Something Lyrical for the Night
by H. M. Cooper
"I am a Seed"
The important thing in telling this story is not to leave out any of the important details that
make it true. I mean those aspects that betray a contradiction or that distinguish a truth. They say
that a lie will hurt you; the truth can only set you free. Locked within every tale or fiction there
is a tightly woven germ of reason. That's the thread I want this story to reveal.
There's a picture of me at twenty with my girlfriend. She had arms like the tentacles of an
octopus; slender and tapered at the end. When she was pleased or excited those arms used to
leap to life around my neck and shoulders. She would whisper things in my ear like she were out
of breath. I used to bathe in glory when she did that. It was like I had won the Kentucky Derby or
been nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
There's me at twenty three. Similar passions, different embrace. Affections don't fade with age, they deepen. I just love to see her dance and smile.
Now I'm nearing my mid-thirties. There are no arms to treat me like a king. But something calls me, like a magnet, to its centre. Only a completely abject fool would turn away from such a thing.
After a season of transformation comes the winter of disorientation and distress. It was in the Winter of 1976 that I went mad for the very first time. The centre of my immediate universe shifted a few degrees off centre and my perspective was thrown into a state of disarray and confusion. I was taken, within a fairly short time, to an institution where people with one eye in the centre of their foreheads are taken and it was there that I was diagnosed as having had an 'acute psychotic episode'. I didn't know what that meant at the time, but a psychiatric resident told me that my state could be described as a one-shot deal that was unlikely to recur. I didn't know what that meant either. I just learned to live with it for awhile, like everything else.
I remember Heather coming back to my apartment after rehearsal around the time it all started.
She was an actress; I was an actor. We loved our work. Serious, popular 'underground' Theatre
was prospering about that time.
We were not, the two of us, linked in any way romantic or sexual. That wasn't my fault. I wanted her more than anything, but she was determined to have a deep platonic relationship and nothing else. When we first met, the attraction had been very powerful and I had quickly swept her away to an artsy loft and wooed her with such passion. But it didn't stick. She didn't want it. She wrote me a poem just after. It read:
I am a seed
In love with the wind.
Trees and grasses spread their roots
And offer me their branches.
I pass them all by.
For I am a seed
In love with the wind.
Heather was several years younger than I was and, at the tender, headstrong age of 19, wanted to experience everything. I loved her, though, and I was so distracted by that love that I couldn't get involved with anyone else. I couldn't understand why she didn't want me; we seemed so perfect together. I was so blinded by instinct that I couldn't see the naked reality; the woman wanted her social freedom. Perfection in relationships was an unrighteous ideal.
We sat in my little faded yellow kitchen and I made tea. In the show we were working on Heather was the script assistant and I was a performer. It was a children's show based on a story by a
West coast writer who was beginning to gain popularity at the time. It involved some rather existential themes and bizarre animal-like characters that only children could clearly understand. There was snow on the ground, it was late December. Heather's boots, next to mine, huddled in a puddle of slush on a plastic boot rack by the door.
"You know what I like?", Heather said.
"No. What do you like?"
"I like it when you pretend to read the newspaper, even though you make it obvious that your character can't read."
"I'm very glad you think I'm competent in making that obvious."
" And then you get really excited, like there's something very clever in that newspaper that only you can understand, and then you rip a chunk out of it and put it in your mouth like
Laurel and Hardy would, or something, and you chew it all up and then spit it all out and put it in a glass jar next to your armchair. I really like that, Max. You do it so well. Where did you get the idea from?"
I laughed. I sputtered. I acted serene. "I made it all up. The character wants knowledge but he doesn't know what it is so he eats newspapers instead of just reading them."
Heather blew a puff of sweet, cool breath on her tea. She wasn't the most beautiful girl I had ever known or even gone out with, but she was the kind of person that could make ugly
little things breathtakingly beautiful with a touch or a glance. She had an enormous truck driver size laugh that she could wind up and let lose whenever she wanted attention. She used to put feathers that she found in the park into her long brown hair as if they were precious artifacts from a lost
civilization. They were really just the fallout of dirty old birds. She would find a piece of tattered, gauzy cloth at the Salvation Army and make it into a shawl for herself; you could
swear it was a token from the king of Siam to a smart young lady of the court. Like the heroine in a tale from an Arabian night, she was a wayfarer following the signs of God to an enchanted destiny.
Her foot tapped my shin again and she said, in a Texas drawl, "Hey pardner. What's on yer mind?"
I grabbed her foot in mid swing and rested it on my thigh. Every part of her was vibrant with life. I caressed her arch; her foot wriggled in my palm. I caressed it softly, gently,
lavishly, persuasively. "Why don't you let me start at the bottom and work to the top?", I said. "I could peel you like an orange if you gave me half a chance."
Heather yanked her foot away. "What do you think I am,", she said. "Some kind of fruit you pick up at the corner store? My body is very precious and I don't just give it away because I like somebody." She reached out her hand and grabbed my wrist."Hey. Mister. I'm talkin' to you. There's a star out there with my destiny on it and a star out there too with your name on it and they are NOT the same star as far as I can see. They're separate stars, Max, for different people. They exist with a purpose for each of us and maybe even a little bit together. But they are separate stars, Max." Then she stopped and one eyebrow arched the way a curious animal might arch. "Although they do kind of wink at each other, don't you think? Isn't that the nice part?"
"What? That we see each other's light shining through space but don't respond to it.?
"I think that you would put me into total eclipse right now. I'd be tap dancing in the dark."
"I don't think that's true, but I won't try to convince you."
"Let's just stay friends."
"Sure. Let's be friends."
She let go of my wrist.
One of my earliest memories remains for me like a hazy tableau. It occurred in the early 1950's. The setting is a Victorian three story house in the College and Spadina area of Toronto. It is a Jewish neighbourhood. I am about two years old. I live in the attic with my two female cousins. I do not remember any terror, any horror, any undue unhappiness. I am only a baby. In some two year old version of infantile wisdom I know that I am only a baby, and this knowledge is important to me even at the time.
Something just slightly out of the ordinary and strangely significant is going on. My mother and her three sisters are sitting around the kitchen table doing something busy and important. They are getting ready to go out somewhere; somewhere social that they have to look their best for. They are putting on their make-up. The smell is luxuriant. There is a lot of face powder flying around.
Quickly they pack up and go. I am left behind in an empty room with a ripe expectancy. I have
been left behind with the face powder and the heady smell of perfume. That is what this memory
is made of. The unfulfilled expectancy, the hasty absence, and the thick aroma of women who
have recently gone. There is a picture in my mind; the few women, dressed formally in period
hats and make-up preparing to appear somewhere in public. That is the image. But the sense
impression, which is very lingering, is more gentle and poignant. Its the sense of loss.
Something, once real and vital, has disappeared and what has disappeared is what has lingered.
Heather and I talk on about the show. I am like a silent vigilante for signs of meaning. Her lips
move; musical sounds come out in a kind of unsyncopated, breathless sonata. She is a pipe upon
which God has played and I am a piper of untested genius. The music of her voice is an
ointment, and I am ailing. There is a kind of poison in my soul that only music can correct. I am
the sole survivor of a tragic wreck. All I know are Heather's lips. All I see amidst the swirling,
heaving, pounding waves of this tepid ocean is the shape of a woman on a weather torn rock
singing a melody which I cannot resist. The song is sweet though mystic too. Her hair is dark
and lays upon her shoulders like a net. All I know are Heather's lips. They say she knows what
she wants and they speak plainly.
In the early afternoon, after Heather leaves, I recognize that I have nothing planned for the evening. I decide to go to an early movie, something new in town called "Carrie" by a filmmaker named Brian de Palma. I know nothing about it, but because I am an aspiring writer I'll see just about anything and I've heard that this thriller is good. By the time I clean up, shower and change clothes I just have time to walk over to the cinema and have a cup of coffee in a restaurant before it starts.
There are certain symbols that are clearly plain and simple. Coffee is black and creme is almost white. The white porcelain cup with the green band around it is round and the hole in the
little handle is just big enough for one finger to go through. Sugar is white and sweet, though you wouldn't know that by looking at it. My face, reflected in the window of the shop, looks like coffee tastes after its been standing for an hour or two. Not fresh and strong and potent, but cold and haggard and weak. I've been up most of the night writing the only thing I
really seem to know anything about...theatre. I have an obsession with an idea. Its called "Jazz Theatre". I have written a manifesto. It goes like this:
1/ Theatre may be a potent instrument of political change. Actors may be instruments of information and transformation.
2/ "Jazz Theatre" is a collection of highly trained and professional actors who are very well
informed of political trends and events.
3/ The company of "Jazz Theatre" are artists who believe not only in the cogency of art but also the politics of commitment. They are capable of analysing and expressing the meaningfulness of
issues both current and historical.
4/ A "Jazz Theatre" presentation is a free form improvisation on a theme, topic, concern or issue. It will be composed of a repertoire, like a dance company, and ensemble improvisational
work, like a jazz band. Its incentive will be the analysis and investigation of ideas using humour, improvisation, drama and theatrical techniques.
I have other ideas but this is as much as I've done with it so far. My objective is to create a company of actors, like 'Second City", only not strictly satirical and with a point of view. All I need to conduct this experiment is time. It doesn't even require much money.
"Carrie" is crowded with groups and couples talking and laughing and eating popcorn. That's not strange. What's not strange either is that I am here alone with a pack of revellers I don't know. Out of habit I watch for personal movements and listen for snatches of meaningful conversation.
There, in the corner of the second row two seats from the aisle, is a well built young man
holding tightly to the hand of a plain but not unattractive girl of about 18 or 20. By the way his
shoulders stoop slightly I guess that his father and mother have expectations that are too high for
him to achieve. The girl is smart and sweet, more worldly than her looks might betray. Her
mother is ill, perhaps with some non-physical malady, and she has learned to do things for
herself. They are tentatively in love, but too young to marry. Maybe they will end up living in
different cities. They are too different to make a long term match really work.
Behind me and to the left are three people, two men and a woman, possibly in their late twenties.
One man and the woman are a couple, the other man is a friend of the woman's. They were
lovers for a very short time years ago, but that phase passed quickly and now they are still very
close. The other man, the debutante's date, is an architect. He has had a studied life, devoted
mostly to his career. He was not a hippie in the sixties, like his present company. He was
actually a bit of a nerd. He liked science when liking science wasn't very socially acceptable or
politically correct. He was an unofficial member of the school's photography club. He was
against the war in Viet Nam but for unpopular reasons that were not 'cool'. He didn't think the
Americans could win.
He is Clark Kent, he has a secret identity. Tonight, when they go for coffee and chat avidly and amicably, he will admit that e.e. cummings is his favourite poet. The woman believes her partner is beautiful but naive. She finds him simply compelling and strangely complex. He is a man coming of age in a precision formation. Later, when they are in bed, he makes her laugh by saying, "No one, not even the rain, has such big feet."
Before long the lights go down and the movie beams upon the screen. There is a scene of girls in high school playing volleyball. The game ends and they file into the change room. The camera follows them. They are giggling and shouting and taking off their clothes. They are revealed in bra's and panties and even less. The camera follows them into the showers. The shots are very erotic; steam and spans of flesh and water and soap. The camera focuses on one girls's body. It moves from the slim and tender nape of her neck to the smooth young breasts to the belly to the thighs. Soap streams over her skin, across her navel, over her rump to the soft skin between her legs. There, ominously, mingled in with the soap, is menstrual blood. It is obvious that she does not know what this blood is from or why she is bleeding from that area of her body. She begins to cry out hysterically.
As the film progresses, every aspect impresses upon me the unity of the themes. A young girl, persecuted by a religious mother and insensitive, adolescent school chums, is pressured into committing a fantastic crime. She destroys an entire town using the will of her mind alone. The fact that her passion, both mental and physical, is pubescent makes so much sense. The fact
that religion in her life, pressed upon her in such an extreme way, should escalate into carnage seems very convincing within the dramatic context of the plot.
But there is more going on for me, about which I am only vaguely aware at this point. The connectedness of events in the film, which have been very carefully ordered by the director,
seem more than fiction to me. They seem to be the very mirror of reality. I believe that I wonder, in some newly created corner of my mind, if this Stephen King extravaganza of fantasy and
imagination is not actually a kind of documentary.
My credibility functions have strangely started to slip. The shadow between illusion and reality is somehow becoming distorted and unfocussed. I seem to believe, in some mysterious and perverse way, that Sissy Spacek, who is new to the screen, can actually move matter with her mind.
I leave the theatre shot through with vision and purpose and tingling with adrenalin. My
consciousness has started to become a window on the infinite. And for the first time in my adult
life I have heard the finger of destiny go tap, tap.
I can remember watching scary things on T.V. when I was a little boy. The plot would build, the music would swell and all my instincts rallied in the knowledge that something frightening was going to happen. Part of me was a sucker for suspense and part of me just didn't want to know what was going to happen. At moments like these I would jump up on the sofa, which was backed up against a bay window, and watch the reflection of the screen in the window. That way I could see the shapes, second hand, of what was transpiring. I could switch from the reflection to the image just by turning my head and so escape frontal attack on my scare sensors. It was a form of childhood censorship. I think its a good example of how I see and experience the world when I am mad.
I remember one particular episode of The Twilight Zone that I watched all the way through. It was about a man who was obsessed with the fear of nuclear attack and determined to survive it. He builds an elaborate bomb shelter and hides out in it during what he thinks is a crisis. For some reason that I can't recall...perhaps he goes stir crazy in that horrible sealed
environment...he becomes mad and deluded. He emerges into a world that his imagination has created and sees a city in ruins, totally devoid of life. He sits on some rubble and weeps and
screams. Then we see what is really there. He's sitting on the stoop of a great skyscraper in the middle of a bustling metropolis. People are standing all around him, trying to help. They don't know what's wrong. This man is sitting in the middle of the city screaming and crying and they don't know why. Then the scene switches to what the man sees. Ruins. Destruction. Chaos. Insanity itself.
Madness is just like that. You see the end of the earth and it hurts all around you. Its like you're wearing a space helmut with a panoramic screen that faces in. And on this screen is
projected the contents of your unconscious mind in full sensory fullness and colour. Outside of that wall of illusion lies the consensual truth and it mixes with the distortion of your mind. Like colours mix on an artists palate, till you can't distinguish one from the other. Reality and illusion blend together and your will to make the bizarre meaningful is the only thing that can tell them apart.
There is a definite distinction between the consensual world, which we call real, and that subjective world that we call illusion. In the consensual world, objects and events exist outside of the perception of the observer and the observer acknowledges their nature in a way that is somehow common to other individuals. In the condition of madness, the objects and events that exist in the world are only a kind of stage set onto which subjective meaning can be projected. You become a
participant in a movie of your own creation; a Sinbad on a journey through a distorted but ever
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