Saturday, October 5, 2013

Vulnerability: May I Have the Next Dance?

There are two running jokes within your family history.  Possibly three, although you don't think the third is a joke.

The first joke is that Annie, well, Ann, your mother, a superb, instinctive cook, often left out vital ingredients when giving recipes to her friends.  The second legendary joke is that your father's first name was not really Jack but instead Jesus Christ because that was what your Uncle Harry always called him.  As in, Jesus Christ, Jack.  

In your biased view, Uncle Harry always aspired to what your father projected without seeming to try.  Presence, or style, if you wish, was your father's default position.

The third joke is that you, in a fit of pique,  tied your mother's apron strings to the back of a chair.  While she was wearing the apron.  It was no such thing; instead it was curiosity.  Like most boys of that age, you had yet to arrive at fits of pique, much less the vocabulary for having one.  You would in fact not have fits of pique for at least another five years.

At the time of the tied apron strings, you wondered what the results would be, which is to say wondered if your mother could manage to pull the chair along behind her for any distance. You were no miscreant.  You were a curious young lad.   She did.  That is, your mother did indeed pull the chair in her wake, and your curiosity was quite satisfied.

All right, there was a fourth family running joke.  Shortly before said tie-up of your mother's apron strings to the chair, you'd taken a large gulp of grape juice, leaving you, at the precise moment when you were being delivered a scolding lecture about the inadvisable repetition of connecting your mother's apron strings to chairs at any time in the near future, with a Groucho Marx mustache of the deepest grape juice hue.  Your mother's and sister's disapproval lost priority to the appearance of you, looking for all the world like Groucho Marx.

Your mother and sister were fond of recounting the incident, wondering if the accident of the appearance of the mustache was a defining moment in the formation of your persona, forever enlisted in the army of mischief, forever AWOL from anything resembling gravitas.

Defining moments are important events in story, one such moment being when Romeo Montague, fresh from crashing the party of the Capulets for a kind of quinceaneria of their daughter, Juliette, set eyes for the first time on Juliette and she on him.  To that point, the drama had moved along in workmanlike free verse, then into blank verse, both narratives governed by meter an engaged reader would only notice on a subliminal level.  When Romeo and Juliette eye one another, they are drawn to meet.

Romeo is already singed from the lightning strike of his sight of her:

"O," he says,
" she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night."

This kid is pretty well taken.  And note how the meter and rhyme patterns have come into play.  He is talking poetry now.  Watch what happens when he approaches her:

"If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."

Juliet is in on this chemistry as well.  Gone are her teen thoughts of texting and FaceBook.  Look what's coming when she replies:

"Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss."

Do you see what's happening here?  Of course you do.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

Before our eyes, as these two burn the flame of chemistry, we have moved from blank verse to rhyming verse to a sonnet.  Follow it through to the end and you see their defining moment, their meeting, is a shared sonnet.  And none of your Italian Petrarchan sonnet, even though the play is set in Italy; this is a proper Shakespearean sonnet.

Okay, they're talking beyond our contemporary range of teenagers exchanging the verbal equivalent of the chemistry of attraction, but that chemistry is out there in dialogue rather than description.

Thus the point:  Story is character in the dance of vulnerability, whether the dance is inspired by romantic attraction, idealism, greed, grief, lust, spiritual quest, intellectual curiosity, desire for revenge, etc.  Story comes dancing forth when characters with wishes, agendas, fears,curiosity, and the emotions that accompany these things enter a scene.  Even if they are at pains to cover their vulnerability, someone sees it, and story is the cat you have tried to induce into the carrying case for a visit to the vet.

A good deal of your frequent meetings with that crafty archaeologist, Brian Fagan, centers on ways to turn dry fact into fecund story.  How are facts to be presented so that they have a chance to find a home in the imagination and sensitivity of the reader.

There is no gainsaying Romeo's intentions here nor, you believe, his absolute sincerity.  Story gathers up its miniskirts and begins the dance.  This particular story sets an awareness greater than mere youthful chemistry against the folly of age-old feuds.

Whatever the intent, story is the more effective way to set the implications to a resonant frequency that will cause the wine glasses of the individual readers to hum.

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