At a mere 80 or so pages, Jessica Schneider’s novella – The Architecture of Loss – manages to achieve much within its short length. Although, being an early work of hers, it sets up many of her favorite tropes and themes that would be further refined in later works – that fact does not prevent it from being singularly unique due to the countless innovations held within and the sheer beauty of the prose. Furthermore, the novella is available for sale on Amazon, which means you can buy it now and get a taste of the future to come when the rest of her novels are published for the public to finally consume.
Since the novella is absolutely dense, and because I don’t want to spoil too much of the experience – I’ll be covering some prose sections, as well as some parts of the book’s structure, to illustrate the many things that this work has to offer. Firstly, here is the summary of the book as posted on Amazon:
Victor Erickson has recently resigned from his position as an architect due to reasons he finds too painful to disclose. His family, worried about his isolation and sanity, take turns monitoring his well-being. Finally, on one snowy winter morning, Victor finds himself enclosed within his own inner world while his daughter Anna visits. As Victor relays a tale about having almost drowned as a boy, the two find themselves discoursing about death, dream and the illusion of perception. With neither able to leave due to the impending weather, Anna too finds herself stuck within her own stillness.
At the core of the novella is the above mentioned ‘discourse’ between Anna, and her father, Victor. You would think that this would turn the book into one of those musty literary experiments centering around clashing voices. Yet, despite a bulk of the book being dialogue (and thus the subtitle ‘A Novella in Three Acts’ – jumping between play/film and prose sections), there is so much revealed in the exchange between Victor and Anna, and it is told so wonderfully, that it does not read like an experiment at all. The novella has many innovations, but they flow and cohere so naturally that the mind is caught in the scenes, of the characters and their world, rather than the artifice.
One such innovation is in how the story opens. It begins with a quick scene between Victor and his wife (initially unnamed) – showing the tension of their marriage combined with some of the lightest wintry prose ever placed on a page:
“I don’t care if it is cold. I don’t want to hear the flame,” Victor responds, still sitting in his bathrobe and pulling his blanket up close to his face. He can feel his body shivering, even though the living room is modestly warm. He is beside the shut window, and outside he can see from his chair the snows rolling into hills of white bedding, appearing almost transparent, and without human tracks. It is supposedly the coldest January the city has experienced for five decades or more.”
The second chapter then jumps to some time in the past, when Victor and his wife (Christabel) first got together – they met as teens because their parents both owned lake houses on Lake Superior. It is a longer chapter and focuses mainly on Christabel’s perspective. The amazing thing is how, after this chapter, we will hardly see Christabel in person (except two other chapters) despite the massive role she seems to play in Victor’s life – because Anna will come in and the long dialogue between Victor and Anna will begin. Yet, we will feel Christabel’s presence sometimes through the dialogue – when she is mentioned and her character slips through the gaps. This is also the only chapter-length third-person narrated flashback in the whole book. In other words, what we get, through this momentary dip into memory – is a mere hint at the foundation of all of Victor’s later suffering through a god’s eye view of his background. Although, certainly, flashbacks aren’t a new thing in an author’s repertoire – the way it is used here is truly innovative, for it where it is chosen and how it plays out. We even get a slight touch of intertextuality with Coleridge’s poem Christabel being used in the chapter itself, to further the overall atmosphere of stillness.
The character of Victor is also extremely interesting. He is a depressed unemployed architect lazing at home in utter solitude, and when you think about this description you can think about all the possible ways that this book could fall into cliché. Works centering around angsty or depressed characters – Plath’s Bell Jar or Dazai’s No Longer Human – have been prevalent throughout the whole of history. Victor is different because the book does not conform to merely his perspective, uses Anna as a foil (although she is full of angst herself), and the melodrama/solipsism/self-pity/self-suffering exists solely within the character and is not submerged into the whole book. The result is that there are moments when Victor is pathetic, and there are moments when he is wise and can see into Anna’s problems while being blind to his own, and there are moments when he glimpses into a higher cosmos of creativity – he is complex and multi-faceted, and he does not fall into the utter anomie like so many other portrayals of depression out there.
Victor also follows the trope of the overly intellectual artist (or artistic wannabe) caught up in his own dreams and abstractions – a character that does not just appear in other works by Jess, but also in the works of other creators like Bergman and Woody Allen. During some parts of the dialogue, he will jump into poetic leaps of fancy and abstract ideas. For example:
“No, it wasn’t. Because I had this overwhelming sense of peace. Granted, when I woke I was in a sweat, but during the dream, it was nice to feel forgotten. Some might say that sounds depressing, but it was a state of otherness that I admired,” he says. She waits for him to finish, pausing just enough to make sure he is not going to speak again.
“Sounds depressing, dad,” Anna says while lifting their empty bowls. They have both finished lunch.
“No, but it’s not. It wasn’t at all. It was just strange, really.”
“It sounds strange,” she says before adding, “Is that what makes you happy? To be forgotten about? Don’t you want people to remember you? I mean that’s the last thing I would have thought you’d find reassuring—to be wiped out of oblivion.”
“You make it sound so melodramatic. But I can assure you, it wasn’t like that.”
This exchange comes when Victor recounts a dream he has of being in a “giant room that was all red, and then it felt like it was swallowing me up”. The interesting thing is how, within the context of Victor’s personality – this exchange outlines his depression and angst – yet, when seen in the context of the whole novella, can be attached to so many different symbols and ideas that are brought up within the book about art and the cosmos. This is a leap of association that never appears in the solipsism of Plath’s Bell Jar – that a character can simultaneously dig internal into himself, and yet outline higher things as well.
Anna, as you can tell from the above extract, serves to viciously pull Victor out of his own head – even though the ferocity she uses to do so outlines her own flaws. So, a chunk of the dialogue focuses on these two self-loathing intellectuals, despite being father and daughter, tearing at each other and trying to assert their own ego. Once again, the novella could have gone in all sorts of wrong cliched directions – were it not for the fact that Jess took the best lessons from creators like Bergman and Allen, and never lets the internal suffering of the characters dominate the work.
In order to achieve this, the prose is absolutely important. Jess inserts little pockets of astounding natural beauty throughout her novella to contrast with the selfishness and angst of the human emotions in the dialogue. Here are just some snippets to give you a taste:
Often on afternoons Christabel would sunbathe with her sisters, reading a collection of poetry, or when her literary father wasn’t around, a romance novel. She would sun all afternoon and shut her eyes and once again pretend to sleep. She would do this until the heated slants of sun caused her skin too much color, where by then she’d force herself into the overwhelming lake large enough to be a fresh water ocean, and walk her nude feet across partly sanded stones not yet soft.
A good hour has passed since they’ve eaten, and the snow still falls with a sense of unceasing persistence. Anna worries a little about her husband, in the hopes that his drive home will be alright. She is standing near the main window, which faces their large orchard, and a small fountain her father installed several years ago for her mother’s birthday looks back at her. Water that once fell freely through it six months ago in summer now stands stubborn and covered in a sheet of ice, buried below a shroud of white. The snow continues to fall everywhere around it, even making a small, pointed cone on the top of the small stone statue’s head. It makes the small naked boy appear to be wearing a hat. Anna watches while her breath makes fog on the glass, and it is upon noticing such, that she realizes she’s been standing there for too long.
Her face is hot, and so Anna rises to excuse herself. Down the hall, the walls are colored with the shades of expired afternoons, not quite night but too late for sun. The sky is gray and the trees laden with snow. Their branches point outward in contrast to the blending forgetfulness of the sky, which appears as one solid separateness, close and contained. A lowness holds her, and so she moves with it across the dimly lighted hallways, across the painted walls that have nothing for her to hold and yet they hold her, ever loosening as an old touch, where the hand she feels ever so briefly for a time then falls away without any sense of loss.
The lighthouse, although stagnant, makes a moving point of light along the length of the sea, growing ever deeper as the aging waves, these waves that greet shores on every point of earth, saturating it and all parts of land till there is blue against all sides. And then he finds himself on the island once again, near his summerhouse, and notices that his hands are not as they are in winter. In winter they appear whiter, when the winter works to wipe away any previous stains from the sun. But now his hands look as he remembers from his youth—copper colored and unclean from having sanded away years of stone, as though he too is a block of something solid. Thinking he sees his young wife, he waves but she does not wave back. She only continues to read and sip her drink in the lukewarm sun, her frame dangling in the hammock, watching while her single toe labors against the ground to move the rest of her. How relaxed she looks, thinking then that it has been so long since he remembers her appearing in such a way.
As you can see from above, the prose is incredibly refined, and also supports the themes by contributing to the sense of wintry stillness the two characters are trapped in. The moments where prose erupts are also smartly chosen, and the lighthouse paragraph above comes from Chapter 7, which is a telling of the red room dream that Victor later mentions to Anna. Though Victor cannot adequately explain it to his daughter, the prose does the work for you and conveys what he wishes he could convey.
Now – all of the above only serves to outline bits and pieces of the work in question, but how everything comes together can only be seen when reading the book itself. I have not touched on one of the most important aspects of the novel, which is the symbols used – especially that of ‘architecture’. I want you to think about what expectations and preconceived notions comes from reading the summary and weighing the title “The Architecture of Loss” in your head. It can refer to both internal and external architecture – and the divide is put into question throughout the novella, as the environment seems to seep into the characters, and vice versa. When I first read the title I was thinking, stereotypically, in terms of the loss of someone close – but the way in which both words – ‘architecture’ and ‘loss’ – are played with, and expectations subverted all the way to the very end, and constant layers of meaning built and overlapping – it is something that I feel has to be experienced rather than explained.
I hope this review will help spur you on to purchase The Architecture of Loss for yourself and experience the journey in full. It is merely an appetizer compared to the rest of Jessica Schneider’s plentiful corpus, but great nonetheless. And, for any publishers out there – you’re missing out on one of the greatest prose writers of our time (and not just one, but two!) – so get publishing!
Greatness is about difference. This statement becomes all the more apparent when comparing the works of Dan Schneider to the works of Jessica Schneider. Despite having an overlap in influences and inspirations, both writers manifest their voice in completely different ways. This is an important lesson for any young writer, or creator in general, in that rather than emulation (“I want to write like Shakespeare/Bergman/Whitman! etc… etc…”) – differentiation should be one’s primary aim. Differentiation, firstly, on a technical level, in the avoidance of clichés and previously-tread ground – before using an edifice of influences to rise up into distinction of voice.
Compared to Dan’s expansiveness, Jessica’s works are smaller – from those couple of novels I’ve seen, they usually resolve between 100-200 pages. Yet, this is not a criticism, because of the sheer precision & beauty of her writing, which allows her to mine deeply into microstructures of her characters, while Dan aims more towards a macrocosmic scope of world. And, through this focus on the micro, it still powerfully translates a portion of reality – internal reality – and reaches into its own distinct area.
The excerpt I’ll be analysing today is a few pages from Jessica’s unpublished novel – The Vanishing Spider – covering the beginning of the book & outlining aspects of her artistic voice to future readers, also counter-acting the possible misconception that Dan praises Jessica’s writing out of some kind of nepotism rather than perception of actual quality. Hopefully my analysis can prove her objective greatness to you. Jessica has two books published so far, and you can find her Amazon page over here. Alex Sheremet has also done a review of her novel – Quick with Flies – over here.
Before I get into the excerpts, let me quickly summarize The Vanishing Spider. It focuses on Sister Jacinta – a nun of the Dominican Order who is also a poet – and her various reflections towards God, her own Art, and life in general. The Bergman influence is strong in terms of themes like God’s Silence and its analysis of religion – but Jessica distinguishes herself from the film-maker in many different ways. The 2 main plot-threads are Jacinta’s attempts to get her book of poems published by the Church’s publishing press, and her bond (positive or negative) with one of the priests in the Church called Father Marko. Ultimately, though, the book places Jacinta as a spectator to various aspects of the religious life, and is less concerned with a linear storyline than a gradual development of several themes, symbols, character personalities and narrative threads. Yet, the novel cannot be charged as a “work where nothing happens” despite seeming so – at least to people who read for that purpose – since there is still a direction it heads towards, pulling together all its separate threads towards a single tapestry.
Despite being a book about religion, and despite Jess probably being non-religious herself, it does not concern itself solely with religious grappling (e.g. Dostoyevsky or any other book centering on stuff like doubt) – nor does it concern itself solely with didactic criticisms of religion (although it does show the hypocrisy and stupidity of some religious types). The Vanishing Spider treats religion as an object of analysis, takes a ‘God’s eye view’, and aims to illuminate as many sides of it as possible. Thus, it combines all perspectives and ideas into one, and this is what distinguishes it as Art rather than anything smaller. Jacinta does have religious grappling & doubts, and she does see stupid religious types & there are criticisms of the whole institution – but Jess is more concerned with showing how Religion ties in to things like Humanity’s perception of the Cosmos, or the Creative urge, or the connection to deeper Nature. Let me remind you again that she touches on all this in about 150 pages or so.
Without further ado, let me present you with the prologue section of The Vanishing Spider, entitled “Some Form of Separateness” – and the 3 pages of chapter 1:
Let me reveal to you a limitation that comes with analysing a book like The Vanishing Spider on such a small scale (prologue & 1st chapter). I cannot show you to development and permutation of the symbols and parallels across the entire scope of the book, so your perception of this prologue will murkier due to its abstraction, while there are parallels that I perceive for having finished the whole already. Even then, I can still show you how Jessica sets up the themes that will come.
The book begins with a rumination, and here we already see the trappings of that whole “religious doubt” theme, although Jess doesn’t centre exactly on religion, and uses a statement of doubt in general. Yet notice how there is a leap in the first paragraph already, suddenly jumping to an unknown ‘student’ talking about how an artist perceives the greater cosmos. Just to illustrate the difference between Jess’s approach, and someone who starts with a same sort of rumination but goes into a smaller scope – here is famous YA writer John Green, and the opening of his book Paper Towns:
Notice how Green’s opening aims to be snarky & overly-precious, and cuts off the rumination on luck by linking with the main storyline in a ‘boy-meets-girl’ sort of cliché. I also use a YA example to show how simple Jess’s style, but how her ideas are complex. She doesn’t care about Green’s lesser approach, and is willing to leave a schism between the two parts of her paragraph – striking purely at theme, and describing exactly what is necessary. Then, she breaks off that paragraph for a single line with a wonderfully enigmatic image: “Even the most prestigious school is not immune to fire”.
This image seems abstract, but you can see a dichotomy set up within it – splitting between a “prestigious school” and the dangerous element of fire. This line will appear once again in a later part of the story, but for now it sets up a symbol that can be applied to a lot of things – like the primary sacred/profane distinction that exists at the heart of religion, or, to most people really, who find certain things they care about but are always subject to degradation (for example, the later plot points where Jacinta’s poetry is critiqued by other nuns who are incredibly dense towards her art). Also note how interesting and novel the image is.
Once more, it jumps back into a longer paragraph, this time with another split of image – student & teacher – before segueing into what seems like a memory. Here is the part that links up to the “separateness” in the prologue’s title, and this develops the previous idea of the “divided world” of the artist, as well as all sorts of separations cosmic or divine. Think about how you could read this with different frames, say, as Jacinta remembering her childhood, as an artist separating herself into her characters, or even as the possible primal conditions that builds up into the urge to religion (“younger time”) & that lonely childish form parallaxing with themes of God’s Silence and existential solitude.
Finally, the prologue ends back with a single line, raising a question that seems to set up the rest of the novel “Who wants to live amid a memory?”. There is still a lot of mystery to whom the ‘I’ and the ‘Creator’ and the ‘story’ to be relayed are – for now – but you can still feel a general trajectory to the whole prologue even if it is currently enigmatic. Beginning with a statement of cosmic questioning, linking up to the theme of art, setting up a dichotomy, jumping into the concrete memory & image of what seems like a lonely young girl, before ending on a question that speaks the denial of such a memory. Because of that structure, and because of how simple the words are, it is totally different from some po-mo writers that aim towards aporia, textual leaps, and a slapdash with 50 or so abstract lines and ‘surreal’ imagery thrown to bamboozle rather than to gently force contemplation and set up future developments of theme. Note how gentle and relaxed the flow of the prose is in Jess’s case too.
Now we move to chapter one of the novel.
In the first chapter, we get to see the primary approach to prose, which is to form each chapter from a series of immaculately crafted poetic vignettes, which might not necessarily be linked together in terms of plot, there are definite links in terms of theme. In a sense, you could think of each vignette as equivalent to a line of poetry, with the title being the unifier of all parts. Take note that not all the chapters are written like this, and Jess doesn’t write with the same voice all the way through. She mixes up the vignette-chapters with chapters that centre around dialogues, and sometimes she centres the vignettes on a single place rather than letting it float like freeform reflection. Like Dan, she aims not to repeat herself.
Chapter 1 is titled “The Beauty of Dead Flowers” – and the first vignette grounds that image in, focusing mostly on the concrete. The second vignette develops from the first. It is shorter & posits that the title-phrase “the beauty of dead flowers” comes from a singer – “the name I could not be sure”. Now, the astute reader’s first association will probably be towards themes of God Silence, if one knows of the religious thrust before reading the book of course. Such associations stem from the language of absence that Jess uses – “kept hidden”, “no significance”, “Where were they from?” and the singer’s lack of name. All of this points to a deeper reality than mere descriptor, and frames the flowers as something totally different such that the mind cannot help but sense a deeper intellectual structure at work here. She also ends the first vignette with a rumination “I doubt any man could ever grow to become so sensitive” which pushes out from the image into something more internal.
The next vignette pulls away from the flowers, into a different image – this time actually touching on the ‘Creator’. Using the image of a mirror, Jacinta dives into a small interrogation of self-identity. What stands out to me in this vignette is the beautiful way that her face is described – “peach-coloured and slightly lined at the eyes, surrounded by a veil of cloth”. The details that Jess chooses to focus on frame the face in a novel way, and it matches the daintiness of the flower-image in the first vignette, possibly even allowing for a correspondence between the two due to the choice of a colour that associates with fruits & nature. Further developed is the idea of separation from the prologue, especially in how it contrasts the separateness of the artist with this idea that the opposite of separateness defines religion.
And next we come to a dichotomy, of “basements and attics” – one of which shelters while the other points towards “sky-bound things”. This vignette has many facets to it. This idea that Man is split between sheltering Earth & higher things is an old theme, of course, but Jess uses an image that links to Jacinta’s memory, merges up with the memory established in the prologue, and even creates a metaphorical resonance between the man-made attic and a ‘tree’ – merging the image with the realm of nature. So, this single vignette connects to the old mythological divide, to the memory of Jacinta, to the natural imagery used in previous vignettes & will be used later, and just encompasses a wide variety of frames.
There is an image thereafter of Jacinta reaching into the vase to draw some parts of the flower, before releasing these parts into “the foggy, half-light of afternoon”. The twist of prose in “a fist formed me” – which does a kind of poetic leap such that the human becomes the object manipulated, even as Jacinta reaches out to grasp the flowers – is highly evocative and blends together the external action with internal action. And, as she releases the petals, it falls into memory with “grandmother’s garden” before surging all the way back into the creative process – Jacinta writing. Look at the amount of subversions and connections that occur within a mere 2 paragraphs of prose. This makes The Vanishing Spider into one of those books that, despite being so short, you have to activate your full intellectual capabilities to sift out all the facets.
Suddenly, there is a shift in tone, as the next 3 vignettes cuts away from the dainty prose and is more spoken. This is a rumination by Jacinta on the types of women who enter the convent, and she demarcates between the type who joins for more individual reasons of solitude, and those that “lives for God alone and prayer”. Jacinta claims to be “existing as both and neither”. Notice how these paragraphs could function as aphorisms if severed from the rest – but outline character and higher themes when placed in connection with the whole.
And this smoothing out of tone leads to a small bit of exposition, where we finally get Jacinta’s name and what order she belongs to. Despite being exposition, it is short and ends in an interesting way (“he performed many magical things”).
From there, Jacinta recollects a memory of seeing a movie about the Blessed Virgin Fatima. There’s a little quip from her father about Christianity that she recollects, but the point of interest to me is the core of the recollection, where the image on the screen syncs together with the idea of the miracle (the parallel is strengthened when Sister Jacinta talks about the historical Jacinta – “the one witnessing this miracle”) – and how “images of that miracle, both from the film itself and how I imagined it, ever remained within me”. Themes of religion and its connection to fiction are tapped in this recollection.
There’s also a small moment where Jacinta recalls a thought she had as a child – thinking about nuns and their need to confess – which, although not appearing now, links up with a later part of the story where Jacinta, a nun herself, ponders her own image and how she appears to other people. This also ties in with the whole idea of the reality of the miracle and its image.
After that recollection, the immediate next paragraph becomes charged with much intellectual energy. Jacinta wonders about a city called Fatima in Portugal, and how “the most fascinating events exist as something one only reads about”. The connection to divine distance/separateness is plain here. But also think about how it syncs with the core image of the “Beauty of Dead Flowers” – the viewing of apparitions from a distant city, and beautifying it in one’s own thought.
Then, Jacinta recalls a cat called Frank who lives near the chapel – and there is, once again, parallels in how Frank is named – “I am unsure who chose the name” – with all of the other symbols of absence in this chapter (and the main symbol of the ‘Vanishing Spider’).
The next image is an amazing one – as Jacinta, going to pray below the Blessed Statue – sees Frank nuzzling at her feet, and wonders about children’s preference to “to explore, to express and to see”. She notes how she would do the same as Frank if she was in the cat’s position. Besides parallels with Jacinta’s prayer at the foot and the cat’s appearance at her own – and how it links to greater themes of man, divinity, limits of knowledge, place in nature etc… etc… this also reflects Jacinta’s character when, later in the novel, she undergoes frequent self-questioning and reflection, much in the same way as Frank’s forage.
Two paragraphs – one talking about the architecture of the church – and the other talking about the scenery of nature, combined with one more recollection of the “dead flowers”. The architecture, as described, reflects the previous paragraph about “basements and attics” and sky-bound things. It nicely caps of everything that came before, providing another variation to a theme of divine separateness and human limitations. Much of this chapter is about reaching out. The line that brings it all together, I feel, is “I believe one can sift for meaning among most anything”.
The ending is a peaceful one, and allows the chapter to dissipate away, pulling back into Jacinta’s peace. So, in a single chapter we have image/symbol – poetic descriptions – aphorism – exposition – memory – witticisms – just as much as possible in 3 pages.
Reading a work like this is really panacea to the imprecisions and slowness of other writers, even those who claim precision and minimalism. Yet precision is not merely about stripping sentences to their core, but ideas – which is why Melville, despite his ornateness, can still do more per page in his condensation and variety – than a ton of others aiming towards simpler sentences.
In other words – publish Jessica Schneider! Her books will not waste your time, and can be consumed in a few days – but the ideas and poetics within them will resonate infinitely, and draw you back again and again, in a hunger for greater things.
Dan Schneider’s Selected series (7 books so far) is now on Amazon: with 2 collections of short stories, 2 prose excerpt collections (from the novels), 1 collection of excerpts from his memoirs, 1 collection of essays and 1 collection of reviews (the last two draws from Cosmoetica). The full novels, plays, poems, short stories (basically the entire Schneiderverse corpus) etc… will have to wait – but anyone who is interested in great writing can finally get a small taste of what the entire has to offer. Though, if you want to see the rest – get the man to a proper press!
This is a series of 15 short stories chosen from Dan’s various collections that he has decided to self-publish on Amazon. For people who want to get a greater Cosmoetica fix after seeing what greatness already exists on the website – go get it when it finally becomes purchasable. If the stories are proof enough of greatness, promote Dan’s work so that the corpus will be available to humanity in full one day!
Groucho on Groucho is a poem of Dan’s that may not reach the heights of condensation & subtlety of his others, but it is a good showcase of technical virtuosity. The musicality is loud & lyrical, and the thrust is clearly communicated, rather than submerged into a million other pathways of meaning. In a sense, it might be a good poem to use as an entry-point into Dan’s world – especially to those who are not yet used to the finer points of seeking meaning over aesthetics. It also serves as an example of how a poet can use other voices yet reveal his own through theirs.
So, here’s the poem in question:
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.
Rather than critique the poem stanza by stanza, I’ll just treat it as general segments this time.
The poem opens with an enigmatic line “the secret word is pain”, and an epigraph from Sigmund Freud – setting up the techniques that will be used & the themes that will be subverted further lines down. The entire poem is structured as an internal imaginary dialogue in the head of Groucho Marx, the famous comedian, with one side being the active analyst, and the other side reacting against the analysis. In this way, Freud’s epigraph works well, because it is a quote from the famous psychoanalyst talking about how psychoanalysis can be taken too far and things like cigars can be overanalysed (to be read as Phallic symbols etc…) – and not only does this sync with the pop-culture image of Groucho Marx smoking his cigar, but it plays with the self-questioning that Groucho performs throughout this poem.
The first line shows what the poem is all about. Analyst-Groucho (AG) will try to get Reacting-Groucho (RG) to admit that their comic persona is a form of escape/repression from certain traumas & pains in Groucho Marx’s life. Throughout the dialogue, the word ‘pain’ will be suppressed and swapped with another rhyming word signifying the act of repression in progress, at least until the shift at the end. In this way, the rhyme actually contributes something more than its own lyricism, helping to facilitate this process of repression. The poem could not work without the rhyme.
AG opens the poem with a series of traumas in Groucho’s life, like the fact that his father was an “ill-reknowed tailor” (typo?), that one of his brothers was a gambler & drunk, and that he was alone “like a tootsie sans fruitsie”. Notable is how Dan keeps the comedic style of Groucho’s witty comebacks, as well as making reference to some of the jokes in his films (the Tootsie Fruitsie Ice Cream joke from Day at the Races). The primary thing that AG wants to prove is:
“Or could it be that in your black tie and tails
You cover a soul that excuses and wails?”
“And at a fine ball, or in a grand stateroom,
Do your wisecracks reveal a soul rent by gloom?
And can a carnation emblem salvation?”
Yet, from this initial part we can also see the primary weakness of the poem – the lack of extensive layering & parallels within individual lines, although how the whole comes together is superb. It explores the character of the comedian, does the voice well, has a bounty of interesting images and shows the psychological process in action – but there isn’t the same line-by-line subversion that can appear in something like Angelus of the Flatiron.
After AG’s analysis, RG reacts and almost says the word ‘pain’ – but supresses it (shown by the empty underline) and replaces it with the word Spain. Then the poem goes into a wayward whimsy for a few lines, with RG hamming it up comedically to try and escape from the questioning. Although this seems to be a surreal clutter of lines, it does hide a couple of parallaxes in the imagery (“rain plainly falls”, “questions dissolve”) to the whole anti-analytic stance.
The next suppression isn’t pain, but something ending with ‘-alls’ – most likely ‘balls’ – which is a small little touch that adds to the character (the family friendly nature of old comedians) rather than the main ideas. It also shows how Dan is willing to go beyond the parameters set up (The poem would still work if ‘pain’ was the only suppression) with these small details that contribute to the whole. There is also a layer added by shifting the word to ‘halls’ (of memory), which underlines the underlying psychological process – and RG’s next part is about trying to recognize AG as an internal mirror to RG (me or a ‘ventriloquist dummy’).
When ‘pain’ is supressed again – this time for the word ‘Maine’ – RG begins with the same whimsical comedy, but shifts into lines pointing to Groucho Marx’s Jewish background. This extends the characterization (especially due to how apolitical & universal the persona of Groucho Marx seems to be), but there’s also a growing convergence to self-recognition as RG refers to AG as ‘Julius’, which is Groucho Marx’s real name separate from his persona. Finally, it leads up to a confrontation as RG gets on the offensive with:
“And my mustache and glasses are just what they are-
not some signposts of anguish or a third-rate cigar!”
Which plays the epigraph in the beginning.
As AG begins to lose, we see another technique enter into the fray. The existence of ‘visual cues’ (“getting antsy”) other than just the rhyming voice. Despite being a simple technique, this opens up into a series of pathways to be interpreted – mainly a sense of pulling away from the internal into the external. With the next suppression, it goes back to ‘rain’ – and plays off the ‘rain plainly falls’ image established beforehand with ‘plain filled with rain’. The first suppression went into comedy, the second into past bad memories, and this time RG recalls a good memory – meeting his wife Lydia. From there he is able to launch his final attack against AG.
I won’t have to delve into that stretch of speech, but take note that there’s an interesting image – a hovering duck – that suddenly appears in the midst of it. When Groucho is finally able to accept the word without supressing it, there is a visual cue of the duck dropping. From there, the poem heads towards its conclusion, ending with the gestures of Groucho Marx, rather than his speech.
This poem touches on several themes characteristic to Dan, such as the importance of memory, getting over internal suffering to touch on a greater reality, and the act of ‘knowing thyself’. It is a great example to learn how you can submerge your own voice into that of another subject, and still use it to express your own world – but, in terms of ranking I feel that it is either near-great, or it just passes into greatness (94 or 95). Notice my lack of analysing the music, as opposed to past poems – because while the ability to sustain the Groucho voice is a technical feat, it also prevents creating meaning-layers in that dimension. The poem is more inward, in touching on the psychology of Groucho Marx, than outwards (although that aspect does exist).
This is not a bad thing though, for when placed in the context of Dan’s corpus – of which there are countless other great poems that reach out further – this proves how vast his voice is. And, as Dan has previously mentioned in his William Shakespeare essay: with works where you can see more chinks in the armor (near-great works) – it also educates on how the poet reached his heights in later great works.
Edit: In an email, Dan clarified that the whole structure was based on a TV show by Groucho Marx called You Bet Your Life – which I did not know about. It clears up some of the deeper references like the ‘secret word’ and the appearance of the duck later in the poem. Dan’s comment was that “it’s the old Groucho from the 1950s tv show speaking w the younger Groucho of Broadway and the movies”. I feel this fact shows how cohesive the poem is, though, in that even without knowing about the core references, I was able to feel the general thrust of it with just a bit of knowledge about Groucho Marx & some of his films watched.