A theatre of impossibilities: Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire

Jonathan Ball. Clockfire (Coach House 2010).

As its opening line, ‘Entering the theatre,’ & the first phrase of its final bit, ‘Exit the theatre,’ make clear, Clockfire is a book-length sequence of prose poems (or very small essays/stories) playing off all the tropes about theatre-as-life it can manage to pack into its 100 pages. It may be the only book I’ll review that can fit both the categories of poetry & SF&F, for it dreams a series of fantasies that would do Borges or Calvino (the latter mentioned once or twice) proud. The cover comments call it ‘a suite of poetic blueprints for imaginary plays that would be impossible to produce,’ but it’s as much a series of tiny nightmares of a culture so lost in its dream of public spectacle its members will happily enter one scene of self-destruction after another so long as it promises to entertain, transcend the desperate boredom of the normal banal.

Clockfire neatly captures the reader’s implicit complicity in all this, with its section breaks addressed to ‘you’ – that person entering this theatre of sophisticated sadism & masochism (but on whose part, the actors or the audience?). Ball finds so many different ways to implicate his readers; each text tries on a different possibility, the stage, so to speak, its own garden of forking paths. And so blame, & there is a lot of blame implied throughout, keeps shifting focus. Sometimes it’s the audience, as in ‘The Audience Wants More,’ which ends: ‘The actors held hostage. Worked until their deaths. Even then, the audience wants. Always it wants more.’ This is an early piece. But later on, there’s ‘like Lambs’:

The audience enters the theatre. One at a time. As they enter, they are slaughtered. The curtain hangs in mid-air.

As the book accumulates its various little dramas, the power relations between audience & actors keep shifting, then. Clockfire lets no one off its hook, & it eventually books everyone in its own theatre of the impossible dream/nightmare.

Clockfire moves from what could be private visions into myth, legend, religious apocalypse, all in bite-size pieces. Toward the end, it invites the end, as in ‘The Waters Are Rising’:

The curtains are down. It rains outside. The roof leaks. The audience waits. The curtains remain down. The rain falls. And the water rises. The doors are all locked. And the play, the play is about to begin.

Of course there is at least one more terrifying possibility to be played out, before we are allowed to exit the theatre, & Ball makes sure that that exit is as duplicitous as all the drama(s) preceding it. He has shaped these pieces with wit & a fine sense of concentration. While a fine example of contemporary poetic writing, Clockfire could also entertain a wider audience intrigued by fantasy that beaks out beyond genre borders.

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2 Responses to A theatre of impossibilities: Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire

  1. Pingback: Douglas Barbour on CLOCKFIRE : Jonathan Ball dot com

  2. MW says:

    What I love the most about Clockfire is that there is a tinge of procedure to it. Not in the sense of procedural poetry or procedural writing, but mediated procedure. When television came around, nobody knew why people became so entranced by the mesmerising images, and even older than that nobody was ever really able to explain why the moderni were so absorbed into those things called books. And yet, when one reads fiction – or more clearly, fiction writing textbooks – one quickly understands that these things called “stories” were more or less a crystallized form of human suffering itself, starting from the point of disruption to the one goddamn thing after another. Why exactly were people so ready, willing, and able to absorb themselves into these dramas?

    Clockfire was one of the few texts I’ve read that explored the essential relationship between drama and its viewers. I’ve never seen it before in such detail. And it reads almost as if it were a list, or a set of instructions what to do. 1) Take dreams in hand. 2) Carry them away. 3) Do not cry. 4) Tell no one. 5) Feign sleep.

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