Elegy of Lightning: The Triumph of Artists

            Elegy of Lightning by Massimo Monfiletto is a one act play from Periphery 54. The play can be found under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            For my final blog post, in the chaos following finals week and graduation, I wanted to share with the blog the first story I ever read from Periphery: Elegy of Lightning by Massimo Monfiletto.  It is a one act play about an artist trying to paint his masterpiece, and it is truly incredible.  In the ‘Letter from the Editor’ from Periphery 54, Former Editor-in-Chief Jake Lieberton says, “Periphery 54 celebrates the triumph of artists.  Each of the pieces selected for this publication engages with craft, challenges conventions, and reveals profound truths about conditions of artistry and humanity” I can’t help but think that Elegy of Lightning at least partially inspired Jake’s description.  Not only does the play deal with artistry and its pitfalls in the literal text, but also showcases a lot of literary choices within the piece that work really, really well.  I want to take use this final blog post to talk about why I love this piece, and examine what exactly Elegy of Lightning does so well. 

            The part I love most about this play is Russel.  He is such a wonderful mess of ego and talent and delusion.  I want to punch him, but I also deeply want to get a beer with him.  From the very first bit of dialogue, the audience already knows everything they need to about Russel:

MOLLY!!! I forgive you!  Everyone has weaknesses, and you’re not beyond slip-ups!  I know you didn’t mean it.  You’re just… fragile.  Breakable.  Come out and I’ll cradle you against my chest and shield you from the rain!

Still no response

Molly, I finished the portrait of you.  It’s a masterwork, my best yet.  It’s the night you found out Bowie died and you cried and cried and cried.  You’re so pretty when you’re sad.  So Beautiful and sweet and melancholy, like a kiss in the rain. 

You’re dealing with a lot, I know.  Let me come in and paint you again, like I did last night.  Let me take on your sorrow and turn it into something beautiful.  I’ll consume your pain and turn it into the most intense kind of catharsis, spindly and delicate.  Let me paint your sadness in bruise tones.  I’ll make you beautiful.  Come out. 

Pause.  No response

C’mon, stop being a bitch, it’s freaking dusty out here!

Russel sees himself as some kind of romantic self-consumed artist, as Van Gogh cutting off his ear in anguish.  That illusion is a thin veneer though.  Push back on him just a little bit and the elevated diction, the romantic imagery falls away and the real Russel reveals himself.  He is such a layered character in how he recognizes his own absurdity, but only latently.  He has bought into his own illusion because that’s how he wants to see himself: the romantic self-consumed artist.  I love how this piece slowly strips away that illusion as more and more information is revealed about him.  The first discordant piece of information is how thin that illusion of the romantic artist really is through his first lines, and finally the illusion is shattered with how accurately Molly portrays him in the final monologue.  It is a wonderful reversal of how we initially see Russel. 

            Part of the reason the reversal is able to function so well is that this story doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  There is a history to this play, and it is integral to how we understand the events of it.  Characters are familiar with Russel’s past antics, and through those actions we get a better sense of both the characters that bring the past events up, and of Russel himself.  The most history we get is from Molly when she talks about how she was seduced by Russel’s illusion.  Her monologue perfectly exemplifies how to present exposition in an effective way.  Through her monologue, her character is deeply informed, and more context is given about Russel, as well as a viewer actually getting direct information.  Her monologue works on a lot of levels as well as finally being an accurate description of Russel in reality versus how he sees himself.  The history of the play allows characters to have depth, and the telling of that information works hard to characterize, recontextualize events, as well as simply give exposition.            

I started this blog to showcase that celebration of artistic triumph.  More than what I had to say, I wanted to use the Periphery Blog show what other artists, poets, and authors had already said.  I wanted to use this blog to do what Periphery does so well: gives artists and authors a platform to speak.  It has truly been a pleasure wandering through old editions of the journal, and having a platform to talk about what makes them tick.  With the closing of my time here at the Periphery Blog, however, a new chapter begins.  I am absolutely thrilled that the talented and prophetic Hagan Maurer will be taking over.  Hagan writes poetry, flash fiction, short stories, songs, and damn near everything in between.  From that versatility, the blog will be different, the blog will be new, and I absolutely can’t wait to see where he takes it. 

At the Gym: Why Details Matter

           At the Gym by Brandi Sharmek is a poem from Periphery 55. The poem can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

A few years ago I worked for the recreational staff in the gyms here at Drake.  It was a strange job just sitting in the gym, unable to spot or help the students.  I was just there to watch, to keep the peace.  When I talk to others who have, or still do sit inside weight rooms and try not to make too much eye contact with the patrons, they always mention the same couple of things.  They mention the fake movement, the furious cycling to nowhere, the fake space of full wall of mirrors, and the tiny interactions that can color an entire day.  When I read At the Gym by Brandi Sharmek, it took me right back to those moments.  Nothing I have read has so perfectly captured the feeling of spending a lot of time inside a gym.  I want to look at how Sharmek uses details to create a larger world and work far beyond their descriptive quality. 

            The most interesting aspect of At the Gym is the timing of the piece.  Anyone who has been bored at a job can speak to how time ebbs and flows while there.  Single moments can stand out for days while hours slide by unnoticed.  The reason the timing works so well in this piece, is that the poem comes off as over a long period of time.  These observations don’t come from a single day, nor a single place.  Descriptions of the track, basketball court, and weight room all run together.  Comments like, “Watch as he circles around us to the tock-tick of a counter-clockwise Tuesday,” and, “Read the sign: Monday, clockwise. Talk in circles, observe the showcase below,” speak to the extended timeline of the poem.  These observations come from a lot of time spent within the gym, not a single day or place.  The power of this timing is that the observations come off as exemplary of a larger experience.  Because every line paints a different picture, we as readers know they all aren’t happening one after the other, they are simply collections of observations across the time the speaker has been working there.  Put together these specific examples paint a much larger picture than a dude staring from behind the desk, and wannabes storming the court.  Each example is exemplary of many similar interactions and thereby the gym as a whole.  At the Gym uses specific details to be descriptive across a longer period of time and a broader experience than is what is shown.  That technique is a wonderfully accurate way to show and describe a boring job. 

            Specific details work to reflect back onto the speaker.  It is easy to miss the complete lack to action within At the Gym.  Every line is an observation or fantasy, never an action on the part of the speaker.  Part of the reason the lack of action is easy to miss is that it is so varied.  Sharmek does an incredible job of using every sense to creation the world of the gym.  I hear the weights chatter, I smell the antiseptic, and I see all six screens displaying the same image.  Every line isn’t another patron, nor image, but a switch between senses.  What is so interesting about all of these observations is that they are just that: observations.  The speaker, without ever saying anything about themselves is someone who spends a great deal of time observing the gym.  They are not the one pumping iron or running miles, merely observing.  More than that, through their voice we understand that observation isn’t spiteful nor sardonic, merely perceptive and above all bored.  Sprinkled into that perception, are fantasies: “Imagine an elephant elevated on an elliptical,” ponders the speaker.  These thoughts are interspersed with observations of the gym, telling of a wandering mind.  The specific observations not only work to build the world of the gym, but characterize the speaker. 

            Why then are specific examples so important?  It is kind of a strange question to ask.  It is the difference in saying the Mr. Rochester is ugly, or that he,

Had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but has not reached middle aged […] Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking gentleman, I should have not dared to stand thus questioning him against his will (Bronte 114)

It is the difference in saying that Gloria Gilbert compulsively eats candy, or that there is a specific brand of gum drop that she simply must have or she will pout and throw a fit.  We live our lives through specifics, not generalities, and when it comes to describing a place or person, those specifics define them.  When I think of my friends and family what stands out to me isn’t broad impressions, but details about the way they speak or habitual actions that paint that larger picture.  When I think of the gym, it isn’t of the machines, but the tick-tock of clocks and smell of antiseptic.  Sharmek could have easily told us about the gym, but through details, she is able to show us the space.