Anne M. Carson writes on confronting grief through ritual and poetry, and discusses the creative process surrounding the upcoming collaborative performance of her poem, ‘The dresser removes the Kimono of Mourning’.
Back and forth, her hands are tireless,
eddying like wind over rice fields.
She is to empty
me of grief…
— from ‘The Dresser Removes the Kimono of Mourning’
(for the full text click here)
This poem grew out of my lament for our culture’s lack of ritual and became an imagining about how the ending of a grieving process might be marked, honoured by ceremony. I was grieving for the death of my husband at the time and felt doubly bereft that there was no way to honour my grieving in the months after the formalities had been concluded. As the potency of the grieving waned I felt the need of some sort of acknowledgement of this part of the process too. I wanted, needed, ceremony. An imaginary ritual emerged to meet this need: the removing of a special garment – the Kimono of Mourning – after a period of mourning. I couldn’t do it actually, physically, but I could create the ritual poetically. The Japanese culture seemed so fitting because it is still steeped in ritual and designs such beautiful formal garments.
As I wrote the poem I saw the movements in my mind’s eye and experienced the stylised, ritualised movements in my body. It became a poem anchored in strong kinesthetic ideas; almost from the beginning the poem was accompanied in my imagination by dance.
In a loose sort of way over a number of years I had been looking for a dancer with whom I could explore the poem. Then at the end of 2012, I found Barbara Weiss, a creative arts therapist as well as a dancer experienced in improvised movement theatre, who was willing to explore with me. She suggested she bring along her friend Lindesay Dresdon, a keyboard player she frequently worked with. We met on that first occasion at my workplace and they improvised to the poem. I liked how they approached the work. I felt Barbara had both a depth of feeling and a capacity to translate that into movement. Lindesay too was obviously musically strong and had a capacity for nuanced emotional articulation. At the end of that first session we all expressed excitement in feeling that there was more to explore together.
It felt remarkable to have had inspiration enough, poem enough, to sustain a dancer and musician through a poem of mine, confirming the poem’s original kinesthetic dimension. This got me thinking and I wondered if I could string together some of the poems I’d written about my husband’s life and death and our relationship to form an extended dance performance.
It didn’t take long for me to decide which poems had kinesthetic possibilities – those poems which lent themselves to movement, muscle. I chose a sequence of ten poems and presented the idea of an extended performance to Barbara and Lindesay. They were willing to take our work further.
We began by taking one poem at a time. I would read the poem and Barbara and Lindesay would then improvise to it. We started by using pure improvisation but I quickly realised how minimal the musical and dance components needed to be when they were to accompany poems. It was so easy for any one of the three art forms to swamp or be swamped by one of the others.
It became apparent to me that as the work was prompted by my poems, they – the poems – needed to be the driver. Dance and music, I thought, needed to be counterweights; accompaniments, responses. I also felt the need to direct proceedings but I felt I had to negotiate the other performers’ willingness for me to assume this role – as we had come together as equal performers. I felt nervous but they welcomed the idea and the clarity it could bring.
Then I had to invent myself into the role of director, doing it as we went along. I had previous experience putting together and directing soirees but no experience or training in directing a theatrical multi-media performance. It was an extended experimental exercise.
I also realised that we all needed to inhabit the whole trajectory of the work, needed to internalise it as an incremental series. How to do this? I analysed the poem sequence for Barbara and Lindesay in terms of narrative arc, as you would a single poem or even a novel. For instance, where do the dramatic points come? What is the dramatic weight of single poems? I spoke of the emotional register of each poem; a refinement which I hoped would enable us to have ten distinct pieces which together would make a synergistic whole.
Lindesay demonstrated to us the dramatic arc diagrammatically, putting pieces of paper in a line on the floor – one for each poem – and asking me to arrange them in terms dramatic potency. The three of us peered over my arrangement, noticing how many poems came before the death poem and how many after, making the work, the drama, more tangible by his visuals.
I had a sense that we needed to ration our energy, retaining enough for later in the sequence. This is the penultimate poem, I’d say for instance, save something for the final poem. Not everything needed to be in each piece; energy, emotion, oomph needed to be held back for later in the performance.
Being particularly prone to experiencing life kinesthetically, I had to feel what was right. Often we’d go too far down a path before I got the feeling we had gone too far and I’d pull us back and suggest an alternative. We needed to strip it back, not just because it was about death but also because of the possibility of art form overload. The more we proceeded the more the others joined me in watching for this.
I suggested that we needed to choose a main musical and movement gesture for each poem around which they could then improvise. Perhaps I pushed them … though they had worked with elements of choreography previously, during their twenty years of improvised performance experience they hadn’t worked in a series of connected dramatic pieces quite like this before. I asked a lot and I was deeply grateful that they were willing to go along with my direction. We came to a subtle point when our work changed, I think, from exploration to rehearsal.
The rehearsals became more coherent, the work more often true. How uncanny it was at times to look at the dancer and see her as my alter ego, or to hear the music as an alternative utterance. On some occasions Barbara was so deeply heartfelt and integrated in her response that I had to bite back tears as she plugged me in again to grief. Or Lindesay’s uncanny knack of finding the exact emotional register musically for a particular poem. Once we got the notion of stripped back, it happened more often; the deep recognition of different means, different media saying the same thing.
There were many felicities, occasions when either Barbara or Lindesay – and sometimes both – responded in ways which raised the hairs along my arm or evoked some other visceral response. I was astounded when I read the death poem to them, expecting a soft, floral, muted response. Instead, unscripted, they came up with a cacophonous, raucous, energetic expression. They had captured the powerful primal energy of death. Even though my husband’s had been peaceful and muted, the effect of it had not – leaving a raw and gaping wound where I felt he had been ripped out of my life, the flesh tearing where we had been joined.
One memorable occasion occurred after we rehearsed the final poem in the series, the title poem. We need to practice our bow, I said. We agreed that I should initiate the movement and we rehearsed again flowing naturally this time into the time-honoured ending for performance. I picked my moment and together we bent at the waist, in perfect concert, bowing to our imaginary, now applauding audience. Suddenly it was real, the audience summoned into the studio with us, by our bow. In accord and quite unexpectedly we burst into joyful hysterical laughter.
The dresser removes the Kimono of Mourning
I kneel on tatami and close my eyes.
A gust of cool air tells me
the ricepaper screen has opened.
Orange blossom fragrance enters
with the dresser. Her feet in cotton tabi
shoosh as she slips behind me,
unties the obi. Yards of brocade fall
about me. I feel small, vulnerable as a girl
just presented. Arms outstretched
she holds the kimono seam at each shoulder,
slides fabric over my skin, silk sibilant.
I wear only koshimaki and underrobe, light
enough now to lift from tatami – a kite
loosed from its tether.
The robe is folded as prescribed, sleeve
over body, whole in half, half again.
Wrapped in linen paper,
placed in the lacquered box. I will not miss
the silk, dark as midnight, though it had
a touch of grandeur.
The dresser’s hand and arm ripple around me.
I recall the movements in my mind’s theatre –
remember our rehearsals.
Back and forth, her hands are tireless,
eddying like wind over rice fields.
She is to empty
me of grief. A dark spirit emerges – long
as obi. She is a noh dancer drawing
from my ears, mouth, nostrils
the colours of sorrow. A final red, arterial scarf
from the belly, drawn out, dissolving in ether.
She has removed
the inner and the outer garments of
mybereavement. Unmade, I prepare to start
over, alone on tatami.
Tatami: Woven floor mat
Tabi: Cotton, tight fitting socks with side buttons
Kimono: Traditional Japanese garment for men and women
Obi: Wide and long pieces of fabric, often of a contrasting colour and design, used to secure kimono at waist
Koshimaki: Piece of cloth wrapped around hips
Noh dancing: Ritualised Japanese dance/drama concerned with the timeless concerns of the human condition.
— First published (and translated into Japanese) in the English/Japanese bilingual literary journal, Red Leaves.
Anne M. Carson is an award-winning Melbourne writer whose prose and poetry has featured on local and National Radio. She’s also curated two Poetica programmes on Radio National and features in Best Australian Poems 2005. Her work has also appeared in Going Down Swinging No. 24 and our current print/audio edition, No. 33.
Painting by Goyo Hashiguchi (1880-1921), Woman in a Summer Kimono