- Bodies of Silence, Parts of an Essay
This is an essay I have written about the body. Or, these are words about an artist who doesn't speak. Or, this is language about a writer who first made radio shows about a mime. A mime creates worlds through the body and movement. In Shawn Wen's book about Marcel Marceau, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause: An Essay, she begins by writing about matter, "God created the world in a dark space. The matter that we touch, see, and feel—the architecture and the moss—those were the remnants. No matter how hard we try, things that exist will never outnumber things that do not exist."
I first got to know Wen's work through an essay of hers called "Parts of a Body" in the anthology We Might as Well Call it the Lyric Essay. "Parts of a Body" eventually became her book-length essay about Marceau.
I am a choreographer, but for the last ten years I've been obsessed with creating dances on a page, written performances, the choreography of ideas. It's why I've become obsessed with what we might as well call lyric essays. The lyric essay, and the poem, are dances of language. They are places in which form (material, matter) carries as much weight and importance as ideas.
Throughout her book, Wen plays with the forms through which she introduces us to Marceau and although Marceau is no longer alive, she creates a catalogue detailing things of his that have yet to vanish. In nineteen different lists of collections, she describes Marceau's possessions that his family auctioned off to pay back his debt after he died. In eighteen sections called variations of "M on …" she gives us the mime's own words and perspectives on different topics. In eighteen scenes, Wen transcribes Marceau's movements from videos of his performances.
In an interview with writer Suzanne Cody in We Might as Well Call it the Lyric Essay, Wen says: [End Page 91]
you could argue that writers are impoverished by comparison, that they only put words on a page, and words can only describe. But I don't believe that. The text is a performance on a page. Text is more than a description. Text also summons a sensory experience. You know what I mean? Words have sound and shape. Words against other words create texture. Words ring in your head. They command images and emotions. So in reading and writing, we experience the text in ways that are physical as well as abstract.
Since I've also been obsessing about the ways that reading and writing are physical, the ways they could be seen as dance, I decided to videotape the movements I made while reading A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause. What follows is a transcription of that video, in the spirit of Wen's transcriptions of Marceau's mime.
SCENE 1: THIS IS A TRANSCRIPTION OF THE MOVEMENTS IN A VIDEO I MADE OF MYSELF READING A TWENTY MINUTE SILENCE FOLLOWED BY APPLAUSE
Vandenbroucke blinks, clenches her jaw, moves her eyes up the page. She makes an open-and-close movement with her mouth. Adjusts the fingers of both hands and moves the book up to an uncharacteristically high angle. A funny smile initiates a movement in which her face turns towards the left. She pats her solar plexus twice and says something that's hard to hear in the video, drops her left arm down the side of the couch and we can't see her hand anymore.
A cat jumps into the frame. The cat's butt is facing the camera, her eyes looking towards the reader. Vandenbroucke absentmindedly puts a hand on the cat while she tries to look over the cat to the words on the page. Now she re-grasps the book with her left hand. Her right knee twitches. She bites her lip. She brings the book closer.
In her book, Wen describes a writer named Jacques Copeau, who, in Paris after the war, envisioned a new performance in which "actors perform without words on a bare...