Anne Harding Woodworth on Jody Bolz

Shadow Play by Jody Bolz. Turning Point, 2013.


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 story.


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 like 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

slowly shrinks,

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:


I'm offering you a metaphor. . . .

and 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

                                                Roland 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?


                                    Because I feel, now, that

you're dead to me.


            We live in the same city.

            Glimpse 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 only one


Where are you going?


unless I write it down.

Unless it's here, all together,

so my son and my daughters


Don't 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.



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