THE DUENDE OF TETHERBALL
by Tim Bowling
Federico García Lorca, in his 1933 Buenos Aires lecture, The Theory and Play of the Duende, in A.S. Kline’s translation, writes of “Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’ So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought.” Lorca concludes his lecture in this way: “The duende….Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”
The Duende of Tetherball contains 34 poems grouped into three parts. The opening and closing poems are both about parents. In the first, the fisherman father and the fatherhoods of the fisherman and of the writer—the fisherman’s fisherman son—permeate the first section, like salmon in the river, readied to die in the gillnet: Full fathom five thy father lies.
Tetherball is a game for two players, the object of which is to immobilize a ball, approximately the size of a volleyball, suspended on a tether whose other end is tied to the top of a stationary, vertical metal pole, by wrapping the full length of the tether, at a certain height, round the pole, by hitting, with the hand or forearm, the ball in opposite directions, until no tether remains, and the ball hits the pole. The game was invented in England around 1895. It has been suggested that the game may be a less gruesome version of the proclivity of the Tatars of the Golden Horde to suspend an enemy’s head from a pole and strike it with a stick. In a more benign framework, medieval European maypole dancing has also been suggested as a forerunner.
Bowling introduces this “democratic violence,” the “maypole of our solitudes,” in the book’s second, and title, poem, to emphasize that Lorca associates duende with the presence of Death. Death, in the subsequent poem, which draws on a seemingly unrelated game, hopscotch, is described as “the chalk outline / of the corpse in a murder case;” the next, fourth poem then recalling Peter Lorre, in Fritz Lang’s 1931 film, M, “hiding from the mob / among the crannied silhouettes / of buildings that housed / each inchoate Nazi,” —while, as each of them began to move towards political power, the chalk itself writes of Death on imagined, disengaged blackboards on which the writer fixates, as the writer clamps Edward Munch’s 1893 Norwegian scream to his head, as the chalk in his hand “writes the truth / on the air / and breaks,” the “beauty of the world / made more beautiful / by always being something else,” the poet weeping in the dead schoolyard the god rose in, grave-dirt on one cheek. The son of the poet son whose fisherman father smoked Player’s cigarettes asking if his poet father had been a player. The title poem about tetherbell begins this way: “It isn’t played much anymore. My kids don’t play. / I don’t play for nostalgia.”
This type of complex interweaving is characteristic of the book in Bowling’s examination of its subjects, the presence of disused games and of meaningful chance in the foreknowledge of death: waiting for what cannot fall back, even though “always / the promise of promise / leads us on / … the darker game / we have to invent ourselves / and play alone,” the “Spanish silhouette / crouched in warm salt dark.”
Part Two centres on solitude (“the only lesson that counts: / how to be alone’), partly existential, partly self-induced by futility (“Correct the comma splices and fragments / in a stack of thirty-seven undergraduate papers”), and alloyed with a sense of self-pity fueled by reminiscences of youth. “When I look up / a comfortable infinity / when I look down / grass that I can touch / and divide for the grave.” The murderous Macbeth makes an appearance, murdering sleep as the poet drops into his life, and awakens, thirty years later, still in the Thane of Cawdor’s Scotland. This middle section culminates with a longer poem, “Our Animal Solitude,” whose four segments alternate, with effect, between free verse and prose poetry, the first segment introductory, the second historical, the third transitional, and the fourth summational, and whose final sentence, in an ambivalence of rescue, is both ambiguous and precise: “It’s a nice buck … Too bad you can’t eat it. The meat’s bruised.”
Part Three expands into the solitary slaughter of animals, and their slaughter, in return, of the illusions of our older aging. A coyote in the foliage of forest amid the erasures of time. The crushed bones of leashed dogs. The dying wilderness of an ascetic salmon in her place of origin. Mutilated dogs; thousands in a dream: “the clouds coagulant at the wound / in the flesh between worlds.” Roadkill moose in the presence of Othello. Orcas not yet dead, through near, with “one stillbirth too many.”
And then, in a final sequence of seven poems, a further examination of the fullness of human Death returns: “shortly after dawn / a child touched my face in wonder // and I was gone,” Bowling concluding his book with a remembrance of his parents, their stillness now permanent, each of the two “cupping my life to its end.”