Masque in the Form of a Cento, composed
by Ammiel Alcalay
from the writings
of Anne Bradstreet, John Bunyon, Daniel Defoe,
John Dryden, Andrew Marvell, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift
Hole Chapbooks, Calgary/Philadelphia/Vancouver, 2000.
Available from: Rob Manery, 2664 William Street, Vancouver, B.C.,
V5K 2Y5; $7.
1977 through 1981, a show called Meeting of Minds was shown
on public television in the United States. The project, developed
by comedian Steve Allen over a period of eighteen years, brought
together actors who portrayed historical figures -- such as Plato,
Francis Bacon, Marie Antoinette, and Galileo -- and sat them around
a table to mildly assert the theories for which they were most generally
known. It was also in 1977 that Ammiel Alcalay composed Masque
in the Form of a Cento, the characters of which -- Daniel Defoe,
Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Dryden (with cameos by Bunyon,
Bradstreet and Marvell) -- proclaim various samplings of their published
work on a stage divided into three sections; there are also spoken
parts given to a narrator and the foils Lisideius, Crites and Neander.
First things first: while a masque
is indeed related to "masquerade," the term as English majors know
and love it is more accurately defined (by the OED) as
"a dramatic composition . . . originally consisting of dancing and
acting in dumb show . . .afterwards including dialogue (usually
poetical) and song." And the Latin word cento is a "garment
of patchwork, also the title of a poem made up of various verses";
thus, "a composition formed by joining scraps from other authors."
It's completely accurate, then, to use the words "composed by" with
the author's name; in a note at the end of the masque, he says that
he has long striven to "level the playing field" by allowing different
roles (poet, translator, scholar, editor, critic, journalist, teacher,
reader, person) to dictate working priorities back to him. One of
the first steps in allowing this to happen, for him, has been the
experience of immersion into the words of others and the use of
himself as conduit or channeler of those words(1).
In providing these definitions and
notes, however, I hardly want to make this work seem less strange,
and thus provide "any facile assimilation of [it] within familiar
categories or uninformed cultural and historical assumptions"(2).
Indeed, if there's a word that would not apply to Alcalay, it's
"uninformed"; among the roles he mentions above, he's perhaps best
well-known as a Middle Eastern scholar, one whose pioneering book
After Jews and Arabs sought to re-define and re-focus the conflict
between these peoples as a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean mosaic.
Inasmuch as we're inclined to see Israel as a "western" country
surrounded by "Eastern" enemies, Alcalay directs us to the common
Semitic roots between the peoples, in the process helping to uncover
a shared mizrahi and Sephardic culture in the region that
had been almost completely ignored. He takes us back to the "golden
age" of Levantine culture, from the ninth century -- when much that
was Jewish was actually written in Arabic and when the two peoples
had close interpenetration and commerce -- to the expulsion of Jews
and Arabs from Spain (and, incidentally, the Judeo-Arabic culture
from European culture) in the 15th. By implication, he mourns the
artificial divisions of statehood that have obscured that fact,
and that history(3).
Thus, a central concern for Alcalay
has been the recovery of memory that's been obliterated by exclusionary
and exclusivist histories imposed by "religious fanaticism and retrograde
nationalism," as Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo has it in the preface
to Alcalay's recent book of essays Memories of Our Future(4).
In one of those essays, a review of Goytisolo's own poetics,
Alcalay recalls Cervantes' "ability to create a completely new reality
by freeing a remarkably diverse range of existing characters from
the strictures of their history and generic circumstances"(5). Later
in the same essay, he comes even closer to describing the masque
at hand, quoting the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, who speaks
of an "imaginary constellation" where you can steep yourself in
a theater, so to speak, of plural masks that bear on the travail
of humanity; in an orchestration of ancient and modern histories
and characterisations and imageries as well revolving, so to speak,
around a transitive principle or musical chord(6).
So to speak. And what is that "chord"
around which the various characters "revolve" in this masque? It
has something to do with the clash of certain triumphal states of
mind with the more ground-level journalistic observations of the
writer/characters. Defoe, for example, is given privilege of place
and time, the only character stage left who both opens and closes
the proceedings. On a mattress in "a garret or attic room," he reads
(from Journals of the Plague Year) about those who
"perished in the streets and fields for mere want, or dropped down
by the raging violence of the fever upon them." This dispassionate
recital is followed by a disembodied but cheery narrator (lights
on, stage center) giving more "official" history: "It was that memorable
day, in the first summer of the late war, when . . . the two most
mighty and best appointed fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed
the command of the greater half of the globe." Then Defoe again,
indirectly refuting this rather smug and opportunistic propaganda:
"So in the plague it came at last to such violence that people sat
still looking at one another, and seemed quite abandoned to despair."
When Swift comes onto the scene (on
a small rowboat away from the other boats stage center), he disputes
the view of Crites that "almost a new nature has been revealed to
us" with the observations of a character in Gulliver's Travels,
namely, that the historical account I gave him of our affairs during
the last Century . . . was all only an heap of conspiracies, Rebellions,
Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments; the very worst effects
that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage,
Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice and Ambitions could produce.
So there. This isn't just a contest
between competing versions of history, though; the familiar phrase
"history is written by the winners" doesn't take into account the
death and destruction that allows that history to be written. Swift
is here indicting not just the English, but a universal cast of
mind that assumes one standard of belief or judgement (or, for that
matter, aesthetics or politics) that will serve for all: "I hate
and detest that animal called man," Swift says later, evoking the
misanthrophy with which many of these writers are popularly associated,
"although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth."
Similarly, Alcalay brings into counterpoint
one Neander, who finds it convenient to "pronounce of our present
poets, that they have far surpassed all the ancients, and the modern
writers of other countries" with Pope, who ridiculed a similar view
expounded by "Martinus Scriblerus" in The Art of Sinking in Poetry,
and whose lines from Book IV of The Dunciad
marched the bard and blockhead, side by side,
rhymed for hire, and patronized for pride.
find inclusion here, as do Dryden's "When tragedy was done / Satire
and humour the same fate have run / And comedy is sunk to trick
and pun." These rather severe judgments were made partly because
most of the poets with whom these writers were familiar had "learn'd
to please, and not to wound." As Pope writes, in lines included
who cannot write, and those who can
rhyme, and scrawl, and scribble, to a man.
nonsense first is taught to cry,
half formed in rhyme exactly meet
learn to crawl upon poetic feet.
How mean!, some of us might
say. Indeed, although the writers here included are all honored
subjects of study in Jack Spicer's English Department of the Soul,
and thus seemingly not the victims of historical destruction, it's
also true that their popularity has waned more than waxed in recent
years; as Alcalay says in his note, in 1977 they "couldn't have
been more unfashionable or, apparently, distant from what I supposedly
thought my concerns were." Edward Dorn, in another interview in
1980, had this to say about the 18th century's reputation: "People
were willing to insult each other in that century. All the time.
It was a total century of insult. And it was a brilliant century.
It invented the modern. . . . I mean, it's now looked back on as
unsanitary. It's now looked back on as arch, in this kind of pernicious
Rather than arch, then, we can also
look back on these writers as public commentators, for whom there
was no separation between their art and their political sensibilities;
in fact, they were models of the "public literary activism" which
Alcalay says inspires his writing. "What's more," says James Scully
in a slightly different context, "their aesthetic achievement is
because of their politics, not in spite. . . . It is a poetry
that talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply
as a mirror of it"(8). Pope's Dunciad began as a typical
Scriblerus literary prank, yet by Book IV, 15 years later, the ridicule
of certain of Pope's contemporaries evolved into a full-scale assault
against a cosmic principle of dullness that was overtaking the world:
shoots in vain its momentary fires,
meteor drops, and in a flash expires. . . .
public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
human spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restored;
dies before thy uncreating word:
hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
universal Darkness buries All(9).
The year 2000 has not shown us, as
yet, any general apocalypse, but we have had the chance to preside
-- over the years in which this masque was composed and now published
-- over the deaths and destructions of various smaller "worlds,"
from Beirut and Sarajevo to Srebenica and Rwanda. Is it really true,
Alcalay asks rhetorically in an interview collected in Memories
of Our Future, that the example of a multiethnic community in
the Bosnian fashion, including mixed marriages, tolerance, and mutual
respect, might actually turn out to be contagious and pose a real
threat to the sterility of dead ended politics, and the further
concentration of power and capital(10)?
In other words, the current enemy
isn't a lot different than Swift's or Dryden's; globalization, and
a "greater concentration of capital now in fewer and fewer hands"(11)
has aesthetic consequences as well as political ones. Similarly,
if the history of Jewish/Arab contact in the Mediterranean can be
seen to stretch back to the ninth century (not merely to 1948) is
our sense of "literature" really not large enough to include these
enlightenment writers of the eighteenth century? Everyone who has
written in, or been translated into, English is -- potentially at
least -- part of our inheritance; as Alcalay says in his concluding
note, "the past remains open before us, waiting to be mined."
Strictly from a writer's standpoint,
it's fascinating how, as more than a few people have said, we all
write (or compose!) the same poem over and over. As noted, this
masque was composed in 1977, long before the Levantine studies and
travels that have made Alcalay's primary reputation, yet -- as I've
tried to show here -- it's not finally very different from his current
concerns. Defoe closes the masque with remarks that might as well
apply to Bosnia, or Lebanon, or Toledo and Granada in the Golden
Age: "neither shall I say anything more of it but that it remains
to be lamented."
Edward Dorn, in a 1976 interview responding to a question about
the function of the poet, had similar thoughts about process: "Part
of the function is to be alert to Spirit, and not so much write
poetry as to compose the poetry that's constantly written on air.
What I've read and what I hear merge to make the field in which
I compose." Edward Dorn, Interviews (Bolinas: Four Seasons
Foundation, 1980), p. 66.
Ammiel Alcalay, Memories of Our Future (San Francisco: City
Lights Books, 1999), p. 148 (speaking
of the work of Juan Goytisolo).
Somewhat ironically, this review is being written just after a two-week
"summit" between the Israeli government and Palestinian representatives
at Camp David which concluded without a peace agreement (although
both sides are being careful to accentuate the positive aspects
and new talks are scheduled).
Op cit., p. xxi.
Ibid., p. 151.
Ibid., p. 151. These comments are reminiscent of Charles Olson's
comment on Pound's cantos: "Ez's epic solves problem by his ego:
his single emotion breaks all down to his equals or inferiors .
. . Which assumption, that there are intelligent men whom he can
outtalk, is beautiful because it destroys historical time, and /
thus creates the methodology of the Cantos, viz, a space-field where,
by inversion, though the material is all time material, he has driven
through it so sharply by the beak of his ego that, he has turned
time into what we must now have, space & its live air" (my
italics). Selected Writings of Charles Olson (New York: New
Directions, 1966), pp. 81-82.
Edward Dorn, Views (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation,
1980), p. 22.
James Scully, Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice (Seattle:
Bay Press, 1988), pp.5-6.
Alexander Pope, Selected Poetry & Prose (New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1972), pp. 513-514.
Ammiel Alcalay, Memories of Our Future (San Francisco: City
Lights Books, 1999), p. 261.
Ibid., p. 261.