House of Anansi Press
110 Spadina, Suite 801
Toronto, ON M5V 2K4
2015, 128 pp., $19.95, ISBN: 9781770894815
In Erin Moure’s new “play-poem-ash-pollen-cabaret” Kapusta, only the cabbages are real. That’s why the Master of Ceremonies opens the book by reminding the audience members to keep their mobile devices on, but to “turn off [their] ideas.” In the midst of a set that is constantly disassembling and reassembling, the central character, E (described in the list of principle actors as a “woman in 40s or 50s, simply a vowel”), simultaneously memorializes the deaths of her grandmother and mother while grappling with the atrocities of the Holocaust in Western Ukraine. The rest of the characters in this genre-bending collection are a disparate ensemble of nondescript figurants, marionettes, stuffed animals, and a cuckoo-clock-trumpeter-usher. The way each character in the play is described at the beginning of the book is, in itself, a useful indicator of what is to come: the majority of the descriptions end with a summative statement that is as perplexing as it is frank. For instance, the Fs (figurants) “simply crawled out of MIM’s ear,” LEON OR (a plush lion that represents the city of Lviv) is “simply a dreamer,” JAN EEOYORE is “simply what cannot be said,” KAT is “simply the frozen time of immigration,” and the CABBAGES (as I mentioned above) are “simply real.”
Throughout the book, Moure’s playful deconstruction of binaries is deadly serious. The three acts that comprise the bulk of the book (“Paradise,” “Ptolemy,” and “Pollen”) dramatize the space where origins clash with present-day reinventions, and where personal memories converge with historic events. Like particles in the air, Kapusta pollinates the present with the ash of the past, constantly reconfiguring the relationships between identity and history, imagination and reality, speaking and speaking for (someone), being nowhere and being (now)here, eternity and the “twinkling of an eye.” The boundaries between categories and binaries become elastic: for Moure, “theories of the stars” apply as much to Ptolemy as they do to Dean Martin and Perry Como.
Links to Youtube videos (check out this one for a sample) and a Soundcloud account are provided in footnotes and endnotes, creating a bizarre, eerie, and unsettling accompaniment to scenes that are bleak and often brilliant. The book forgoes classifications, overflows borders, and creates a jam-packed microcosm onstage instead; it reads like a Petri dish where many experiments happen at once.
At the back theatre of the Tranzac Club, which (appropriately) looks like a church basement with a licensed bar, I saw Erin Moure read from Kapusta at Anansi’s spring launch. Ascending three dilapidated steps to the podium, she carried the new book in one hand and a frazzled, pilly sock monkey named Malenka Dotchka (M.D.) in the other. Stitched from Moure’s old socks on MIM’s sewing machine, with a streetcar ticket from the birthplace of Celan pinned to her cap, Malenka Dotchka (“little daughter”) is the epitome of bricolage. The elaborate symbolism of the materials that constitute her mirrors the disparate subject matter of Kapusta itself. M.D. is present throughout the play, soundlessly taking up space on the stage and on the page. At once a silent observer and something to be observed, she does not speak, but is often spoken for; she is careworn and comforting, but also creepy; she is, to use two descriptions from the book, “a-temporal” and “in-between” (35). After leaning M.D. against the podium, Moure launched into my favourite passage, in which a figurant marches onstage, throws the sock monkey across the room, and berates her:
I am tired of the diarrhea rhetoric, OK! you cast it off and it lands again as demagogy in embroidered shirts. No one wants my memorial pain, OK! Caught between two enemas and a friend, the library where all the zombies I had unearthed had given way but other perverts of delirium still emerge. When I think of memory, OK! I break its head. Bow to the pop songsters, OK! Like me on Facebook! Pop pills! I don’t know why I was fried, OK! by paranoids playing pinball with their blemish trollops. Undigested blurbs of redigerate vomiting and arguments, OK! What use are arguments to those who sacrificed for their country when a country is a palimpsest of merde on merde. I am going to die from my face, OK! And bleat from an orifice. I am going to die from my arm, OK! and from my jointed elbow and I am going to die from my facial skin. I can’t die from what’s beneath, not from bone ground into cinders, not from squirming earth, OK! And I won’t die from your festoon neuralgia.
Moure ultimately opened her reading with the section of Kapusta that harangues itself about the viability of its own existence. The passage highlights one of the book’s central dilemmas: is it better to risk creating a “festoon neuralgia,” to make art out of painful memories, in order to face the unspeakable horror of genocide, or should one obsess over pop culture instead and, to use a phrase from the book, succumb to “thunder capitalism” and ignore the past? Moure, characteristically, does not pick a side: with the unspeakable, unimaginable fact of the Holocaust roiling in its midst, the space of the play is volatile, multifaceted, and turbulent, but set to catchy cabaret tunes.
Because Kapusta exists as a play, poem, and ash/pollen, a major pleasure/challenge revolves around struggling with how to read it. Compared to watching Moure perform excerpts of the book, the experience of engaging with the writing on the page is more disjointed. Kapusta is written in a mix of French and English; the original, bilingual text appears on the right-hand side, but English translations of any French are printed into the mirror-image spot on the left-hand side. For instance, there is a passage where the only words that required translation into English—so that they are floating, marooned, in the middle of the page—are “tomato/paste.” While I read a tumultuous, disturbing monologue (in which “E” recounts the way she experienced her body as it aged, fell ill, deteriorated, and dulled, then expands her rant to reference the annihilation of Jews during the Second World War), my eyes snagged on those two innocuous words shuddering by themselves: “tomato/paste.” Like the figurant’s rebuke above, the terrible history of genocide “E” grapples with must share space with Perry Como songs, iPhone screens, televisions, and, here, grocery store ingredients. Pop, plush, mothers, and murder clump together in cacophony, in confusion, in grief. Near the end of Kapusta, Moure includes a quote from Itzhak Katzenelson: “How can I sing? / How can I open my lips?” To these two questions, the speaker argues that the way to proceed is to say all of it at once:
–Emerge, reveal yourselves to me.
–Come, all of you, come.
–I want to see you.
–I want to look at you.
It’s in the way Moure persistently weaves together philosophy and pop culture, YouTube and trauma, iPhones and ancestry, the “real” and the “replica,” that Kapusta is most daring. Again and again, disparate things and the ideas they symbolize get stitched together, reverberate dissonantly, and become uncanny. For instance, at one point the stage directions call for a diagram of the Ptolemaic Universe to be projected on an iPhone screen “like the crosscut of a cabbage.” Ptolemy’s drawing of the Earth in the centre of the universe really does look like the inside of a cabbage, but Moure goes a step further: the Ptolemaic model also signifies E’s love for her mother because “the earth stands still and all the stars and planets move around her mother’s love.” Yet the equation, Ptolemy’s universe = crosscut of a cabbage = E’s mother’s love, is actually discordant and disturbing, especially because at other points in the play cabbages are paralleled with human heads. Thus, in order for cabbage-crosscuts, the Ptolemaic universe, and a mother’s love to be connected, a head must be cut in half. I was especially impressed by the complexity of this relationship because it manages to comment intellectually on a correlation between the brain, the cosmos, and the literary arts while simultaneously provoking a visceral, emotional response. Out of a violent act comes a glance at a cosmic design, as well as the ultimate symbol of a daughter’s devotion.
The book’s opening mirrors the move to assemble (though not to cohere) love, violence, and history, since its epigraph is a line from Novalis: “All ash is pollen.” A symbol of fertility is connected to the quintessence of death; the horrific remains of burned bodies fertilize this work of art that does not pick and choose between what is tacky, what is disturbing, and what is beautiful. Rather than privilege one thing and obscure another, Moure compresses a collage of multitudinous things into a tiny space. In doing so, she inspires us to wonder whether the palimpsest of merde on merde can sustain something different (maybe even life giving!)—as long as we’re willing to get our hands dirty. Reading Kapusta is work (gut-wrenching, heart-mangling, and brain-wringing work!) but it pays off. Although its multifarious subjects do not seem to cohere, the book is not incoherent. Rather, the text’s heterogeneity is a snapshot (and a soundbite) of the world-all-at-once, ordered by attention as much as intention. I continue to be moved by Moure’s intimate dramatization of a human imagination in grief as it simultaneously makes connections, recollects, and creates: “I had to fabricate myself out of nothing! Out of solitude and ashes.” From a personal poem of mourning and rumination, germinated from a site of annihilation, comes an unsettling performance that explores how much can (and cannot) be said—or sung—at once.
Neil Surkan lives in Toronto. He is in his second year of the MA Program in English in the Field of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.