure)

Around halfway through, the mood becomes thicker and ornate in its imagery – doubling up on the grotesque feeling of the circus, bringing up a couple of references (Romero, Alice in Wonderland, Mardi Gras), outlining the feeling of the hallway with thick descriptions of ambiguous horror states (arms & faces coming from the walls, looking into dim mirrors and fearing their pull). A lot of these are horror tropes, seen frequently in movies & video games, taken to powerful extremes through the language. It all culminates into the description of two figures – a vomiting zombie-thing and the narrator’s dad – and then he runs into a crowd of people to chase the zombie-thing, and then the entire crowd warps into zombies too, and the dream peters out into the small bursts of sentences like before.

Moving on to Subsumption – this is where the poem seems to mirror the flow in Ariel – the sense of waking up and regaining control. The anaphora of ‘I am’ pushes the focus in, while also linking up with an earlier repetition of ‘I am’ – yet, the imagery in every part of this section is still in that disjunctive dream state, which helps outline the struggle.

Eventually, the poem ‘dives up’ into the reconstitution of the self upon wakening, also reflected in how the lengthy ‘I am’ lines condense into small spurts of poetry.

Finally, we come to the last part – which parallels the start to invoke the sense of slumber dimming into clarity. The imagery changes from the nightmarish ‘expressionistic horror of a looming menace’ into ‘stone apathy’, ‘no menaced pulse reflecting’, ‘late rumblings of a wraithic gait’ – a softer thrust.

We can see this perfect invocation of a mood in glimpses through past poetry – but everything comes together here. Wakening & fragmentary short poesy in Plath Ariel. Dark atmosphere & prose poetry in Trakl. Surrealistic spasms of imagery done better than many so-called Surrealists. Twisting of the normal into the uncanny from Kees. The ornate symbols of the Romanticists and the Gothics. Congoleum Footfalls encompasses all of them into its structure. It showcases a fine-tuning of all these techniques into a poem that best encompasses the experience of dreaming. Although it lacks a cohesive meaning – it shows more of the poet’s sprawling expertise than anything else.

I think this poem also proves that even if a poet merely wants to invoke a mood or atmosphere rather than meaning – there are also complex and imaginative ways to create such a thing without merely diving into pure feeling or automatic writing like Breton did. Like how composers of Symphonies will have specific structures within their works even though music is all about feeling, the structure of the poem has a sound logic even though the content within is dreamlike. And it is this logic of form, and not the merely the content’s mood – that defines the poem as perfect.

Dan Schneider’s (Unpublished) Poem: To Look Away

Poetry can be about anything: even Spider-man! To prove this point, I share with you one of Dan’s superhero sonnets. A part of his countless portraits of characters throughout pop culture.

Although this poem is significantly less dense than many of his other greater works, it still contains an interesting twist & view of the message – and thus, might be more instructable as to how a person should understand this idea of writing to communicate.

Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.

This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.

 

It was only when he first read of Mauthausen,
and of the little Jewish girl- Hildie Meyer,
that Peter Parker understood what he had done
by not stopping the thief who- then- killed Uncle Ben:

Mauthausen, as you can infer from the poem, refers to a concentration camp.

These four lines state the primary thrust of the text – splitting apart the historical reality of war & Peter Parker’s realization of what it means to be a hero. They serve as scene-setting for the inversions of the next two stanzas.

In terms of technique, there is a particular subtlety in leaving the 3rd line open through enjambment. Expanding the guilt beyond not stopping the thief – to a host of other deeper implications that will become clearer as the poem passes. Also interesting is the word ‘then’ – which reinforces the split between historical & present, although this interpretation probably has lesser weight compared to the form of the poem itself – where the ‘historical’ section thrusts itself outwards from Parker’s present.

Beyond that structure, the entire poem utilizes a rhyme scheme – which gives it a lighter tone, helping fit the theme of the poem – which, is ultimately about immaturity. (In other words, as per Dan’s view of how form should contribute to meaning, it is not forced/cliched rhymes for the sake of rhyming)

For in 1943, in her own death mill,
young Hildie always chose to look the other way
as her playmates and friends were led to the showers.
But, what could she do? She had no superpowers,
was weak, starved, only twelve years old. And, anyway,
they were Gypsies, Slavs- she had her family, still…

If I were to point to the line which constitutes the stanza the most – it would be the very first line, because you could call it the ‘head-turner’. On very first glance, I thought that the poem was talking about Hildie as a victim of the concentration camp – but the later lines paint her out as one of those who seems to have escaped it, while her ‘playmates and friends’ went to the showers. Once you get this clear in your head, the ‘death mill’ takes on a different level altogether. In a way, it is one of the many images of an unaware mind (also appearing in ‘Tis Better… – and other ‘de-mythologization’ poems like The Finn & War Comix #1452) that Dan always loves to touch upon throughout many of his poems.

The last 3 lines of the stanza seems to transition into her inner monologue justifying her lack of action against the Nazis. The irony here is that all three races, Gypsies, Slavs, and Jews – would be what the Nazis considered Untermensch, or inferior people. Yet, this doesn’t just serve to outline the historical background – a mere fact – but it brings that divide into our current time. In other words, Hildie isn’t just inferior in terms of her race classification – but her lack of action & status as a child.

Now, the above interpretation might seem like it requires historical background to become clear – but even if you don’t know the details of it, you can still see inklings of the divide. The fact that she was “weak, starved, only twelve years old” or that she had “no superpowers” – and also that she sticks to her joys and ignores others miseries with “she had her family, still”. All of these qualities are immanent in the poem – although they become illuminated with context, and point to what must have been illuminated within Parker’s head – in the narrative of the poem. In fact, the existence of this divide gives a deeper possible meaning to the ‘showers’ that Hildie’s friends are pulled away to – although this meaning is more like a flicker and requires a bit of a stretch to see.

This is where I drop a cultural sidenote that is separate from the core elements of the poem: given that Superman, the definitive superhero & one of the main progenitors of the genre, was born from the idea of an Ubermensch – this provides another cultural layer to the text. Now, Peter Parker is an interesting choice to pick as the main character within the poem – since it’s not only that his backstory fits (“with great power comes great responsibility”) – but also that his character is the exact opposite of the Ubermensch signified by Superman. He’s frequently viewed as the ‘awkward nerd’ superhero – and, in a way, he’s also an avenue for such escapisms.

So, we have all these mappings & connections in place – about the divide between Untermensch & Ubermensch, between those who have the will to stop crime and those who don’t, and between childishness and maturity.

This was where young Parker closed the book, and began
to see that inaction can lead to a pyre –
like millions of Hildies, and that to not be one
could free the world from its need for a Spider-Man.

Poetry can be about anything – as long as we understand the deeper movements and essentials that drive humans to do what they do. Once we understand that, we can use any starting point as a means of communicating those general essentials.

Like, our need to close the book, put away those superhero films, and face a quality of life higher than what we’ve been kept in all this time – to go beyond ‘young Parker’. Our need to, as the first line so slyly enjambs – ‘begin’.

In my first reading of this poem, I went through it faster than I should have – and my mind made a slight psychological misreading at the last line. I read ‘its need for a Spider-Man’ – and then constituted the last two lines in my own mind as somehow just being a recapitulation of Parker’s will to become a superhero. I didn’t read the ‘free the world’ part. Yet, this act of misreading added an extra layer to the text for me.

Our minds are, after all, prone to seeing what we want to see.

In going through Dan’s poetry, there is a constant reminder to be larger than what you are, at any given moment in time. That there are hidden realities just out of reach, and there is a deep mystery at the bottom of everything. Even though a work like Watchmen attempted a sort of critique of the childish dreams implicit in the genre – it failed to be larger than what it was because of a keen sense of nostalgia & too much limits to its vision – an inability to truly extricate itself from the detritus of the genre.

We must go higher. We must say bigger things. The work of Literature is just beginning.

Dan Schneider’s (Unpublished) Poem: ‘Tis Better To Live Than To Perceive

Poetry can be about anything. The proof of such a statement comes when you flip through the whole 3000+ pages of Dan Schneider’s Collected Poetry. There is no subject that cannot be written about, nor is there any reason not to try. Yet, many people confuse this precept for superficial innovation – believing that even nonsense strings of communicatively disparate words can provide a depth of communication.

One can write about anything – and this is true in the same way that you can have a conversation with friends about any topic. But, at the very bottom of the myriad throng of things and surfaces, there are still a few human essentials that will abide, no matter what you write about.

All this sounds a bit too abstract – but all you have to do is to compare several poems from completely different poets to get a grasp of an essential movement underneath all of the hubbub. If you look at Philip Larkin’s High Windows, Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man, Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, Du Fu’s Ballad of The Ancient Cypress, and ee cummings’ ‘I carry your heart…’ – there are movements from smaller to larger, despite all of the above poets writing in completely different styles. There is some knot that binds the ‘high windows’, the Archaic Torso, the ‘nothing that is not there’, the Ancient Cypress tree, and the ‘root of the root and the bud of the bud’. A bind that seems to encompass the widest scope of things born from the most particular things. If you take an Eastern view of life – this might be best represented by that ambiguous word The Tao. Perhaps, if some future scientist were to discover some Theory of Everything – he might find an abstract mathematical structure behind all of these poems – but such an idea is mere speculation for now.

If you look at the poems of Dan Schneider, you can see the same thread knotting together several of his poems – some of them that I’ve already analysed. For example, the image of the Mothman in The Mothman, the “no feeling I do not create” in George Schneider Plays Handball, the ‘body of perfection’ in Holy Sonnet 1, and Part 3 of Big Red. There is a clear hierarchy at work here, hiding underneath all these words – and it is not a hierarchy determined by any tangible quality or stiff aesthetic formula – but different scopes of smallness and largeness.

Okay, I’ve blathered on a bit too long on this point – so let me move into one such poem that dives into such a hierarchy. This sonnet is called ‘Tis Better to Live Than Perceive

‘TIS BETTER TO LIVE THAN PERCEIVE

My cousin never paid attention to the huge oak tree
slowly growing on France Avenue; his youth pursuing
selfish inward things, his eyes remaining dim cherubim
in the hyena dark of suburban monotony.

As the years struck by, they lunged at recognition
until one day his frail body hove back and roared
in a reptilian blood – in the colder snows,
of January winter, my cousin in worse

condition than the newfound ophidian flexion
of his mind – so he taunted, raved and clawed
at the glaring eyes of the universe

probing his own, a protozoan; under glass
he laughed, then suffocated and became
what he is. And the tree remained growing.

Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.

This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.

 

With that said – let’s break it down.

My cousin never paid attention to the huge oak tree
slowly growing on France Avenue; his youth pursuing
selfish inward things, his eyes remaining dim cherubim
in the hyena dark of suburban monotony.

When reading this poem, always keep the enigma of a title in the back of your mind – because this interplay of what it means to ‘live’ and to ‘perceive’ is a constant strand throughout the poem itself.

The very first line, despite being simple in its statement – sets up the divide. We have a cousin who cannot perceive, and a huge oak tree – possibly symbolic of ‘living’ (and the final statement of the poem fits it as such). Those of you who are more well-read in poetry might want to take note of other such poems where the symbol of the tree has been designated as something higher – like the Ancient Cypress as mentioned above, or Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. You can compare how they choose to go about their subject matter and weigh out in your mind – who deals with the image in the widest possible manner.

But I’ve only been discussing content so far. Even in the very first line, despite the lack of punctuation, the way the statement is read can allow for a slight pause after ‘attention’ – furthering the divide.

Moving on to the next line, we return to Dan’s characteristic sly enjambments. By cutting off at ‘pursuing’, it leaves the verb hanging open, which you can cognitively map to either the ‘huge oak tree’, the ‘slowly growing’ or the ‘selfish inward things’ of the next line. Of course, the grammar of the poem links the pursuit to the lesser inward things – but the very fact that the other connections exists pose the question as to what is possible. For example, you can read the huge oak tree as representative of nature, and the fact that youth pursues that, as well as selfish inward things – can create the interpretation that ultimately, all of our selfish acts and desires are born from the same root of nature as the tree itself – and we pursue the dark roots in our own selves. But, this is merely example, and to narrow it down to this interpretation only cheapens the poem. In any case, at the bottom of it all, you can still see the hierarchy of something larger and something smaller at work.

‘Dim cherubim’ is a very interesting image – because it can link to youth & naivete, but is also slightly religious & cosmic – so it has a higher link that could be characteristic of the state that all men who lack vision fumble around in. Take the thread too far and you could even view it as a critique of religion fostering such lack of vision, but we shall not follow that because it feels too spread out from the core communication of the text. The final line of the first stanza poses a strong, kind of gothic, image for the environment that coddles the cousin in his lack of perception.

Now, realize something. If you had been keeping the title at the back of your head all this while – you would have noticed a kind of contradiction. The title poses, clearly, that perceiving is worse than living – but this first stanza seems to be a critique of a lack of perception. It seems to be attacking the cousin for fumbling around in the darkness without any deeper insight to life. With this question in the back of our mind, we can continue on to the next stanza.

As the years struck by, they lunged at recognition
until one day his frail body hove back and roared
in a reptilian blood – in the colder snows,
of January winter, my cousin in worse

The very start of this stanza provides hints of the answer to the enigma posed in the title. The strong kinetic thrust of the words – ‘struck’, ‘lunged’ – linking time to recognition. In the end, a human cannot escape its own self-awareness, as the mind will force it in times of struggle. The enjambment places recognition as perception in a general sense – but it could also be recognition of the tree, which reinforces the divide.

The next line narrows the state in which this recognition was inspired – it was created through the frailty of the body. The description of a body that ‘hove back and roared’ gives me a twisted image of an Ouroboros-like sick man turning into himself. The ‘reptilian blood’ of the next line links it to something deeper in nature – maybe even prehistoric. Perhaps, something of a comment on how consciousness – and self-perception – was born from the earliest animal’s need to perceive and engineer his environment around him to survive.

That interpretation aside – the effect of the image has multiple layers. It pulls out into the ‘coldness of insight’ (ala Stevens’ wintry view of the world in the Snow-Man), and also the wintry season of old age where we are in deterioration, or the ‘worse’. The primary movement across this stanza is a kinetic struggle turning over to a winter (whether in mind or body) state – and this has a lot of implications for how we, as humans, experience life itself.

condition than the newfound ophidian flexion
of his mind – so he taunted, raved and clawed
at the glaring eyes of the universe

The image of the snake (or Ouroboros) is reinforced through ‘ophidian’ – which, incidentally, refers to the class for snakes and other related reptiles. The enjambment here links the flexion to ‘in worse condition’ and ‘of his mind’ – which poses an interesting idea that the cousin (or his body) was in a worse condition than his mind. How many sick people are there in wards that have to suffer through the awareness of their own misery – unable to escape the dark circle that the mind creates for itself?

To follow up on this, the ‘taunted, raved and clawed’ can be linked to both ‘of his mind’ and ‘the glaring eyes of the universe’ – pointing to both the struggle within himself and the struggle against a higher cosmic force. This is the perception that is worse than life – the constant sight that we have to live under – both witnessing the good and bad things within ourselves.

probing his own, a protozoan; under glass
he laughed, then suffocated and became
what he is. And the tree remained growing.

By this point, I feel that the poem has become clearer in sight and I need not explain it to myself anymore – and I no longer merely perceive it, but it has started to live inside me. I am reminded of a moment in the Army during Field Camp – when we had to sit around in the forest and wait for the next bout of torturous training that the sergeants would inflict on us. We couldn’t bring any books, nor could we bring any phones – and so we merely had the existence of our own bodies and minds to keep us company. Most of the soldiers were engaged in chatter, and some were so tired that they were trying to rest by closing their eyes and hugging their guns. Some of them would make complaints and fling expletives to no one in particular. In such a state, I took the second option, and tried to curl up into myself.

Yet, there were the trees, and they had been there from the very start, and had probably witnessed countless batches of soldiers in such a state. If, at that point in time, I had had the vision to look up and perceive that properly – as what they were – I might have pondered the elegance of the life force inside them that allowed them to stay up in such a fashion – across the years.

Now I have the words to describe the thought. And if I had read a poem like this back in those days – I would have surely had those words on my lips, at that moment of barest life.

‘Tis better to live than perceive!