The Stillness, the Dancing


My most successful play, She Also Dances, is about a young woman in a wheelchair and the callow youth and aspiring dancer she hires to push her around a college campus. As the reviewer in the Los Angeles Times wrote, exactly stating the play’s dramatic idea, following the premiere at South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, California: “She can’t move. He can’t do anything but move….” They fall in love, of course. The play concludes with a pas de deux he choreographs for them. They dance, she in the chair and he on his feet. He tries to convince her to dance with him in one scene by describing what he has learned about dance as “the stillness, the dancing,” suggesting that even stillness is movement.


The poet Jack Gilbert died recently (and if you haven’t read his work I urge you to). One of his poems, “To See If Something Comes Next,” concludes, referring to Noh drama: “whenever / the script says dances, whatever the actor does next / is a dance. If he stands still, he is dancing.”


Those of you who know me are aware of my interest in Noh drama (and can learn more at Noh is slow drama, with often miniscule movements by actors in masks that hide expression. They chant their lines, accompanied by often raucous drums and flutes. Although it is not exciting to watch, in a traditional sense, there is tremendous energy coiled in the slow motion of the story. Meaning resides in the release of that energy alone.


Poems behave in a similar way–and Gilbert’s work offers prime examples. They are slow and tightly coiled, sometimes bursting into surprising being, sometimes returning to silence with a kind of easiness that makes us question if they were there in the first place.


Here is a recent poem of mine, in which the ostensible subject–a brown sweater–is actually about stillness and dancing, I think–about the uncoiling of meaning out of the seemingly ordinary. Or simply about the inevitable passing of things, like dance movements that arrive and then are gone, leaving no traces.


Brown Sweater


I wear you this morning

another skin as I did

almost every day in college


now in my seventh decade reclaiming

the threadbare inner self

no one can see through you

the perfect cover for the color blind


you are an obscure bird flying south

your shape distinctively unrecognizable

your arms extend into what

the less imaginative might call

a cross or the hint of a falling man


flutter caught

by a hemlock hedge



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