Post Road Magazine #16

Joseph Campana

Suite for the Twentieth Century (for Carole Lombard)

1. To Be or Not to Be


Sometimes you laugh so hard
you think your face will fall
right off. So what if it does?
It won’t hurt, it won’t make
you any different. You’re quiet,
the night is resting, and To Be
or Not to Be flickers on the
television like the cheap slogan
it is. The Nazis invade Poland
and everyone laughs. Nazis
close the theaters and drag off
a Jew, so everyone laughs:
they were only pretending
(as were the pretend Nazis who
dressed up just for the sake
of a daring rescue). Headline:
the theater saves us again.
It was 1939 in the film but
1942 for everyone else: the
Nazis had invaded, and Carole
Lombard had just gone down
in flames selling war bonds.
Everyone laughs because
they know a secret. Hidden
at the beginning of the speech,
in the form of a question, is
a cue. Someone stands up to
leave. No one wants an answer.
We prefer props, like a skull
in the hand to focus a thought.
Who needs existentialism?
The war isn’t over yet. It is
nobler to suffer, but no one
wants to anymore. There are
now others to do that for us.
Why not instead fool around
in the star’s dressing room?
What happens on this stage,
what is said or understood, no
longer matters. We have rid
ourselves of the need for such
complication. Look: everything
glitters, everyone laughs. No
one here has a face left to fall.

2. My Man Godfrey


Sometimes everything you do
is funny, no matter how hard
you try. This week let’s take
poverty and how you believe
you can empathize, providing
someone gives you a bum to
play with. For all your casual
glitter, you have never felt
anything to be your own. For
whole days you can’t stop
thinking of the poor, of the
idea of the poor, who come to
seem like philosophers: “Alas,
poor Yorick!” and all of that. It
starts as a game you think you
can win: call it “the mousetrap.”
At some later moment you come
to realize you are never as free
as you’d like to be, nor as daring.
Beneath those polished smiles,
lurking underneath your savoir
faire, is the saddest of longings:
to be safe in a world you treat
as your own playground, a world
in which either no one is safe or
no one is there at all. There’s
the rub: security costs. Luckily,
all you can make is money, so
you know the ache of failing.
How can you stand to be wrong
when bodies pile up the skies?
You think you could be happy
bound in the smallest of spaces,
living in a dump, as long as you
had a picnic. How can you stand
to laugh when the joke’s never
really on you? You think you’ll
someday love someone enough
you won’t need to keep him.

3. Twentieth Century


It’s the twenty-first century,
which doesn’t seem to mean
anything at all (or if it does,
it can’t mean anything good),
so you watch a film called
Twentieth Century,in
which everyone is trying
to get away from the stage,
especially Carole Lombard,
who died in 1942: not in the
war but with her mother
in a plane crash near Las
Vegas. For now it’s 1933.
There’s still time to be funny,
only nothing is funny for all
the histrionic flare-ups, which
are what happen the farther
you try to get from theater.
Who doesn’t want a gold
star, who isn’t ready to learn
and to be invincible? But
everything falls apart, even
when John Barrymore takes
charge: one minute you’re
modeling lingerie, the next
you’re Joan of Arc, ready
to blaze out in flame, but
someone tapped your phones
and tails you to the market.
He looks just like someone
in a movie you’ve seen. So
you grab your things and
run and run and run, with
a repetitive clacking of
locomotion foreshadowing
a journey on a train. No
matter how closely you
studied your lines, how
carefully you traced chalk
markings on the stage, you
trip over your own feet. At
the end of the film a maniacal
director tricks you into a role
you didn’t want: you signed
the contract, but we haven’t
gotten there yet. Currently,
you’re still on the train, the
train is called Twentieth
Century, and it moves without
seeming to move. There’s a
madman painting its windows:
repent, for the time is at hand.
Can he have written this for you,
can he have known your terminus
to be Hollywood? Life’s a big
scream, everything’s a hit, you
realize, and the louder you are,
the more people cheer. Everyone
imagines a little world with stage
and curtain, a scattering of props,
and a quiet backstage where
they can pretend not to watch,
not to act, not to ask for a story.
There’s always a story to tell,
always a tale of vice, which is
really the glamour of suffering
spectacularly for the pleasure
of others, as long as it doesn’t
look like pleasure and as long
as it doesn’t look like suffering.
Every play is a Passion play:
there’s nothing new to learn.
The play isn’t written for you.
The play isn’t written at all.
But you want to be a player,
you want to strut and fret,
which is what we all want, so
we do end up where we belong.
The real problem is we’re not
people anymore, people on a
train in a car where someone
left open the window. The wind
is too strong, someone’s smoking.
The train shrieks promise. You
didn’t mean to make one. You
waited in dark and dusty wings
to be called. No one does. Not yet.
There’s nothing to learn that
isn’t already behind you: no one
needed to teach you to scream.

4. Nothing Sacred


Fear and the wish come together,
both unbidden, as is the secret,
shameful urge to laugh. It’s not
a dream, exactly, not a movie.
Maybe it’s you. On the one
hand, there is the longing for
fame. On the other, certainty
and time, both of which poison
ardor. On the one hand, you
really aren’t dying: it’s a ruse
to prolong your exposure to
the possibility of renown. On
the other hand, you are dying:
who isn’t? The world’s dying
too, as if to keep you company,
only it happens so slowly you
pretend not to notice. At some
point you’ll wish you weren’t,
you’ll wish it weren’t, you’ll
wish the ice caps would freeze
so polar bears might hunt again
in peace. First wish, then fear.
Then laughter without source
devours you from within. You’re
in a strange city (aren’t they
all?) and so is everyone else.
All the papers tell you you’re
dying. You feel some notion
coursing through you. Let it
be now, let it be real. You’re
burning up. You can’t wait
to read what comes next.

Joseph Campana is the author of The Book of Faces, with poems in or forthcoming in Colorado Review, Hotel Amerika, New England Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poetry, TriQuarterly, Kenyon Review, FIELD, and Conjunctions. He received a 2007 NEA Fellowship and teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Rice University.

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