Poetry | June 01, 2002

Featuring the poems:

  • Saving Silence
  • Napoleon Vu Par Abel Gance
  • Kurutta Ippeiji: A Page of Madness

 

Saving Silence

“In an astonishingly short time—1895 to 1927, little more than thirty years—the silent cinema evolved into a unique, integral and highly sophisticated expressive form, and then, overnight, became extinct.”

—David Robinson, Foreword to Silent Cinema, An Introduction

 

Isn’t that the way of things—

where is Carthage now,

the Dodo? In archives

in America, Japan and Russia

there are as many feet

of nitrate film dissolving

as there are bones

in the catacombs of Paris.

Of one hundred and fifty thousand

silent films, eighty percent

are as lost to us

as the dust to which

our grandparents returned.

So why do I care? Because

my mother was deaf,

because I am tired after years

of talk-talk-talk-talking.

Because as a child, I once

rode the elevator

to the top of the Eiffel Tower

where, like God,

I looked down and

saw the whole world

at my feet—

rendered not motionless,

but silent.

 

Napoleon Vu Par Abel Gance

Impossible Is Not French,

says Napoleon

in Gance’s epic silent film.

He shouts it to the gunners

retreating from English fire

at Toulon. A mere

lieutenant, who has only

just arrived from Paris,

he makes the men

roll their cannon

back into the muddy night

and nails a sign above his new post—

La Batterie des Hommes sans Peur.

 

I was born in France,

but I am full of fear.

For my children who walk around

with only pink skin

for protection,

for the whole blue world,

watery as a tear.

I was never an optimist

but each year more seems

impossible. I am forty-five.

Napoleon was twenty-four

when he took Toulon

in a blinding storm

with only the hail

beating the snares

of his fallen drummers

to urge his ragged soldiers on.

 

I want to post a sign

of my own. This is

The House without Fear,

we live here, we French,

and honorary French.

In a time when the emperor

was young

still pronounced his name

Nappy-yone-eye,

like a good Corsican,

more Italian than French.

Still, looking at him,

no one dared to laugh.

 

Or at least, that is how

Abel Gance saw

his Napoleon.

Abel Gance, maker

of this six-hour silent movie

with its three-screen finale

tinted blue/white/red to match

the French tricolor.

Abel Gance, un homme

sans peur, a man

who believed

anything—everything—

possible.

 

Kurutta Ippeiji: A Page of Madness

“This experimental silent film was thought lost for fifty years until the director, Teinosuke Kinugasa, rediscovered it in his garden shed.”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto catalogue, 20th edition

 

An old man takes a job

as a janitor at an asylum

to be near his wife

who failed to drown herself

after drowning their infant son—

tiny squalling bundle.

 

This is Japan. The year 1926.

 

His wife lies on the floor

of her cell on her futon.

Her kimono disordered—

her hair a disgrace.

Her arms rise from her sides

as she sleeps, her hands open,

begging for forgiveness.

Or is she dreaming

of the moment

she let her child go?

 

In the next cell, a young woman

dances day and night

without stopping, leaving bare

bloody footprints across

the concrete floor. She is a goddess,

but only she knows it.

If the old man asked her—

she would give him back his son.

 

But the old man sees

only a mad girl

who once—he’s been told—

danced the May Dance

for Crown Prince Hirohito,

then found she couldn’t stop.

 

The old man unlocks his wife’s cell

with a key he has stolen

from the desk of the director,

in his other hand are sweets.

Their daughter, he tells her,

their only daughter,

has met a young man who’s asked her to marry,

to move north with him

to his home in far Hokkaido,

that wild frontier island.

 

When asked, their daughter

told this young man

her mother died giving birth

to a stillborn baby brother.

She understands clearly

if he knew where her mother was—

what she was—

even a boy from Hokkaido

would not take her home.

 

Your daughter, says the old man.

Remember you have a daughter.

And the wife does—

remembers the young hands

that kept her from the river,

from following

the same arc as her baby.

If her daughter loved her,

she would not have stopped her.

Even now, years later, she can feel

ten ugly bruises

left by her daughter’s long strong fingers.

Even now, years later,

she still suffers with this living

her selfish daughter gave her.

 

Come, the old man tells his wife.

Your children need you.

Forgetting, at that moment,

only one is still alive.

He uses sweets to lure his wife

from her cell, down

the long stone hallway.

If only she would come home,

the old man keeps on thinking—

our daughter could have children

without moving to Hokkaido.

Children to replace the one

lost to the spring’s cold

rushing water.

 

He takes his wife’s pale hand

and leads her past the dancer,

who has paused for a moment

to rearrange her hair

in a mirror that is not there.

They make it to the front door.

He still has the candies, and his wife

—who, as a girl, was famous

for her sweet tooth—clearly wants them.

He won the sweets, he tells her,

this morning at the street fair.

This, he remarks, is our lucky day.

 

Outside, in the dark night,

a dog is barking and his wife

is frightened—she always

has been frightened.

Even before this place,

even before her children

began crying every night.

 

She is crying now

as she pulls her hand from her husband’s,

runs back down the hall

to her cell, throws herself, sobbing,

into the cold nothing that awaits her.

No daughter, nosey-no-good,

to stop her now.

 

The old man goes home,

falls to the floor exhausted,

sweets still in his hand.

He hears the music

of the May Dance

in a warm spring

far away

and dreams, instead of candies

he won masks at the street fair—

smooth white faces

with smiling, wide red mouths.

In his sleep, he hands the masks

out to the mad ones

as he mops slowly

past their cells.

One by one the mad

put on new faces

and become as they should

always have been—

smiling, happy.

They laugh gently, stepping

freely from their cells—

children

come home at last

to their mothers,

fathers.

 

His wife is smiling too.

White world, red life,

the goddess says,

still dancing,

and hands the wife a pillow

that, in an instant,

becomes a smiling baby.

 

Or did I dream

this ending?

Fall asleep

like the old man and dream

the end I wanted—

because I also had a mother

who happened to go mad,

though I failed

to catch her

when she threw herself away.

Because I too lost a child—

though she fell

from my womb and not my hands,

leaving the water

that was mebehind.

 

Still, I remember

the end so vividly—

how, in the silver light,

the dancing woman

joined hands

with the old man and his wife,

the red-lipped inmates,

to form a perfect circle.

And the circle, I saw clearly,

was the world

and even I—and even you—

were there.

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