Dan Schneider’s Unpublished Poetry: Advice to Younger Poets

Today’s analysis will be a poem aimed at those out there who are fighting the good fight against the naysayers – and seeking out their own artistic voice. I don’t think I need to go much into a background or set-up. The title is self-explanatory:

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.

 

Honestly, I feel that this poem should be left by itself, and people should ruminate on it without my pulling-apart or interpretations. If you wish to let it sink into your mind on your own, then stop reading here – but if not, then let’s get right into it:

The first six lines of the poems are kind of like self-contained haiku. They cap-off at three lines each. None of the other stanzas are self-contained in such a manner, and they segue into one another. As a result, the overall effect of the poem is to have these two declarations – the primary posit of why we do what we do, and the forces that stand against us – ring out at the start. Then, the rest of the poem becomes a tumultuous river that doesn’t stop until we come to the definitive end of it. A perfect structural representation of what it must be like to step onto this crazy journey into creation.

The first 3 lines has beautiful music and drifts about in a slow way, slightly engineered by the long ‘l’ sounds of the ‘all’. By the next 3 lines, a stronger image surfaces in the ‘stars’ and ‘wind’ – but there’s an enjambment that splits the ‘moaning winds’ to characterize the frustration of the young poet, and the eventual lessening of these doubts. The first stanza was also declarative and definite in each line, while this one begins the merge through that enjambment.

The third stanza seems to begin with a lingering moment of inspiration – when we close our eyes and creativity starts seeping in. The slow pace (heaviness added with ‘thick miasma’) adds to the feeling, but there is a narrative twist in how the stanza ends. The stronger force of ‘begged, borrowed and outright stole’ cuts apart those visions we have of being some kind of Romantic poet dreamily pondering on life. Of course, originality doesn’t just come from our own, but has to be surmounted by extensive and thorough reading of what poets have done in the past – something that Dan knows all too well. Well, this is just my extended interpretation of this part, but the main thing is that the schism of tone exists so that we can read these differences into it. Besides that, the ‘expectation’ can also be read in multiple ways due to the enjambment, being both the poetic expectation of what comes next, and the expectations of life placed upon ourselves.

Then, the next stanza has a listing (‘ideas, lines, forms, and styles’) that carries over the rhythm from the previous line – and it gets stronger with the image of heat. The ‘grotesque concoction’ split can also be read in multiple ways, with the first word showing what we perceive as a mess of inspirations and plagiarisms, and the second showing what potential exists.

The fifth stanza carries over from the fourth, and adds an extra twist to the previous sentence by capping it off with a ‘yelped’ – and this stanza is full of exclamations to parry against the flow of the previous lines. More good enjambments outline the crisis & feeling of fraud that initially comes from the imitation – the ‘denial of our very own’. By cutting off before ‘soul’, it floats up more connections as to what this ‘own’ is pointing to.

All of the declarations in the fifth stanza start with ‘this is’ – so the sixth begins with the same, but shows us the refutation to those doubts, that there is a “path to an end full with greatness”. To undermine the glory of that path & statement, it caps off with ‘in the dark’ – and then begins to show the ugly side separate from those dreams. The music here amps up the gunk of life, and though Dan has frequently warned against excessiveness of modifiers in writing – this is where the modifiers fit in, to clog up the stanza and convey the effect so desired. The centre line of the sixth is the most descriptive line to appear so far, which has the effect of ‘concretizing’ an environment against the poet’s fancy.

The seventh stanza twists again, starting off as what seems to be a declaration of despair, which turns in favour of the poet – to the ‘envy’ of those who cannot enter the realm of poetry. The ‘tasteless farina of vapid doggerelists’ also cuts off the overabundant and chunky modifiers when it reaches the description of the poet ready to fly.

The eighth stanza continues the image, and adds more reinforcement through the ‘moldy and useless’ non-poets (which can be read in many ways thanks to the enjambment) – versus the You that ‘they could not shatter’.

As the end of the poem comes into sight, the repetitive ‘you’ of the ninth stanza becomes declamation of artistic individuality developing. An interesting and enigmatic symbol – ‘orangeing time’ is used here, calling up some sunrise or sunset depending on the frame that you choose to look at it. At this point, it is also good to notice all of the present participles that are floating up, ending with ‘being’ in the penultimate stanza (versus the ‘waiting’ that begins the poem). I wonder whether this was Dan’s intuition or whether he had planned it beforehand.

From here on out, I’ll talk less about the specifics and get into the general feel of the cosmic ending. The tenth and eleven stanzas plays off the initial image of the boiling after continuing the image of the chrysalis birthing – turning what was once grotesque into the ‘bubbling soup of art deep within you’. This then opens into the perennial image of the sky by the end of the eleventh stanza.

But the image of the sky here is twisted again, and it becomes more of an internal sky that you ‘hove’ back into, and also a kind of void (though, Dan structures it such that the ‘going into’ is read simultaneously with the ‘going outwards’ – because the best art is both entering into self and world) – so Dan still leaves that lingering uncertainty that results from being an artist. And then, it’s lifted up again, by changing that uncertainty into joy of being in that uncertainty.

Finally, the stunning conclusion. This is why we do things – not just because of the voice that we as artists find, but also the voice that is left behind to future generations in the form of art. It endlessly communicates even while lacking in body.

The twists in these poems, alternating between the internal and external, doubts and rewards, creation and scepticism – are what makes this poem the complex statement on art that it is. It doesn’t provide an easy view, but understands all of the complexities that goes into art. The structure of beginning inwards, then outwards, then inwards, then inwards AND outwards, and all of the above techniques that I mentioned make it a stunning poem that everyone on the path should read and try to comprehend, and draw their own from it. At the end, there’s only greatness to uncover – Venture On!

Alex Sheremet’s Doors & Exits: Our Recognizably Human School

Introduction

In the end, recognition took weeks. Acceptance, months. Understanding – of all the variables and states involved – still going, and who knows if I’ll ever make it… but if I could pinpoint the person who delivered me to the recognition of those doors in the first place – it would definitely be Alex Sheremet.

Cue months and months back. I was still in the army. I had just watched Evangelion – and was still trying to seek out various meanings, things that would place that work in perspective. An interesting fact about Evangelion. The first time I saw it was way back when I was a child, Primary 2 – showing on some cartoon channel late night. The details are unimportant, and I’ve forgotten the when and where – but the image stuck. This was the first Rebuild movie, with crisp animation that hammered home the atmosphere – the Moon & the giant robot. I had no idea what it was about – it was already more than 50% through and I only saw the ending – but the image lured and teased something higher and unexplainable. That single image stuck over the years – and I would slowly read up about what that show actually was – but I would never touch it until I entered the army. In a sense, it was a pattern that was generated by that chance encounter – coming into fruition years later. In truth, it’s probably more banal than that – but my mind chooses to mythologize it as such.

But I don’t want to talk about Evangelion that much. I came into contact with it – and it became the jumping pad to something greater, with the mediator of that jump being Alex’s article. As I said above, recognition took weeks – and, if you go to the comments section of his article, you can see a part of that (rather cringey) process in action. Either way, something stuck – or perhaps it was just the boredom of the military environment – that made me return to that article again and again, each time gaining a little more sight beyond the surface skim of words, and seeing the things that were really there – rather than imagined. While that was going on, I had also – through his criticism – discovered critic Dan Schneider: who posed even more of a struggle due to his unflinching style – but… well, you can see the end results now.

One thing that both of these critics imparted to me – the most important lesson – was the need to go into fundamentals, and to search beyond gloss & names. The belief – for example – that a person’s method or way of life can be encompassed through a single article – that you can understand a person’s position merely through a sliver of his output. People, for example, thinking that they can understand Dan Schneider through a small handful of his reviews alone – when all that is the surface scum that aggregates into a greater sense of the man. People who see him lob terms like ‘greatness’ or ‘objectivity’ about without understanding what these terms truly entails – and thus believe that he is going by some archaic standard – when his idea of it is a leap into a future that so little people have the ability to accept, even as the times move beyond them.

In a way, it helped to read both of these critics in alternation – because Alex helped to expand on the philosophical underpinnings – while Dan was the practicum. That’s not to say that either one is lacking in the other component, but simply that they had different overall focuses – and one complemented the other. The more and more I read – words melted away – as well as particularities – but method remained. It became tool – or concept. Both critics had divergences, but approached the same higher thing in their own manner.

I’ve now read almost every article of Alex’s on his site – and impressed upon me are his particularities and core themes. Core approach to subjects – no matter how distant they seem in topic. The repeated focus on human folly, impermanence (especially of politics), and evolutionary patterns. The knowledge of Classicism, Chinese philosophies, and Nietzsche. Jabs at Nabokov and Rimbaud. Those little sayings and turns of poesy that litter his articles, and make them more memorable than just evaluation: most prominently “as long as we’re recognizably human” (he even uses the phrase for deadlifting!) – and, here are a few more lengthier ones that I’ve run through my head again and again:

“Perhaps I am biased, here, and feel undue affinity with the subject, since – unlike so many other artists in the world – I am a blank slate. Or rather, I used to be. I was pulled, prodded, numbered, branded, and otherwise owned and passed like so much chattel by everything from politics, to Latin, to powerlifting and drawing. I was going to be great, a visionary, in anything that I’d ever touch, whether that meant being a politician, or one of the few fluent Latinists in the world. I was going to be all of these things until art finally pulled me in, and grew me. I could have been Norman Finkelstein. Some unionist. A yogi. Perhaps this is why I’m sympathetic. But, something didn’t let me, for I knew how such stories end. Every time I see it unfold – for it will continue to unfold in others forever – there is some nascent part of me that understands the mindset, the consummation, and even feels nostalgia in it. Yet, as if this is the drama of some parallel dimension I’ve long left behind, I can no longer reach out my hand and make it stop. Perhaps my hand, at this point, would not even understand it.”

“Politics is an idiot’s game. In fact, it’s been an idiot’s game ever since the first 2 ‘geniuses’ got together in an attempt to solve a very simple issue: how, at a time when things were a bit more, well, visceral, a couple of poltroons might scheme to overthrow their supposed betters. This is, of course, a good thing, for when aristocrats conk, people will be forced to cooperate. They’ll get smarter and better organized, until a new dilemma emerges. People, after all, still need to be led. People, who’ve improved, as a whole, are still and always will be a mob, ruled by intangibles few can ever hope to master. And people, whether they’ve got their heads in the clouds or their asses in the mud, are still aristocrats at heart, and forever part of this transaction.”

“Art is not ‘truth,’ but a dupe’s game wherein the best sleight-of-hand wins, and utterly un-real concoctions — wonderfully sketched characters, poetic dialogue — trick the consumer into accepting them as real, thus lowering one’s autonomic defenses against feeling manipulated or ‘cheated,’ defenses that were engineered into us for reasons of survival, but still come out, now, at the slightest suggestion of deceit. This is why the worst art feels so cheap, so exploitative of people’s emotional weaknesses, and why self-conscious (i.e., pretentious) art, if done well, is so bravissimo, for it STILL manages to get to the core of reality despite its artifice, thus signaling to the viewer a level of technical mastery few art-works can achieve.”

“Interestingly, this is similar to what occurs in objective discussions of art, as human culture is the sum average of ALL discussions, and responds, no matter the seeming diversity of ‘opinions’ (e.g., quantum states, to continue Hoffman’s metaphor), with steady, predictable states that always seem to find some regression to the mean when given enough time. Unlike what we normally think of as ‘average’, however, the result is in fact a seeming contradiction with quantum reality, which, in turn, is little more than a mathematical feature of that reality. The sum total – i.e., the only objective reality – remains untouched. It is, to borrow Hoffman’s use of multiple subjects, like removing a small-‘w’ world and replacing it with percipients who are nonetheless able to re-populate the world with objects, or at the very least have logic rally around them, give them life. This can be seen with simulations, sure. Yet it can also be seen by those who have, in fact, purposed and re-purposed life effectively, and in their own way, and consistently, until a system has emerged. Great artists, for example. In the meantime, scientists and philosophers will continue to play catch-up to things that we’ve known to be implicit in what had always seemed less rational pursuits.”

“Yet if Picasso’s a little too tough for beginners to always get, the art of Francis Bacon is still here, sans much of the depth that can otherwise occlude Piccaso’s meanings. This is not so much a knock on either, as it is an admission of the fact that, great or not, not every truly great painter is instructive; and, of course, not ever instructive artist will be great.”

“To be frank, I don’t give a shit about sports, and probably never will. Their basic point of interest — to test one’s mettle in some semi-standardized fashion — is partly made redundant by the hundreds, if not thousands, of new outlets for such since the nadirs of civilization are now comfortably behind us. The human body is on the outs, and Lance Armstrong must on some level understand this. There was his cancer, for one. There was the belief (fact, perhaps) that his accomplishments were impossible without a little push. And, of course, there was the inevitable fallout, replete with a target-system — and hysteria — unlike in any other sport before it, when the records were smaller, and the men a bit shorter. Yet so many were getting that little ‘push,’ as well. Sure, they went nowhere, but revealed things that no myth-maker ever will, who is just too busy for the pettiness, and the envy, that afflicts the myth-takers”

“But, art is not chaos, nor is it necessarily about reality, at least not in a crude sense. It’s pattern. Realistic situations can arise, but if they are presented in an evocative way, full of irony or juxtaposition or even some insightful commentary, there’s a depth not present in ordinary experience, even if the characters are unaware of the artist’s machinations. “

But all of the above merely appears in the style of criticism & commentary – which must necessarily be rooted in another subject – and have its core diluted as exchange for engaging in a specific communication to a specific audience. What happens when you strip all the above from its limited premises – allowing for free reign and the highest communication to occur? You get Art!

Previously, I had a glimpse of this through Alex’s short story – published on Cosmoetica – called the Sum of Others. It’s a condensation of so many of his themes, stripped down to their core elements with poesy and narrative. Yet, that was just a taster. Recently – Alex sent me two of his novels to check out. He told me to read the unpublished Doors & Exits first, because its superior (evaluated by Dan as a great novel) – and so that’s exactly what I did.

Doors & Exits

Alex’s website that I’ve linked above describes the novel (or, as he calls it, a ‘docudrama’) as such:

“Beginning with three philosophical axioms that, in the narrator’s mind, define the universe and its machinations, the book adjusts, rejects, and renews them till the very end. But while the book’s ‘place’ may be a fabrication, its conflicts are not, for its characters (kids, teachers, and those somewhere in between) have a reality someplace, somewhere, and will repeat themselves – ad nauseam – for as long as we’re recognizably human. This is the little-known difference between Truth and Reality, and Alex’s novel – a ‘genuine fake’! – straddles both.”

This description might seem a little abstract – so I’ll just describe the narrative as simplistically as I can. The main first-person narrator is a Journalist called Bright Carlyle who – in a beautifully poetic foreword – relates to us his 3 rules/axioms that determines existence. I don’t know if I can adequately explain these 3 rules, so here’s the excerpt from that foreword:

   It’s hard to see sometimes, but the universe is not that complicated. At first, things churn. That’s easy enough. Then, they mope about through space, shaped to fit anywhere and everywhere, tugging at each other from a great distance. That, I suppose, is the first rule, the axiom that shapes all else, from the spiral of the stars, to the rhythms of the gutter. And as any poor little boy lucky enough to own a telescope in New York could tell you, the two are somehow co-dependent.

Now, I wonder if that’s the key to all this, for it seems that everything wants to somehow get together. To build. At times, I could still see a child with a sand-bucket, staring out into the ambit of the sea. He is tall, important, like something coaxed off of a Romantic painting. He is solitary. Authentic. Yet if you turn your head, just a smidge, there’s a shadow beside him, plopping sand into the bucket, giving firmness to the whims of its companion. In a half-hour, there will be a sand-castle blowing off the coast. But only one boy will get the credit. Only one will be known as the builder. The creator. One boy sees. And the other; well, the other merely believes.

I know this because I was once the shadow on that beach. The accessory. I saw but did not have the skill, the wherewithal, to put that sight to practice. To make it personal not only to me. Yes, I “believed,” but I could do little else. Such is the nature of art. The word “artifice,” after all, is related to it, and it is a relationship most people don’t really think about. Not even the builders.

Yet I am not sad, for things must be this way. For us – the accessories, the believers – there is an exit that, when we go past its threshold, disassembles us to vapor, and where we (if we’re a bit patient) inevitably become a part of something else entirely. To stay within one’s purpose; to be recycled, without a fight or plaint, into something big…I do not think there is much shame in that, even as we wish for more.

That is the second rule. It has something to do with independence; with creation, perhaps, on the small scale. I don’t know what that is, exactly. In fact, I probably never will. But I do know that I am somewhere in this process. You probably are, too.

But that’s all kid-stuff, you say. Arithmetic. Probability. Well, alright. But, there’s the proverbial monkey wrench to all this, too. Rule #2 describes a universe of interlocking squares, where a vibration in one place – any place, really – is felt, almost by definition, somewhere else too, even if that’s on the very edge of the universe.

Now, this is a zero-sum game. There isn’t much movement, even if it feels as if the world is rolling off its orbit. But as the first axiom shows, things are always churning. And, in all likelihood, things will only continue to engender more squares. More repeats of the same. Yet after a million, a billion of the same moves, something goes awry. A peg is not completely flattened. A square is not a square, but its own shape, somehow, and behaves a little differently.

Almost without fail, the universe begins to churn a little harder. It’s trying to bring these trouble-makers into harmony. It’s trying to outnumber them. Usually, they are just pummeled back into the “real” world, probably because they didn’t offer much of anything in the first place, anyway, misshapen, as they were, by mere accident. You know the type. Charles Manson. Fetishists and weirdos of every stripe. Artists who smear themselves with eye-liner, then knock themselves about a room so they could sell the photographic rights to whatever “painting” that might emerge. Blip. Off they go, through that same exit as the rest of us, as if their aspirations simply never were.

Yet what if something here is, I don’t know, useful? And what if we, the collective squares of the universe, rebel against the second axiom: that things mostly blip in and out, on some micro-scale, in pairs, triplets, and so on, and accept – after years of wrangling – just one more shape into our midst? Have we, somehow, moved creation? Did we tweak the engine that stutters life?

Again: I don’t know. But therein lies the seed of the third and final rule. If cosmic lumps like you and me shoot out from the bowels of the world, go here, go there, then make a detour before finally heading for that exit, there is, somewhere along the way, another set of doors, far more numerous, yet far more distant, than the solitary exit that the rest of us must share. They don’t lead to any one place in particular. They don’t advertise. Beseech. If you turn the knob, there is no great sucking sound that pulls you in. Instead, there is only more space.

One should not be surprised, then, that most people turn right around. They want answers. Not more emptiness. Not space. And so they leave. The door stays open just a crack.

Have we hit upon a kind of torture? A dead end? No, I’d argue, for the nature of accomplishment has no end, and nothing’s that quite settled. There are simply more doors up ahead. A few, if one looks closely, are already quite ajar, and some of us are planning to go further still.

In this excerpt, you can already see Alex’s primary style. His narrator talks in casual tone, with all the little quirks of speech, but delivers abstractions grounded with great images (the sandbox image – which can be attached to many things, including a ‘great man’ view of history). But Alex is also capable of setting a scene in a quick, impressionistic form:

   I’d gotten off the wrong end. The university parking lot was in a derelict-looking side of town, and cars tended to pile up rather quickly. Yet I was drawn to somewhere more secluded, to the flowers and trees, which gave everything the look of a post-Cambrian playground. It’s been years, I thought, and I’m still surprised to find no one here. The sky was barren. A nearby fountain sounded to no end. The only thing missing – if that’s the right word – was people. Not seeing anyone else around to give me trouble, I left my car among the weeds and made my way inside the building.

Note the natural tenor of the prose, and how it moves deftly in short bursts. Only one particularly uncommon word stands out, and that word draws everything into it. But there’s still that rumination that isn’t just descriptive, about how this place looked in the past.

But, let’s put the style aside from now, and get to what the story is about:

Bright Carlyle is looking to write a book on something and has taken time off his main job to do so. He isn’t quite clear on what themes he wants to write about exactly, but he has decided that he’ll find out at a school named School of the Future located in the housing complex of Count 46. This complex is located in a bad part of the city. The rest of the novel, told to us in a condensed 125 pages, is Bright writing about the stuff going on in the school while he ruminates on his philosophical axioms & comes across a host of characters both human and philosophically symbolic.

This is the meaning of the ‘genuine-fake’ statement in the summary. Alex, as you can see from the above quotes, understands the intrinsic artifice that goes into fiction. So, he doesn’t do anything like extensive setting description or world-building, but merely ‘floats’ up a school around Bright for him to play off of with his thoughts. It also doesn’t matter if he stretches the philosophical voice of the characters (although he doesn’t do it for all characters), because they’re set within the strong poetics of Bright’s voice, which allows for the artifice to be stretched. The easiest comparison to make would be to the symbolic settings in the works of Herman Hesse.

Each chapter is like a mini snapshot on the setting, or short-story made of multiple-snapshots – which then coheres into a greater philosophical point. With an explorative novel like this – focused on the meditations of a narrator walking through a certain humanscape – it is less of an immersive book, and more of a ruminative book – built more for slow imbibing.

Yet, the key difference between this book and another book of its sort – say a Hesse novel or a book like Soseki’s Kusamakura – is the point of entry which Alex chooses. It provides a grounding rather than just floating upon poetic remembrances, symbolic orders & philosophical abstraction – and throughout the book there are both the philosophical mouthpieces and concrete anecdotes to delineate raw nature. An example would be a chapter that makes use of the transgender bathroom case (once commented on by Alex in an article) – to lead up to a greater philosophical point about the manipulation of identity and limiting of free will that the media commits. Another chapter involves a teaching assistant called Mr Alex (who happens to be deeply versed in the Classics & compares his role to the Greek cults) talking about how he imposes order on school-children – and relating an anecdote about the time he relinquished that order out of pity for a certain crying girl who had to go to detention. My favourite chapter within the novel is a story about a boy called Boy Rogers who decides to join a Maoist gang after reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.

All of these are things that Alex has concerned himself with in the past. If you’ve read his articles, you can see the correspondences and parallels. For example – Soul on Ice will be familiar if you’ve seen his rap analysis, where he recounts how important the book was to his life. The Classical & Asian references are also present. At one point he uses Yellow Afternoon by Wallace Stevens – which was noted by Dan to be the perfect Wallace Stevens poem. And, the book consistently deals with those main themes again and again – human folly, impermanence, and the patterns that we are stuck to which limits progress.

   “I am a parasite. This is not an accusation. It is simply the way things are if one chooses to work this job. Any job, really, in education. There’s this big, bloated apparatus. But for what? To help a few retards tie their shoes, I’m afraid. To teach what is in effect a lump of flesh the bare rudiments. To contain a wilderness.” He fed his cigarette to the furnace. “That’s not cynicism, Bright. It is merely law. People, at best, are average. And kids, by extension, are people. I’m not sure if you realize this, but that is a rare insight. An impossible one. For if kids are not pure, wonderful, benign, but flawed – much more so than adults, even – then why the hell do we worship them? Why the apparatus? The machine? It is a wilderness out there. One does not need gears. Algorithms. One simply needs a machete.” He let this sink in a moment. “This is why I’m a parasite, Bright. I know better yet I continue on. How many, if you look at the whole mass of us, do anything worthwhile? Are we part of some grand purpose? Or are we that dying apparatus? It seems to me that, over time, we have replaced the simple things with ‘complications.’ Now, there is something medical about that term. Antiseptic. Perhaps that is only proper. Perhaps we’ve outlived our original purpose, as creators, and now, we’re simply in a numbers’ game. How many worlds, Bright, have we destroyed? And how quickly? How many can we ‘teach,’ and – more pertinently – how many can we impress by teaching? That is a mere crunch, if you ask me. A formula. Yes, I am a part of it. But I am merely one organism. A single leech. I wonder, then, where the bigger creature churns. Where one might find the mother. I wonder, sometimes, if our entire cosmos might be living on the back of some great animal, and that we’re simply too small, our instruments too clunky, to ever realize it…” (Not a quote from the narrator, but from a character named Mr Alex)

Yet, if this were merely a best-of collection of Alex’s opinions – it would not be art. It is art because of how these things are sewn into a narrative that leads up to a glimpse of something higher through beautiful poesy and the combination of these ideas – all pushing and prodding and fighting each other. Each chapter takes on a kind of analysis of a certain scenario, and by the end it feels like every aspect of our humanity has been commented upon – in the full paradox. It runs the gamut from society, to law, to religion & myth, to sex & gender (homosexual & transsexual), to race, to sports, to objectivity in arts (with a discussion of Twilight no less!), to what maturity & childhood means, to ableism & disability, to academia & school politics, to science. With all that, you have the deeply introspective protagonist commentating on characters, many who lack the ability to ‘see’ and exhibit patterns or say things that they can’t exactly place a finger on, but implies much in the network of the narrative. Even a sentence as innocuous as “where’s the exit?” is granted symbolic meaning due to the ‘exits’ of the narrator’s axioms.

A plethora of techniques are used to swap things out. For example, the Boy Rogers chapter suddenly opens into a kind of anecdotal recount of a teacher’s past without any context – only to jump straight ahead into the present, 20 years later. The way Alex engineers it is jarring, but very understandable – because certain humans are like that, in that their core axioms are defined by an early event that they cannot shake off due to a lack of insight or will to change.

Alex also has a great understanding of voice, and as a result there’s enough variance among the characters. This is probably derived from his background as a person who was born in Belarus, and later moved to America:

I went to high school… I spent a couple of years in New Jersey, but the only high school of any real memory to me is Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island. It was a… I didn’t really think of it like this back then, but when I speak to people now, they say it’s a really terrible school. And I guess in some ways it was. Very overcrowded, very violent… but I really enjoyed my time. I skipped class, I never really went. The teachers, they knew me and would mark me as present in the attendance, and I just sort of did whatever I wanted. At the time it was politics; I was really into politics, and high school let that be an outlet for me. (taken from an Interview /w Dan)

The Russian side comes through with one of the characters, who’s a Russian professor with an accent. Insights & implications are placed into the mouths of lower-class characters with the lack of an ability to grasp the wisdom of their statements:

   “Not dat, exactly. But, it’s de whole t’ing, Bright. De whole ‘smart’ t’ing, I guess. I dink I got a lot to say, but I’m no writer. I know dat. But, as a kid, I went here, see? Dis same school,” he said, pointing to the building. “And I never did too well. A lot of de class t’ing, for me, was like a whole new language, or somethin’. Dey were like squiggles. Ideas that don’t seem ta’ count. But, I’d a few t’ings, anyway. De importan’ t’ings. I knew people, for example, betta’ den anybody. I was able ta’ smell danger. Evil. Knew what teacher was tough, and who was gimme. Dat take talent, Bright. Got married. Still married. Kids. Happy. Gotta nice body, even at sixty-eight.” He made a muscle. “Dat take talent, too. But tell dat to a kid, Bright, when nothin’ matta’ but dat grade. That ‘smart’ t’ing. It was hard for me, den.”

But we must make an important note here. Just because the narrator has an ability to see into these characters and ruminate on it, doesn’t make him necessarily better. That’s the trick that’s fostered through the strong poetic voice and philosophy, making you think that he’s somehow above it – and, in a way it also engineers Bright’s own angst towards the whole thing (angst at, for example, how immobile the state of the world is). The 3 axioms are a trick that will, as noted in the summary, change and warp as the novel progresses – leading to the great conclusion at the end that sets all that ego in place (this is probably a technique taken from Woody Allen’s misleading protagonists, among other things). They represent extremes (the ‘study of two extremes’) that, despite reaching towards a greater reality, are still short of it. It is the negation of those axioms that completes the ‘door’.

As such, although there are many things that point to Alex and his own interests, throughout many characters, and some, like Mr Alex, hint at that meta-level – he is not with them, merely within them.

So that’s the overall structure of the book – Bright outlining his 3 axioms, his journey through the school and the cast of grotesques and characters he meets, the angst towards the human condition he carries throughout the whole journey – and the final moment where he steps out of that and departs from his old philosophy. Simple when you look at it from the outside, but with Literature & Art, it’s always about the details and coherence. Within a mere 65,000 words, or 125 A4 pages – the fact that Alex can generate so much coherence and link together so many disparate aspects of humanity in society is absolutely amazing. More importantly, it’s a work of great literature that has bearing in OUR times, although reaching towards universal things. It deals with issues that are more immediate to us, school-shootings, Political Correctness, mass-market popular lit, technology, media manipulation – these topics are taken with no didactics (or, with didactics utilized for a greater purpose) – while always remaining one step ahead. The deeper thrust. Here’s a moment where a top school wrestler on the school team has to ‘lose’ to a disabled child in order to grant that child a minuscule victory, witnessed by Bright:

 The bell rang for Brayan and the ref lifted his arm into the air. The two of them exchanged a few words, and Brayan slumped over once again. I watched him stare down Coach, but Coach simply ignored him, and focused, instead, on the big metal doors at the entrance.

The school band began to play the drums. One couldn’t call it music, exactly, but a repetitious beat, like something ripped from a stylized battlefield, that got louder and louder as it wore on.

Outside, I heard the clank of metal and considerable mumbling. Eventually, it got close enough that I could hear the shrill-end of some conversation. A fumble ensued, with the metal slinking away for a moment, followed by cooing and what sounded like warm re-assurance, as if helping to coax it back. At first, we heard nothing but the drums. Then, there was that hesitant squeak again, and the opening of doors.

A boy rolled into the gym in a wheelchair, losing the assistant behind him. A family poster – Charles! – unfurled from the bleachers, as the gymnasium lights blinded him for a moment, forcing him to rub his eyes under his glasses. As he rolled up to the mat, he took out a little bag and gingerly searched for his glasses case inside of it. But instead of putting them away, he took out a small cloth and rubbed the lenses, one by one, breathed on the glasses, then wiped that away, too. For a moment, he seemed uncertain where to put that bag, and simply clutched it to his person. He looked at Brayan imploringly.

“Please,” Charles managed, talking away the bit of drool that gathered at his lips.

Brayan looked on with horror.

“Sure,” he finally said. He tried to take the bag from Charles, but noticed that one of Charles’s hands was stiff, almost unusable, and had to pry it from his fingers, one by one.

“Ok,” Charles said with resignation. “I’m ready.”

And with that, Brayan lay down on the mat, and straightened out his legs. Sweat wept across his forehead and his body seemed to tighten. One thought of Aztec sacrifice. Tenochtitlan. Yautepec.

Then four men lifted Charles off of his wheelchair, and lowered him on top of Brayan. The ref dropped down, made sure everything was fair, and slapped the ground as the bell sounded.

There was a new champion, he announced. Bring us the crown.

Yet Charles had to be raised back up, first. They tried to lift his upper body off of Brayan, but something had grown accustomed to the position, and his fingers had to be unlocked before he was finally lifted to his feet. The crowd had been cheering for a long time, but to see him on his own two made everything louder. A few cameras flashed, but Charles couldn’t muster the eye-rub of yore.

A few kids had run out to congratulate him and pat him on the shoulder. He felt their hands, but as he was recovering from the effects of camera, he couldn’t quite see them, and didn’t know whom to thank in that gurgling way of his. A moment later, Coach walked over to him, and said, “Here, son,” placing the crown over his head.

Charles smiled for the camera one last time. With the crown on his head, a bit of drool collected at the corner of his mouth, but he was tired, now, without the appetite to clean it.

“I told yuh Brayan would do somethin’ big today,” Coach grinned. “That’s probably the biggest thing he did at this school. Shit. Probably the biggest thing he’ll do in his life, maybe…”

The film crews who brought this spectacle back to the news-rooms called this “sportsmanship.” That Brayan was an exemplar of good-will. Breeding. Confucianism. And I’m sure Coach must have felt this way, too. Reveled in it, in fact. But when I looked at all the news articles that had come out, I didn’t see good-will, or sportsmanship. In fact, all I saw was condescension. Charlie, the retard, could never win this sort of competition fair and square. That much was obvious. So, to remind him of his insufficiency, they decided it would be proper to hoist his impotent body up to victory as the world watched. No, he wouldn’t really be winning. Come, now. But the implicit assumption was that he was too dumb, too numb, even, to understand the genuine thing, anyway, and that an imitation was as good as anything for the likes of Charles. That he should get a taste of what the rest of us can experience. That he should win. Feel. Brim up with testosterone. And, as soon as such a taste would be given, it would be taken away again, too, until the next time someone was feeling generous, that Charlie’s time had come once more to feel the whip of sportsmanship.

But, to me, it wasn’t sport at all. I knew better. I remembered the terror of my professor, when I was about to knock him and everyone around him to the ground. I remembered the rush when I’d fight Sal, trying to pound away all difference, all minutiae between us, and I remember somehow liking it. As a wrestler, I remembered how it felt to have a body under me, tiring with the knowledge that it couldn’t budge, no matter how hard it tried. I remembered the first time I pinned my own father, when I knew he wasn’t simply letting me win. That was important. It signaled a change between us. And I remembered my first fight, my very first, out in my backyard, and how natural, how bullish it had felt to destroy, and how human it felt to stay within reason. That was sportsmanship, to me. And that distinction between power and its reining was what it meant to be a man. That is sport, folks, and while self-control was a part of that definition, too, I could not deny that power was the other half. I do not think Charles had a chance to be a man that day. Man does not grovel, or revel in his inner wimp. One would take one good look at Charles’s impotence and immediately decide against him, and his entire person. Where was his outlet? And why must it take a game, a play-thing, for him to feel a trick of manhood? What did it say about that word, and our primitive understanding of it?

These were not the questions posed that day. As the gym slowly emptied, I noticed Charlie in the corner, wheeling himself across the bits of paper and other trash the paparazzi left behind. Just moments before, the gym was active. Full of noise. It was too loud for anything of substance to be noticed. Now, it was too quiet to bludgeon back whatever it was that welled up in the aftermath.

Beyond the comment on how such overt pity towards the disabled is really condescension (a very Nietzschean point – and reminds me of this) – notice how all this is engineered through the poetics, as though Brayan was caught in a primal world far beyond him, and how these patterns might have been repeated from time immemorial, just in a different form. There’s also the off-hand comment placed in the mouth of the coach, about Brayan doing ‘the biggest thing he’ll ever do in his life’ – which links up to the critique of sports as, really, a lesser outlet for human passions. Alex, in this way, analyzes what is unconscious and immutable, rather than turn it into mere comment on our current politics.

This is the fundament that art reveals, and Alex has seen – even as the people who comment on his site would try to label him as something lesser than that. Misplacing his name in a stream of things that reveal more about themselves and the mirrors surrounding them, than what exists beyond them. Alex has probably grappled with these things to – and Bright might just be a construct made of his past woes – but to speculate any more on that would be projection! In the end, somehow, it’s all the simpler – all the more palatable – than all of those things.

Doors & Exits is, in a way, a story about adolescence and what it entails. The school as symbolic setting is (obviously) parallel to Bright’s own education from seeing beyond the surfaces of education – but it’s the how of this education that really sticks the artistry in. It acknowledges that maturity is not necessarily a stage that one transitions into but a state that one has to maintain. Adolescence is the same. A state is always constantly there, and that one has to escape – or, rather, integrate, into one’s being.

I remember a moment when I was playing trading cards with my friends in school, and this was long after the period of our youth when we played those games. We had decided to return to it, probably out of a sense of nostalgia & a way to find a little spot of childhood safe from the stresses of the exams. A certain student saw us, and felt the need to voice his opinion, loudly and rudely, on the fact that it was childish. We shrugged it off. We kept playing. We were childish, because we had yet to orient ourselves towards the higher things that exist. But, so was he – who believed that maturity was about stripping off a few particularities, toys and games, rather than a thrust of the being within himself towards the world. Both of us were play-acting. The world was larger. It still is, to me.

(All excerpts from Doors & Exits are copyrighted by Alex Sheremet)

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 (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.