Pick up Jody Bolz's novella in verse. It gleams bright there
on the shelf of narrative poetry. Part-travelogue, part-memoir, part-theatre,
but fiction by definition, Shadow Play
is a spellbinding read, especially for those who have ended a marriage, who are
in a subsequent marriage, who married perhaps too young, or who were unfaithful
to someone they loved, not to mention those who love to travel to far-off
places or who just like a moving and mind-teasing tale. Aptly titled, Shadow Play is pure poetry, trope-filled
with beautifully crafted lines of readable free verse that tell a compelling
In Bali, where much of the novella is set, the shadow play,
or Wayang Kulit, is a theatrical art
form, in which two-dimensional puppets are manipulated with rods against a
backlit screen. Bolz by virtue of her imagination and experience becomes a
puppeteer within her own shadow play.
She has masterfully combined dialog poems with narrative poems
in the voice of a woman who is remembering her early marriage. In both types of
poems, you will venture into exotic parts of the world, as the young couple
many curious young people of the '70s
—travel in Asia. They visit India, Nepal,
Japan, Burma, unfamiliar and mysterious places to which they are drawn. But it is
in Indonesia, specifically in Bali, that they stay for a more prolonged period.
In the opening poem, the couple are on a train going across
Java. The poem is in first person plural, in the past tense, as the speaker
addresses her former companion, reviewing for him what they experienced. The
poem becomes a travelogue rich with description of a station stop, of people, the
sky, sounds and smells. Then there's a turn, as there is in many subsequent
poems. The sights the young couple take in blend with their own love for each
other, but not without tension.
Doorways set in sloping walls,
a threshing floor,
an open sewer.
As our train slowed
a pregnant girl,
waist-long hair undone,
stepped out of a hovel
fastening her sarong.
We passed her without speaking,
tugging at the taut string
of our marriage
as it rose over rice-fields.
In the second poem, they are in India, and the speaker
continues to describe the intriguing sights, until the last few lines where she
moves into metaphor, as the young couple view a bloated ox floating in the
river. It is carrion to a vulture.
The rotting vessel
then flowers out of view.
What corpse am I
scavenging for you?
This is lovely poetry, with even the occasional rhyme. But
it's early in the novella, and you are just beginning to grasp the central relationship
between the speaker and her former husband. Bolz, the puppeteer, is directing
her shadow play with subtlety and wistful retrospection, making the reality of
Asia fit right into the relationship. The former husband is in fact a shadow
puppet, or a ghost, a mere invention of the poet. The poet can make him say
what she wants: "an extraordinary act of literary ventriloquism,"
writes Vikram Chandra in his introduction to the book.
At one point the shadow asks the poet how she could remember
so much. She admits she is contriving a busy pattern. "I'm shaping a
mosaic out of broken bits," she says. Much of what is fashioned out of
those broken bits is the dialog between speaker and shadow. The dialog carries
the story, which might never have been a novella without it. The shadow's lines
distinguish themselves eerily from the rest of the poetry by being in a faint
ghost-like font and indented. There is never a question of who is speaking.
The shadow himself knows he is a puppet and asks her to
leave him out of the drama:
You're making me up.
Yes, she is making him up, but she tells him:
offering you a metaphor. . . .
you want something more?
And he replies:
Isn't that what you designed me for?
So now you are hooked and want to know more about this
shadow, the marriage, the breakup, and the new marriages, as well as the
journey these kids are on.
The underlying theme of Shadow
Play evokes French theorist Roland Barthes. The speaker mentions to the
shadow that Barthes asks, "How does a love end?
—then it does end?" The novella flirts with answers
to this question, but in one poem the shadow puppet avoids the gravitas of the
question and says:
I can't believe you're quoting
Barthes in English!
That gives you a good idea of what the speaker may think of
her shadow puppet, as well as of herself, who is after all the puppeteer. She
has the shadow suggest that "This whole episode is pure pretense."
Why summon me now?
I feel, now, that
dead to me.
live in the same city.
my ghost on Metro any weekday.
And you read on. Death, whether it's personal death or the end
of love, is central to the novella. But there are still some more exotic places
to visit and people to meet, like Theo, who boards in Bali at the same house as
the young couple. Theo is a dalang, a
manipulator of puppets. The shadow suggests that Theo is dead by now. And the
poet, who controls all, says, "Not here." Indeed she brings Theo to
life. He is "charming and insane." And then the poet-puppeteer writes
that the dalang-puppeteer is the
puppet, "hero of his own shadow play," which suggests the former
husband's role in this novella, too.
Life goes on for the couple. They are in new marriages. They
have become parents, and the speaker admits that she is recording all of this
for her children.
If I were gone, you'd be the
are you going?
—unless I write it down.
Unless it's here, all together,
so my son and my daughters
tell me you're mortal.
The shadow can't resist sarcasm at times. But no matter what
the speaker makes him do, he has a place in her life, and she in his, because
that's the way she's written it. Whether love ends or not is for you to figure
out by entering into the shadow play's grip, letting your mind be played upon
by two kids, whose early journey to the other side of the world prepared them
for separate roles in the drama of adulthood.
Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of four books of
poetry, including Spare Parts, a
novella in verse. Her fifth book, Unattached
Male, is due to appear later this year.