Peacock Dramas

Imagine with me, for one moment, a brilliant “SAPPHIRE BREAST[ED]” cosmic peacock with a “SPREAD TAIL” and “EYES BURN[ING] RED / IN [A] FEATHERED MASK.” Imagine now, a peacock of equal beauty and celestial mystique, but in white with charcoal ocelli. The white peacock, reminding me, rather obviously, of a D.H. Lawrence novel title, appeared to me in a dream over spring break, while I was substitute teaching at a high school near my hometown. The royal avian originally had its tail folded, and appeared to be silently investigating the ground near where I was standing in the dream. I reflected on Mirabell and unassumingly treated the white peacock with immense respect, suggesting to passersby to “keep down the volume,” since I wanted to avoid startling the bird. White as death and with hundreds of black eyes, the peacock was unavoidably startled, and spread its tail plumes before me. There was an alarming look impressed upon me by the bird’s visage, one that spoke to artistic depths that people sometimes never resurface from—then my alarm went off at six o’clock.

I never discarded the alarm clock I purchased in high school, an old-fashioned one with the two metal bells on either side of the top like round ears and a hammer that goes back and forth between them. The sound of it inspires a deep loathing and an assortment of unpleasant memories from my time in high school. The Changing Light at Sandover was resting on my chest from the previous night with the pages spread open to section 3.4 of Mirabell. Also at my side was an abridged copy of Thoreau’s Walden and a book of sayings by Confucius. It seemed I was always waking up next to Merrill’s face in some variety. Spring break was halfway over, and I had been substituting every day and reading Sandover every night. Merrill’s dramatic characters even seemed to invade my dreams from time-to-time. I found comfort, though, in the fact that “SOULS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT,” as Mirabell points out, “THEY WEAR A VEIL / OF HUMAN EXISTENCE & THIS I WILL NEVER LIFT” (157). My dreams were not safe, but perhaps my soul was at least, from the black, bat-like entities that I periodically scanned the room in search of before falling asleep. Mirabell’s usage of the word “VEIL” inspires a line of inquiry that begins with the etymology. Veil originates from the Latin “velare,” meaning “to cover, conceal, mask, or disguise.” The “FEATHERED MASK” on Mirabell further suggests a sense of the dramatic in the second installment of the Sandover trilogy, and no doubt throughout the trilogy as a whole. Mirabell’s transformation, in section 3.4, from 741 to a brilliant peacock, presents the idea that Merrill himself is undergoing a type of transformation, a type of “veiling” or “disguising,” a corresponding simultaneous revealing and revelation, like switching masks as the play performance continues. Perhaps it’s easier to think of section 3.4 as a character costume change, where the Ouija board is the “stage” and the actors, or spirits, reside behind the curtain until their role appears. Further, Mirabell, behind the stage, where people watching the performance cannot see characters, changes costumes or assumes a new “disguise” for the performative experience which JM and DJ are both observing and creating.

Also, in the beginning of section 9, when Mirabell says, “NO VEIL REMAINS (OR ONLY ONE) / TO SCREEN OUR SENSES FROM THE SUN” (259). The “veil,” in this sequence, seems to be a covering, the o-zone, which protects earth from the sun. Mirabell is explaining the damage to the o-zone, an ecological concern regarding the destruction of the natural world by mankind. The “veil” in the sense of a “disguise” is also at play here, since Michael, the archangel, is represented by the sun. This idea also brings to mind the myth of Zeus and Semele, who perished as a result of viewing a god in his/her true form. Mortals are not meant to view raw divinity in this capacity, much like the sun, which, in all its glory, could incinerate the face of Earth.

Here, some speculation might be made in regards to the word “play,” where the poem itself takes the form of a dramatic production in addition to the post-structuralist conception of “play.” In this regard the poem is centered on the spirits “playing” games with JM and DJ by misleading them in a farcical “performance” with props, costumes, and fantastical explanations of another realm. Thus I ruminated on the suspicious nature of Mirabell and the other spirits in Sandover while examining the contents of my breakfast plate that morning. My mother had graciously prepared a piece of toast with jelly on it, which I stared at lost in a state of mind. The toast was the sole occupant of the plate, and the scene was all too ironic as I felt the toast was “lonely,” as if toast could possibly desire company. Either way, I glanced to the side of the table after a few minutes and noticed my copy of The Merchant of Venice, which I had checked out in my father’s name at the high school library. I was on a desperate hunt for this reclusive quote about carrots in the play that made me look like a fool last semester. Deceptive appearances seemed to stand in my consciousness as a subject for debate and admiration. Mirabell. Changing appearances. Changing light. The caskets of gold, silver, and lead that Bassanio had to choose from for the hand of Portia. “That’s a bingo!” (Excuse or admire the Inglorious Bastards quote…) This decision, based on appearances, leads many suitors for Portia’s hand to failure, often picking the casket with the most impressive outward appearance. Bassanio only correctly picks the lead casket by arguing that what appears outwardly is trivial in relation to what lies inside of this outward appearance. He says, “So may the outward shows be least themselves: / The world is still deceived with ornament.” This then played into Mirabell’s appearance, and the “representations” of all the spirits, who essentially have no appearance besides how they appear in the other spirits, as Maman (Maria) explains, “HE APPEARS IN US   OUR MINDS (HEARTS) ARE HIS MIRROR” (157). I took this to mean, as I took a bite of the lonely toast, that Mirabell only has an appearance as a type of “imaginative,” abstract entity of the mind (heart), but does this not sound solipsistic? I reflected on Stephen Dedalus walking down Sandycove with his hand over his eyes in the “Proteus” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses. Solipsism, i.e. the idea that one’s mind might be the only thing that exists, and all other things are generated therein or in relation to it. If Mirabell and the other spirits only take shape within “the mirror” of other spirits’ minds (hearts), then how might that be thought of metaphysically? And how does this relate back to the “grand drama” of Sandover? Later, in section 3.6, Auden explains that Mirabell’s transformation was of the imagination, “MM & I / IMAGINE U, YOU US, & WHERE THE POWERS / CRISSCROSS WE ALL IMAGINE 741 / & THEN TRANSFORM HIM!” (159). As Holmes would say, “The plot thickens!” Is art not the offspring of imagination? Does this mean Mirabell is art?

Questions wracked my mind as I stepped into my sister’s Jeep. Her absence in the foreign land of France made for the perfect opportunity to utilize her vehicle for day-to-day trips to Harlem, Montana. My father drove, and I pondered quietly for all twenty of the miles we traveled, occasionally glancing out the front window at the blinding morning sunlight, not a “golden setter,” but a “golden riser,” I laughed to myself thinking of “The Broken Home,” and reflected on the opening lines of section 9.9: “Sun is rising.”

In the school, I cradled Merchant and Coyote Stories, a book of Salish mythology, as I waltzed down the hall between students of varying shapes and sizes. Oh, high school. What a nightmare of hormones and drama. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 20” was on repeat in my head when I unlocked the door to the “culture studies” classroom, where students learned both the language and culture of the Gros Ventre tribe. The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes occupy the Fort Belknap reservation just minutes from Harlem, and their culture is as beautiful as their language is complicated. Many of the students at this high school associate with these tribes and rightly take pride in their ancestry. The classroom was quiet and empty. The chairs were stacked in the back and the room smelled stale. I noticed there were few posters in the classroom and hesitantly ventured to the teacher’s desk. “And for a woman wert thou first created / Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting…,” I thought. This brought to mind section 3.6 of Mirabell, when the cosmic peacock says, “NOW BEGINS THE LIFE OF OUR MINDS 5 AS ONE,” and a “UNION OF THE ELEMENTS” takes place (159). Incidentally, or perhaps not, Maria represents water, Auden represents earth, Merrill represents air, Mirabell represents fire, and Jackson represents nature, the five elements. Jackson’s representation of “THE SHAPING HAND OF NATURE” marks an interesting “role” for him, following in the footsteps of Mozart, Auden explains, in section 3.9.

As I skimmed through the familiar tales of Coyote Stories, which I originally read a few years ago on a whim, I discovered that five was a sacred number in Salish mythology, in addition to a number of other paganistic religions. For example, when Coyote, the trickster, was killed by Chickadee’s arrow, his brother, Fox, had to step over him three times to bring him back to life. A footnote directed me to the notes in the back, where it was explained that three had only become that sacred number since the Salish were in Christian boarding schools. Originally, the number of times required to bring someone back to life by stepping over them was five. In section 2.1 of Mirabell, it’s explained that five individuals have achieved immortality: “LADUMAN  SORIVA  RACHEL   TORRO & VON.” These “DEATHLESS 5,” mentioned again in section 2.7, “PURSUE THEIR LEADERSHIP UNDER VARIOUS GUISES…,” which links back to the idea of the “veil” and costuming for the “grand drama” of Sandover. For the spirits, this drama is a reality in which they costume themselves, like the “DEATHLESS 5,” to complete their “V work” (142). On top of that, five is also acknowledged as being the number of sides on a pyramid.

As if in spite of my lack of preparation, the bell rang and students began mayhem in the hallway. I tossed the book aside and began a few jumping-jacks for motivational purposes. I thought about Mirabell’s “lessons” and the craft of pedagogy originally mentioned in section “C” of The Book of Ephraim, “Back / To school from the disastrously long vac…” (10), as it had been some time since I had last substituted. The day moved at lightning speed, and soon I was in my father’s office, on prep, (he’s the school counsellor, and one that certainly “gets the job done”) leaning back in the red, cotton chair across from his desk. I stared at the ceiling, “And by addition me of thee defeated / By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” Shakespeare. Then I leapt up from the seat and took off down the hall to the “culture studies” classroom, where I seized an Expo marker and wrote on the whiteboard: “WATER + EARTH,” then dropped a line to write, “AIR + NATURE,” finally writing below that, “FIRE.” Now, how do these elements, assigned to “childless” Merrill and Jackson in relation to their “parental figures” Maria and Auden, congeal? And where the hell does Mirabell, as fire, fall into this? I sat on the floor facing the board and contemplated the possibilities. Water and fire don’t get along. Earth and nature? Aren’t they quite similar? What about air? “MIND & ABSTRACTION,” according to Auden (164). Don’t judge something by its appearance. The caskets in Merchant. I glared at the book across the room.

After a few moments of silence, and frustration, I reared up from the dusty floor and patted my hands against my black jeans. A sigh followed, and I slouched into the red chair once more after a dismal walk down the barren hallway. Oh, it is a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing, to have a broken heart and a temporarily broken confidence. Merrill has a tendency to do that at times, but it’s good. We’re good, Merrill and I, I mean. My dream resurfaced in my mind as I sipped some coffee with “pumpkin spice” flavored creamer, the only variety available in the teacher’s lounge. Some time passed, some laughs with my father, and then I felt distracted and confused by Mirabell. Another sigh, and the rest of the day passed at the same lightning speed. A student here, a student there, a documentary about witchcraft in King James’ Scotland, pretty soon I was stepping into the Jeep again, reflecting on how bright the sun had been earlier that day. A giant burning orb of crimson orange. Hm. And as we drove home, I thought of the sun a few more times, a “creator” and a “destroyer.” I heard Michael’s final words in section 9: “…THE SUN LOOKS THROUGH YOUR EYES TO THE LIFE BEHIND / YOU” (275), and reflected on the aria “Nè men con l’ombre d’infedelta” by a familiar Romilda. I wondered if things would ever feel right, and if I would ever feel that again. I wondered about that life behind me, the things I said and did.

JH: You look tired. MJH: I’m doing okay. JH: What do you want for dinner? MJH: Leftovers.

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