Swimming Alone Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1988. 96 pp. Poetry.
They warn you not to
dangerous they say
what if you get into trouble
in the early morning when pellets of rain
rip the mist like whispered rumour, loud
in the dark fir circling
the majesty of one
deliberately fracturing glass
moving down through pools to make
a footprint on mud that's swallowed whole
slipping behind the raft and out of sight
breathing under the whirled pearl smoke
brooding and dreaming, what if
one becomes enough
or meets another single creature
ploughing through this lake
also swimming alone
for the first time since childhood
in cunning furtive spasms
until the strokes are long and steady
what if we two angry isolates
touching souls together
ignoring all the prohibitions, expectations
swimming especially in lightning
white nudes between each sizzling shaft
and always at night, when the sky falls down
and we push through fuming stars
barely missing the moon's pale hiss
what if we two, wrinkled and cold and buoyant
never come out of the lake
swimming alone is for the brave and desperate
New Moon, Old Mattress Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1990. 94 pp. Poetry
You and I have just finished
facing the emptiness, killing
the old year, the old life, leaving
the house that started us off.
New moon and old mattress.
I say goodbye
to powdery laundries
in the warm cobwebby basement
arch rooms we walked through
secretly wedding and wedding
white squares where things were
oily grime we hid so well
behind it all.
snorts in the lane
gobbling up our insiders
through a slit in the wall.
The house caves softly down
like a gutted fish
slimed in ancient blood
scales, a tarnished silver
Our children turn to snow
build people, branchy-limbed.
I long to make with them
this clean clod life.
Stand instead a shivering mockery
with bags in each hand-
pots and pans and radios
calendars, chopsticks, scissors-
unable to dispose of anything, anywhere
at the festival of light.
Then you arrive, my dark flame
grinning at the new door.
Little leaded triangles
We settle quickly into safe ways
eating elaborate breakfasts together
share news in steamy doughnut shacks.
The children attach and detach
a melodrama of marvelous mood and poses.
Mincing on barren ice
you sing out your frozen soul
in high falsetto pitch
like a lobster boiled red and
shrink under winter's late livid sun.
Forgotten lovers, we meet unexpectedly
over garbage-cans and washtubs
throw dishes in this domestic revolution
sound the arias of our helpless hysteria
and perform like deposed monarchs
the ritual of meal preparation
testing things with fingertip and grimace.
Ragged king and queen
dreaming in exile.
You and I began
in the same impossible place
of flowers and fire
spruce boughs, baubles and animal breath.
Innocently you bring us remembrance.
A single wisdom moves us now
slowly growing tentacles
pulling ourselves up
slipping into the stream.
It's dim and foggy and touching
a big-eyed alien mystery
the getting there
where love tears and screams
in high old flight
and dazzling pain.
The New Pagans Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1991. 120 pp. Poetry.
Someone is singled out for celebration
like a saint the Church decides on
counting up miracles
good works in multitudes.
Is there an act left to sanctify
some area of living not media-blessed?
The whole department is here in costume
nervously congratulating themselves
understudies suddenly given starring roles.
I sit out their ululating silliness
in the suburbs
with immature trees
and that clean country-fishbowl look
on the back deck.
Fiery-eyed woman waiting to incinerate.
Beyond the starry shadows of my hiding
houselights and applause
announce the canonization.
A man I've known for years
tearing his way through
just like the rest of us.
Affection is rampant
the things he's taught us all
says a trembling secretary.
There's only on lesson here, my dear
that fame like history is a matter of timing.
He gave everybody exactly
what they wanted and now
the gratitude pours in.
I, however, would like to make a speech
about this wife, his children, his friends
who keep on going.
I would like to make a speech
about those the Church condemns
heretics and wanderers
clustering at the gate
making it hard and holy.
Sparks still shooting from my head
I invoke the new pagans
rising up remote from stony walls
with bodies and voices like an earthquake.
To start again with flame and rum
with flesh and bone
and sacred circle of ground.
The Book of Joan Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1994. 80 pp. Poetry
Joan begins dancing at the edge of the sea.
Soon she's half a mile over the waves
whirling in a tiny pavilion
to boom of surf and whistle of spray.
Angel, extravagant at play.
Suddenly the sea's alive with wings.
Two by two the twirling girls weave
through wind and sleet, swaddled
in scarves and shiny macs
crinkled and squeaking like newborns
these embryonic belles
charging into the dark.
Gangs of them sit at tables drinking barley
watching, wincing with lemonade
sugaring down the acid to a smile
making appointments with boys they like
for next night under the clock-tower
or if they don't leaving expectations there
desire running out
on the bright inexorable face
ticking away hope with large hands
banging out humiliation
every hour on the hour.
Graduated to gala dances
the tipsy girls topple and sway
on pointed silver. Wings and wands
encrusted with brine.
Women by enthusiastic acclaim
they drive far into green land
where woodsy men wait for embraces.
Drink ginger-beer from old stone bottles
swirling a lovely coloured marble at the mouth
of their potent potions.
Joan and her burgeoning friends.
The perfect children of gypsy parents.
Black-haired barmaid shaking brass earrings.
Innkeeper puffing away at barrels and kegs
filling frothy mugs under silver and oak.
Shirtsleeves rolled up so muscular wisdom can work
on young girls who pass through his doors.
Passing through. Passing on.
Never keeping anyone in.
The Incredible Shrinking Wife London, Ont: Black Moss Press, 1995. 160 pp. A post-feminist novel.
Chaper IV - Ping Pong
Katie arrived at Backwoodwaywardforwardawkwardarkwoodamnwoodinwoodreamworldwonderwood Writers Retreat a day late. Organizing two weeks away from Corey and from teaching so early in the fall had not been easy. But Charlie had insisted she take the two weeks and finish the novel she had been working on for so long. Perhaps that was all she needed. But she hadn't counted on this particular camp atmosphere.
She felt ill at ease among so many established writers.
Joe Germaine, on the other hand, was the veteran at camp.
"Two weeks without a complaint," as he put it to her that evening at dinner. Trying to be unobtrusive, she had occupied the one available chair, opposite him.
So casual. But Katie felt his presence strongly. He was all edges, slanting at her. Dangerous cutting edges. Angles that caught the light like blades; sharpness aimed from the quiet pull of dark corners.
Sitting across the table, she felt knives sheathed and fixed. Social chat was impossible. He was already telling her too much with his black bony look and burning blue eyes. He had a face sculpturally set at youth and racing stallion - purebred black, flying along perimeters pounding out the old tracks, hooves beating down virgin territory smooth under him, grazing on delicious tidbits while the sweat settled. Where did these images come from? Was he sending them out or was she making them up?
Somehow she knew this man was a roamer and a gambler. And indeed she wasn't far wrong. In fact, Joe was already involved with an attractive novelist and TV interviewer at the camp, named Sally. She was 50 and he, at least ten years younger, rested comfortably in her sensual companionship.
Katie was struck by the fact that Joe's demeanor seemed to take her back before her marriage and the complications of Miguel to her ancestral fathers. Men who strode out of the Canadian West with chivalry bred in their small town hearts. Big masculine presences with a weakness for quite pretty women. They all moved with the long stride of pioneers and preachers, settling the wilderness and then leaving someone else to maintain order. Joe was tall and rangy like they were. Taut.
Joe's writing, it turned out, was full of unexpressed violence - sexual master-slave games. These were dramatic tricks maybe, and interspersed with lyrical flights. But if (as Katie suspected from her own tortured fantasies) it's true that you write what you can't live, then these fantasies promised their own seduction as a clue to him.
Katie was finally trying her own hand at wish fulfillment. Or revenge. She was determined to write a novel - the life of a philandering female poet. Liz Lively.
She was going to turn the tables on all the male poets she'd studied for so many years, who saw history and current affairs in the shape of the female body, where revolutions spawned from dark and secret wombs. Who condemned small lives. Who demanded magnificence every moment.
When they wrote about nature, it was not soft but savage. they raped sensibilities with language - ravenous wolves, evil-eyed tigers, the very engines of cosmic unrest, roaring pitiless mountains.
In gruff drunken voices, they described domestic pathos - black eyes, broken noses, handfuls of hair pulled out. Their mates committed suicide, went mad, or lived out a nasty vengeance. Their children wrote exposés and made fortunes.
And somehow these creative giants triumphed. They all fled to Greek islands with mistresses and, imbibing sunshine and retsina, convinced themselves that guilt cannot survive a completely pagan live.
Katie wanted to turn all that around. Put a woman in charge for once, creatively upsetting the older order. The Joes of the world following rather than leading. but she wouldn't reveal Liz Lively to anyone. Not just yet.
The Selected Poems of Patricia Keeney Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1996. 152 pp. Introduction by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
I love you
because your eyes are blue-with distant water
your speech the nervy racket of urban streets.
I love you because you fight it and fail
because you make me feel-easy, uneasy, foolish,queenly
plunging between blushes and hunger.
I love you because you take me whole
giddy and prayerful, cautious and headlong
my carnival of masks tied to a moody rock
that can fly in the right wind.
I love you because you are charting me
passion's cartographer numbering every blade of grass.
I love you because you have time
because you've seen me awkward, stranded
in a room accused before strangers
your only instinct to protect and later protest
"You were not strong enough. Your are too strong."
I love you because you desire strength and understand weakness.
I love you because you talk to me, and at me
stubborn resistance wearing down at last
forcing the flow both ways until our boxing is dancing.
I love you because you bother me
because I can't hide from you
because you let chaos in, inch by liquid inch
like an ocean through the wall's bright ugly gap
I love you because you won't go away
I love you
Global Warnings Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1999. 134 pp. Poetry
There are thunderstorms in Paris
Eiffel Tower's a mist screen.
Winged things, giant flies
with blue and orange eyes
drown in heavy waters
of the Seine.
Because we are no longer reverent
the fabulous statues gleam and glower
stubborn abstractionists permitting only
a light behind leaves.
It is good to see anything
in this frozen culture.
Before us grins the monkey king
trembling operatic heaven, ecstatic
at his practice scale of arcane gestures
written infallibly by ancestors.
With delight he strokes and curls
a quivering feather crown.
Elegant fingernail paints the stars
where gods butt out their good cigars.
Such odd and antiquated wit
sits high above an open sea of faces
chanting freedoms in the square.
Responding, we embrace oblivion.
Polish vodka lifts us high and low
through clanking unsafe buildings
caged with friends who speak
no tongue we know but liquor
gets us to their gypsy mystery
violent need they substitute for love
ugliness that keeps them sullen and alert.
A week of global warnings brings us sober Sunday.
Rough plank places yawn awake
take clover baths where people swarm to hilltop shrines
a drone of honey in their hymns. Our blistered feet
climb steep and narrow streets until we reach
the steam of yes and no.
Wrapped in coarse towels
we squat on fragrant balsa benches
sweat out sins and beat our backs with birches
in the savage sauna that is spring
until we come to clench
and burst of skin
hardy first folk
in some forgotten history
Vocal Braiding (with Penn Kemp) London, Ont.: Pendas Productions, 2001. 48 pp. An experiment in poetry and theatre bringing together "a braided version" of several long poems by Keeney and Kemp. Performed in Jaipur, India and for Indian television, the work was later done in a number of theatrical and poetry venues in Canada. /Vocal Braiding /also exists as a CD
||(to Pat) How did you sleep?
||Would you please open the blind and close the window?
||Let light replace the sound of the morning traffic.
||(to Penn) My mind's a port town quiet water under waiting hulls.
||The mast is tipped to fishing patience.
||Care for a coffee?
||Dawn begins in courtesy.
||Day frays us to night afraid of one more dark vision.
||Light another candle please.
||We wander crooked wharves breathing rubber and the rusty brine cannot tell boat from home or how the sea and sky are rigged at constant agitation.
||Sequestered in our pink room behind a pink shade
||Because today I am impelled by no strong force or passion nor following design the ping of things at anchor
||We curl breast to back against each other.
||Starving squall from roving gulls needles, cuts the nerve. Yet
||Home is where the heart stays. Home is where the heart stops. Home is
||this whitish float of fixed
||answer to your question
||and moving parts - holds us.
||Rest and the rest is easy
||snuggling forward in the wind bulky solid in a salt collage.
||We start to trust in harbours feel we could find work
||and I write it down to remember when I am restless
||hauling in and launching
||your kindness on the eve of your fiftieth birthday.
||Leaving the harbour
You Bring Me WingsToronto: Antares Press, 2011. 278 pp. Poetry and intercultural conversations between Patricia Keeney and Mexican poet Ethel Krauze. The conversations cover such areas as the challenge of the female artist working and living on either side of the American border, approaches to writing poetry, surviving love and living life fully. Each section is illustrated with a number of poems, Ethel having rendered Pat's work into Spanish and Pat having rendered Ethel's work into Spanish.
||Two women writers sit facing each other on opposite sides of a desk in the airy front room of an apartment in Mexico city. Dark-haired and intense, they huddle close in conversation. Pat and Ethel. Canadian. Mexican.
||Sometimes I think I suffer from ontological oppression. Perhaps all women do. To be ourselves and also, to be the image in the mirror. We are always watching ourselves. Why?
||Do you think it's uncertainty?
||I don't know.
||Perhaps it's self-scrutiny. Or maybe, just self-doubt. I mean we know that we know and we know what we know. But is what we know what we should know?
||Slowly absorbing their surroundings, the private space of their mutual friend, an actor, they realize they are not the only ones victimized by mirrors.
||Ontological oppression leading to ontological anguish.
||He too wears a mask.
||But that is his profession.
||As it is ours, right?
||You're right. Almost every poem that I ever wrote, every novel, every story hides a ghost narrative.
||For me too. It's the subtext.
||The story behind the story.
||Let's not worry about what it's called. Let's just talk about what interests us.
||And hopefully, it will interest them.
||Only if they're interested in women ... the way an actor is.
||They look around at his theatre posters and baroque art, breathe in the musky, pampered body scent of his elaborate theatrical transformations.
||Let's just have a real conversation ...
||... about women.
||About women's literature.
||It always seems to start in conversation. Doesn't it? conversation with other women. Conversation with ourselves.
||I began writing in a diary.
||My point exactly. A conversation with yourself. A very positive thing.
||I'm not sure most men would think so.
||But it's what keeps us going. As women. As writers. Conversation. It changes us.
||We grow. I'm certain of that.
||Conversation empowers us ...
||... as writers. As thinkers. Even as lovers. It lets us explore ...
||... and move into areas that are perhaps forbidden.
||The exploration so often goes back in time. to our mothers. Grandmothers.
||Our foremothers. The through line is matrilineal for us.
||Always ending with ourselves. Woman to woman through the generations.
||All of our work is drawn to conversation, I think, because it contains everything . Literally.
||We put it all together and it changes us - as women and as writers. I talk therefore I am.
||We write and therefore we are. I learn who I am through my writing and through sharing with my generations of women.
||Through the female family and friends.
||But until I put it all down in my work, until I recognize those relationships in my writing I don't quite know who they are or who I am in relation to them.
||To put experience into words makes it real, doesn't it? Proves that we exist. Conversation - sharing, identifying this way - this is the flag of our nationality as women. Yet it's rarely taken seriously by men. The result is that we so often just go silent, especially in their company.
||Their eyes stray to gauzy curtains set against blank grey walls as they spray out over rooftops in the wind that whips off Chiquita, breezing through and breaking down their sense of isolation.
||So we keep diaries and journals. No one else has to see them. They've been an enormously important form of expression for women.
||An outlet. Perhaps the silence around them is why so many women find such inspiration in simply talking with other women.
||It's kind of creativity - those particular words have never been spoken before.
||And men never understand, "You have spent eight hours talking about stupid things. What are you talking so much about?"
First Woman Toronto: Inanna Press. 2011. 96 pp. Poetry. Juxtaposed against a range of cultures, this new volume of poems is a series of personal and political journeys examining "the interior life".
I want to tell you
about the first woman
my first woman
because you should know
fable and fact.
Her breasts surprised me, pliant
fingered questions there
for the asking, startled points
Her face comes ancient
iconography under flickering eyes
shut tight, gone swimming in the stream
of fire I feel run through me
from all women:
Sappho, an island of women
devoted to grace
soldier of love
and metric versatility.
Lilith humanizing Adam up
from his boring beasts
unbound in her hair
for demons, whip light
cracking the globe
on its furious round.
Her milder daughter, Eve
stuck with a serpent.
How does it start?
An afternoon of language
excited by itself
luring words, ours
hers and mine for you
and you and you
a woman disclosing her fear:
what poetry might unleash
to whom I say, this art contours
controls, soothes and smooths
(this treacherous art)
candles and goddess song
a witches' brew of nectars
swirling in glass bowls
bursting brush fires on our heads
the hiss and spit of grapes on vines
scorching us with each other
snakes curling hair
mouths flickering tongues
playing with light
simply the freedom
drunk at a kitchen table
our orbits fixed
circling each other
broken only by attraction
that pleases me
(assuming it is more
What ore has she struck
alive, sleeping vein missed
by you, deep as you've delved?
The moment between
things held, breath before
dance begins again
the old slow gravitation
to and from.
lie over us listening.
Log house moans.
Old world hewers and drawers
we pioneer hard
join, interrupt, intercept
leave and let love?
I cannot do this
without your. She
extends us. Through me
you can have all
There is talk of strong women
what they contain, places she wants
to go, walls I've smashed down
so much you've sidestepped
to let me storm through
dangers I've courted.
You tell her
she's bedding the patriarchy.
I prefer putting paternal to rest
like the mothers we are
devoted to children.
Later comes morning
your arm around her
consoling a fear
I feel, the ice
I wander our rooms
in opium dreams
One Man Dancing
(Inanna 2016). A political novel, a human novel, a theatrical novel, One Man Dancing is set in Idi Amin’s Uganda and looks at the precarious and powerful role that art can play under a dictatorship. Based on true events, it follows the life of Charles Tumwesigye –an actor-dancer with the legendary Robert Serumaga’s Abafumi theatre company – who survives the horrors of war only to find himself lost in Europe as a political refugee and then physically shattered in a Canadian tornado. One Man Dancing moves from bold experiments with tales of traditional Africa told through music, myth and dance to the darkest worlds of international politics, artistic risk and personal endurance.
From the novel:
Charles looks up at the stage and studies this Robert Serumaga. Solidly built and very sure of himself, Serumaga clearly comes from money and privilege. But the things he is saying are extraordinary. Masks. Dance. Inner self. Africa. Drums and colors and chanting. Charles is thrilled that Joro has brought him here to Abafumi, to Robert Serumaga.
They sit silent for many hours. It is a Baganda story that Abafumi is telling with their bodies, with their bead skirts and elaborate hairstyles, with their headdresses and knives. It is a story Charles knows. The story of Nakayaga, demon of storms and whirlwinds, who demands the limbs of many victims before being appeased. The story of a victim who pleads for mercy, pleads with his song and his drum to be spared, pleads because he is a father and a husband, because his family needs him.
The intensity of the rhythms stops Charles cold. His heart hammers and he breathes hard. This is not an imitation of life. It is larger than life. Not just a story but the imaginative inside of a story. “Where understanding begins,” Serumaga is saying.
Review of One Man Dancing by Octavian Saiu (Romania)
International Webjournal: Critical Stages (critical-stages.org), CS 15, April 2017
The story of an actor . . . The story of a country . . . The story of a continent . . . All of these would be fitting expressions to describe the novel written by Patricia Keeney, whose title, One Man Dancing, is both self-explanatory and enigmatic at one and the same time. Indeed, this phrase contains the key elements of the book, as it reflects the loneliness of an African artist struggling to maintain his freedom in the face of personal and collective suffering. His name is Charles Tumwesigye.
Although written in such a way that it appears to be a product of pure imagination, this book, as its final pages reveal most emphatically, is based on real facts. Situated between fiction and non-fiction, between the subtlety of language and the harshness of actual history, Keeney's work is an attempt—and a highly successful one at that—to transcribe the destiny of a being who finds in his art the only possible response to the conundrums of his life.
And what a convoluted life he has led: born in Uganda, he becomes an actor and then a member of a legendary theatre company that tours extensively in Europe and the Americas; he earns fame and loses everything, including his own country, before eventually emigrating to Canada, where he still lives. Alone. In everything this improbable hero does, as recounted in the book, he seems to be irremediably alone.
The novel creates a sense of chronology that challenges the usual patterns of storytelling. It begins with the all but indescribable scene of a tornado in which the protagonist's small car is turned into a piece of flying metal. Crushed. Annihilated. Memory is lost, but memories remain intact.
Childhood, adolescence, the journey into manhood unfold against the political backdrop of a country tormented by the grotesque spectre of a bloodthirsty dictator. Idi Amin, the Ugandan leader who mutilated his own nation, is the constant shadow that accompanies the book's main character. He never appears as such, not in the explicit and forceful way he does in The Last King of Scotland, but he is always there, even when he is absent.
This is, in a sense, a political novel, a bitter contemplation of the disaster wrought by dictatorship in a country whose bright colours of hope and culture may never shine again. These colours are on display during Charles's childhood, when he discovers a world dominated by the figure of his father, a man who gradually vanishes over the course of the book, eventually being reduced to a state of frailty and loss. In fact, he is no longer there any more, merely being referred to in the account provided by an old friend. Indeed, Charles never goes back to see his dying parents, the rift between him and his homeland thus becoming irreversible.
The novel's central theme is exile, both forced and self-imposed: through art, through love, through everything entailed by belonging to a company of actors that were to become the free image of a controlled nation. The name of the company may sound familiar to certain theatre people, particularly those who have explored the history of African performance: Abafumi. There is very little, almost nothing, in the book that is not related, directly or indirectly, to this company responsible for a series of stage works, challenging in various ways.
Its artistic driving force, Robert Serumaga, seems to be the implied main character: he is Charles's creative mentor and the one to influence his existence in a way that no one else is able to. He is the one who, negotiating perils of all kinds and using his status as a shield, nurtures liaisons with American agencies in order to ensure the international trajectory of his actors.
These agencies are not always artistic, however, and his relationship with the CIA is constantly hinted at, though never clarified. This remains a mystery, not only for the reader, but also the writer and for Charles himself. His point of view provides the key to the entire narrative and is carefully juxtaposed with remarks about the world that emerge from broader research conducted by Keeney in the fields of African history, anthropology and, of course, theatre.
Although this book clearly lends itself to cinema in a most organic way, theatre remains its real core. Not merely because its main character is a trained actor, or because his identity is shaped by the company run by Robert. Not even because everything is infused with the energy and inspirations of real stage life. Rather, the entire novel is accompanied by a constant sense of theatricality, becoming something akin to a long monologue interrupted by the voices and the presence of others.
The subject matter is African theatre, imbued with myth and local specificity. However, the general tone is theatrical in a more . . . universal fashion, thus making the book appeal to readers from anywhere, above all to readers who are also spectators. It is the Joycean theatre of the mind, turning the banality of the everyday into the stuff of dreams, into the very fabric of stage emotions.
Unsurprisingly, again in the spirit of Joyce, Shakespeare's most famous work is the catalyst for Charles's dilemmas and inner contradictions. The protagonist's discovery of Hamlet, the character and the play, provides one of the central moments of the book. His existential doubt is then voiced in a manner that echoes Hamlet's mantra, to be or not to be.
For Charles, every aspect of life is a source of hesitation—from the moment he thinks he wants to quit the company following a row with Robert, the uncompromising artistic leader who compromises one of his company's performances, to that of his attempt to claim asylum in Sweden, a country that rejects him on the grounds of his possession of false papers. Nothing is ever clear, the effect of absolute determination. Everything is uncertain, unstable, at the mercy of exterior circumstances and deeply affected by the character's constant quandaries.
Charles is, ultimately, an African Hamlet, and in a way that the immeasurably more famous boy from The Lion King cannot be: in his mind, in his feelings. Even the love he feels for a fellow actress is a relative sentiment, heavily imposed by circumstance. Nothing in him resembles the strong willpower possessed by Robert, who manages to take the company from the obscurity of Uganda to some of the greatest stages of the world: Caracas, Amsterdam, Krakow.
All these places are immediately significant in the journey of this African Hamlet, as if they were stations in a Bildungsroman with no ending. And each of them is treated by Keeney with enormous attention to detail—not so much exterior as interior. Each such encounter is analyzed in terms of the way Charles sees things, how he perceives the novelty of place, the reality of cultural and human difference.
One example becomes more evocative than any other next. While in Poland, the African company visits Auschwitz, that place of utter horror and inhumanity. Right there and then, they each have a revelation that would seem to be a mise en abyme: Amin's regime is for Uganda what Hilter's holocaust was for Europe. This sounds like a historical verdict, formulated unpretentiously, one that could make all western, white, "civilized" people relate to the atrocities of recent African history. Genocide is too abstract; holocaust seems a more appropriate term of comparison.
Like Hamlet, it is also a metaphor, a means of contemplating African truth with a sense of assumed responsibility. Beyond facts and feelings, reality and fiction, this is the enduring message of One Man Dancing, a human and humanistic perspective on Africa in which theatre becomes the common ground for every reader, from everywhere.
As revealed at the end, the book is the direct result of a different sort of theatrical encounter that owes much to Don Rubin. This esteemed scholar edited Routledge's World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, a uniquely complex venture during which he relied on colleagues and sources from all over the world. One of these sources was none other than Charles.
It was this improbable connection, demystified in the end, that led to the writing of this novel, which the author gracefully pens without ever resorting to the first person. Whose novel is it? Whose story is ultimately being told? Hers? His? A list of honest clarifications is provided so that no alteration might compromise the accuracy of the account in both historical and human terms. The reader is thus afforded a clear insight into the genetic development of the book and everything else besides the first scene—that of the Canadian tornado—is explained and justified. And yet . . .
And yet, its mystery remains, lingering beyond the pages of this beautiful work, whose title now seems more poignant than during the process of reading. One Man Dancing is more than the tale of a Ugandan artist or the account of a Canadian author inspired by it. It is certainly more than a chronicle of a theatre group, built and disintegrated against the backdrop of tragic political events.
It is the story of African otherness, something that not even in or through theatre can be properly apprehended. It is the narrative of an unknown world in which people live, love and dance away from the spotlights of world history. This novel tries to shine a huge spotlight on one of Africa's most unsung theatrical heroes, the lead actor of Abafumi, Charles Tumwesigye. The Ugandan Hamlet, always dancing alone.
Octavian Saiu, Adjunct Secretary General of IATC and President of the Romanian Section – Theatre Studies of IATC, holds a PhD in Theatre Studies, for a thesis about theatrical space, and one in Comparative Literature, for a thesis about Samuel Beckett and Eugčne Ionesco. He completed his Post-Doctoral Research in European Literature (Modernism) and has been awarded his Habilitation in Theatre and Performing Arts. He teaches postgraduate courses in Romania and Japan, and has offered Master Classes at other universities in Europe and Asia, as well as the Grotowski Institute. He has published articles in several international journals, as well as nine books on theatre, and he received the Critics' Award in 2010 and the Award of the Union of Theatre Artists (UNITER) in 2013. Actively involved in various international events around the world, he has chaired talks and seminars at Edinburgh International Festival, the Theatre Olympics and Sibiu International Theatre Festival. His most recent publication in English is the monograph, Hamlet and the Madness of the World (2016).
Review of One Man Dancing by Margareta Sörenson
Stockholm, Sweden: Dans Tidningen (Dance Magazine), October 2017
STAGE ARTISTS WHO RISK THEIR LIVES
This is the story of a dancer from Uganda, now living in Canada, who was part of the legendary dance-theatre group Abafumi, a company which toured the world in the 1970s while on a collision course with dictator Idi Amin.
Canadian author Patricia Keeney calls One Man Dancing a novel. She explains early in the book why this true story of Ugandan dancer-actor Charles Tumwesigye could not have been done in strictly documentary style. The novel form, she says, gave her the literary freedom to go deeper, to move more freely around a sensitive and wide range of artistic and political experiences in an effort to truly capture the flavours, colours and impressions of an artist's life. Her decision to work this way-- certainly enriching for a reader -- was supported by Charles himself (called Kiti as a child) who lived a life that was clearly both thrilling and bewildering.
That said, this is not just a novel about a young boy who wants more than anything else to simply dance. It is also a highly absorbing novel about Uganda and, more widely, Africa itself. Specifically, it is Uganda's modern political history, which serves as the artistic frame for Charles' personal and professional evolution as an artist. Determined from childhood to be a dancer, he convinces his father early on that he has to leave his family home and study in the nation's capital, Kampala. It is there -- at a missionary school founded by the British -- that he makes his first contacts with the arts.
Invited through his theatre teacher to apply for membership in a new theatre troupe called Abafumi (The Storytellers), he auditions for its dynamic and demanding director, Robert Serumaga and is accepted. There he is challenged on many levels while still a teenager: long workouts, an introduction to theatre and dance, an opportunity to perform and travel. Serumaga also pushes his communal company to find its own multi-ethnic African roots, encouraging Charles in the process to find his own history and give it aesthetic form.
Almost contemporaneous to the founding of the company was the 1971 coup in Uganda that brought dictator Idi Amin to power and saw the expulsion of Asians and Europeans from Uganda. Amin's reign of terror, which lasted to 1979, was felt acutely by the Abafumi company.
Yet they continued to perform – at home, in Africa and then the world. In the '70s they were, in fact, among the first African troupes to play – to great acclaim -- at international theatre festivals. What they offered were essentially non-verbal productions utilizing dance at the centre of their physically-based storytelling, the stories themselves often based on core Ugandan myths. Their work was met world-wide with huge interest at a time when so many newly-independent African nations were emerging. When Abafumi returned home they were seen as a model for other companies and their influence was real.
We learn too in the novel about Robert Serumaga himself – the scion of a wealthy family. Trained at Trinity College in Ireland, he came into contact there with the ideas of such theatrical innovators as Artaud and Grotowski. With Abafumi, Serumaga adapted some of these still experimental physical theatre techniques and introduced them to the world with an African spin. Keeney's own award-winning work as a theatre critic comes to the fore here in her theatrically rich descriptions of the work.
But the story becomes complicated when Amin begins to suspect Abafumi of questioning his power and possibly accepting funds from the CIA. Amin strikes out against the company and orders them killed. Some – though not all -- manage to get out of Uganda with their lives. Serumaga himself, we learn, joined the anti-Amin resistance movement and later became a member of the Ugandan government itself when Amin was ousted.
The company, however, could not sustain itself out of Uganda either in Kenya or in Italy where they were supported for a time by the Vatican in modest and unusual refugee accommodations. The company – and especially Charles -- maintained hope, however, until the moment that they learned that Serumaga had been mysteriously murdered. And then the Abafumi story is essentially over. The artists separate even further. There is a failed attempt by Charles to gain asylum in Sweden (note: another Abafumi member, Richard SSeruwagi, did manage to get to Stockholm, and he has had a long and successful career here as actor and musician). Eventually Charles manages to emigrate to Canada where he lives today. There, in the novel, he shares his life for a time, with one of the actresses in the group and tries to start a company in Abafumi's image while working as a meat cutter in a slaughterhouse.
It is in western Canada, in the Rocky Mountains, that we see Charles once again facing still another test of survival as the car he is driving is caught in a tornado. Ultimately, he is torn from top to bottom and almost left for dead. It is at that dramatic point that this fine novel starts and takes us back through his life. And then forward again as this former dancer –musician- actor finds that he now must depend on physiotherapists, psychologists and social workers to get himself out of his wheelchair. A man who had mastered his body so perfectly, a man who was so tall and handsome and always a hit with the ladies, Charles now has to be taught to move from stillness once again by nurses and doctors.
Keeney reveals to us in the novel that she first met Charles in Canada while she was working as an editor on Routledge's six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre project, a series edited by her husband Don Rubin. Sponsored by Unesco's International Theatre Institute and the International Association of Theatre Critics among others, the series, which was completed in 2000 is still in print and is still used by theatre critics and scholars.
We learn that after meeting the real Charles Tumwesigye as part of an effort to find material on Abafumi, Keeney first heard his amazing story from him and then spent some two years interviewing him and working with him to tell it. She recounts the process carefully, building her bridges between fiction and truth with great sensitivity. Clearly not an easy story to tell, her caution in dramatizing it is real, like a shadow sometimes around the edge of the tale accentuating its interest and its mystery. As someone interested in physical theatre and dance, I personally wanted to know more about what Abafumi's work looked and felt like. But non-verbal theatre – vivid as it may be – leaves only an ephemeral record, particularly in times of political upheaval.
A fascinating book, an information source and a page-turner.
It is now some 40 years since Amin was overthrown but Uganda and its 40 million inhabitants living along the Nile in the north and Lake Victoria in the south is still a country without a real democracy. Still criticized for its human rights record and its ongoing criminalization and discrimination against LGBT people, one still hears its artists crying out. In an interview in the latest issue of the web-journal Critical Stages (critical-stages.org), the Ugandan playwright Asiimwe Deborah Gkasugi speaks about the difficulties of doing political theatre, referring specifically to her own play Cooking Oil. Still, she is optimistic for the future, hoping that Uganda's political leaders will come to understand how crucial it is for them to support not only theatres and companies but also the idea of an independent artistic life.
Keeney's important book underscores that point.
Orpheus in Our World
(NeoPoiesis, 2016). Based on the oldest of Greek songs in verse – the so-called Orphic Hymns, written even before Sun and Moon became gods in the pantheon, this breakthrough volume is a conversation between ancient and modern worlds, between myth and contemporary reality. The poetry of the gods enters into an active dialogue with Male and Female in a unique mix that is at once poetry and theatre. Keeney’s Orphics speak to the eternal connections between the grandeur of the cosmos and the intimacies of human psychology.
From the volume:
Uranus (The Cosmic Dance)
spin daddy spin
whirl around the world
your long bright ribbons
for every living thing
turn me loose and flutter me
pull me tight again
spin daddy spin
she: I’m bored
he: you’re bored because you’re not passionate about anything
she: what do you suggest?
he: do something drastic
Review of Orpheus in Our World by Allan Briesmaster,
Toronto: Verse Afire. September 2017
This unique book presents versions (not translations) of 66 Orphic Hymns: ancient Greek lyric poems whose lineage was purported to stretch all the way back to mythic Orpheus.
On each right-hand page, facing the hymn on the left, the author has placed a response, not direct but broadly associative, in the form of a scrap of dialogue between a present-day "he" and "she." In lieu of other commentary, this serves as a springboard for further reflection.
The hymns themselves are a veritable inventory of primal deities (such as "Physis (First Mover)," "Gaia" and "Nyx (Night)"), proto-deities ("Eos (Dawn), "Mnemosyne (Memory)"), more or less familiar Greek gods (Aphrodite, Demeter, Pan), and ones scholars alone will recognize ("Leucothia (Sea Mother)," "Melinoe (the Unconscious)").
These also encompass fundamental forces ("Zephyrus (West Wind)," "Horai (the Seasons)"), personified human impulses ("Eumenides (Vengeance)") and philosophic concepts ("Diké (Justice)").
Each hymn is a concentrated expression of awe, wonder and praise, sometimes with ambivalent reverberations.
Keeney's short, freewheeling lines mainly float out discontinuous lists of the godly attributes. Participial phrases outnumber verbs. Variety comes not so much through poetic style as from the character traits and exploits of the diverse subjects.
Never predictable or pat, even with the likes of "city girl" and "warrior queen" Athena and "trickster, trader" Hermes, this treatment unbinds deity after deity from any commonplace or merely reverential moorings. Keeney steers between the rocks of the too-obvious and the too-far-fetched, and unloads such quirky surprises as "fishing up fickleness / flipped on a line / stilled in the air" in "Nemesis (Retribution)."
Her lines can be both elegantly classical, like "changing the light of each night" (for moon-goddess Artemis), and pithy: "storming with form" ("Proteus"). There are tolerable anachronisms like "a shuttle through space" ("Zeus") and "glitter-barbed moonwalker" ("Dionysus").
An alternation between what the gods and godlike entities are and do and what humans would wish them to do – in what is often close to invocation or prayer – is finely encapsulated in the closing imperative of "Oceanus:" "grow back the god in us."
Each of the he-and-she dialogues is a terse yet informal mini-debate, in a plain-spoken 21st century idiom, on the preceding hymn's central theme. The contrast with the hymn could hardly be greater, and a much wider variation of tone from one dialogue to the next offers relief from the hymns' lofty profundity.
The deceptively simple repartee of clashing through complementary gendered viewpoints injects lively energy, wit and even some humour. The dialogues' overall casualness may seem to belie their serious side, but the message is clear.
The age-old conceptions have not lost their relevance. Keeney's approach here has a commendable daring to it, along with an outright educational aim.
This collection is particularly valuable as a portal to the worldview that lies at the roots of Western culture; and it is also imaginative and provocative in its poetics. It gives new life and accessibility to otherwise remote material: making the strange familiar, while conferring a refreshing strangeness on portions of mythology which may be familiar already.
Review of Orpheus in Our World by M. Travis Lane,
Toronto: Fiddlehead. Winter 2018
Patricia Keeney's Orpheus in Our World is extraordinary, in its two worlds inter-calated formally inventive, and as translation, tour de force. Keeney gives us two books: first, a new translation of the early Greek Orphic hymns, and, interleaved with the translation, the comments on, and reactions to these hymns, of a contemporary couple. There is no "dialogue" between the couple and the hymns; the worlds, the times, are different. Nor is this imaginable as theatre: there is no plot or argument. (And, there are rather too many hymns for a single "performance.") Part of the charm of the collection lies in our rec- ognition of the gap between the two worlds, but, as well, in our recognition of how much this ancient world can still speak to us.
The Orphic hymns, probably composed in the third century Common Era, though perhaps earlier, represent the religion supposedly taught by Orpheus, and consist of praises directed toward divinities, cosmic entities and events, and admired virtues or abilities. They are glorias, praise prayers, but most English translations of them fail to convey the rhapsodic beauty and vigorous enthusiasm they must have had for the late Hellenistic Greeks.
In his introduction to his Imitations Robert Lowell wrote of his translations: "I have been reckless with literal meaning, and labored hard to get the tone . . . I have tried to write alive English and to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America." That, as Lowell's editors point out, is similar to what Dryden said about his translation of Virgil's Aeneid,1 that he tried to write as the original "author would have done, had he lived in our age and in our country."
But the ancient authors don't live in our age and in our country — to translate them into our world is to falsify. Translators who feel that they should give in their translation some sense that this material comes from an ancient world are usually tempted to imitate the poetic style of the Jacobean English translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Most of the poetry, in all the translated bibles I have read, show the essential Hebrew poetic style as written by and large in fairly long lines with much repetition with mild variation. It tends to say things twice (but differently); and, in Jacobean English it tends to adopt the essential iambic pattern of most reflective English verse. Why choose Jacobean/English translation of Hebrew form for the poetic forms of worlds so different from the ancient Hellenists?
The world of the Hebrews was monotheistic, thought of itself as primarily pastoral, and of having only one ruler at a time — and their poetry and practices are full of rules for daily behaviour — not just commandments for basic virtues but rules for behaviour that identifies itself as Hebrew. Sin and Judgement and Morality were much on their minds. The ancient Greeks were polytheists, less politically united, more nautical, and not so rule-burdened. The ancient Greeks and Hebrews both lived in an agrarian world subject to frequent war — but Ares is Greek, not Hebrew.
The Orphic hymns praise sixty-six deities, qualities, or cosmic phenomena: Night, the West Wind, Zeus (the Father), Sleep, Vengeance, Conscience, Stars, Chance, Death, Aphrodite, Health, Clouds, the Healer, War, the Hero, the Unconscious, Poseidon, Nymphs, the Muses, the Fates — and so on — but as we browse through the hymns we notice after a while that there are some commendable qualities that are not mentioned: no Compassion, no Peace, no Forgiveness, no Generosity, no Endurance, no Patience, no Industry, no Liberty, no egalitarian/community/neighbourly values. The Orphic hymns have been written by a third-century, insular, warrior society, not by us.
Keeney recognizes that translating the Orphic poetry into today's language and concepts falsifies and weakens the material. Instead she chooses an English poetic style inherited from a polytheistic, warrior, agrarian/nautical society: the Vikings. Anglo-Saxon, with its short, vigorously stressed lines, (sung, we are told, with short lines, no gentled iambic) wonderfully conveys to us the liveliness and worshipful rapture of the Orphic hymns — and yet retains, for us, because it is not how we speak or think today, a reminder of the hymns' antiquity.
wave billower wind shaker earth trembler
stride down from the clouds wingless among us in hurricane garments all uttering muscle . . .
cheer us with knowing all strife is joyful is life in its longing and losing is winning (62)
After each Orphic hymn Keeney gives us the conversation, suggested by or in reaction to the hymn, of a contemporary couple, "he," and "she." This material too is poetry, but does not imitate song, as the hymns do, but de-emphasizes stress and formal patterns, relying instead on a pattern of relationship between one remark and another: call and answer, surmise and critique, or accumulative repetition. The formal effect is pleasing to the ear, uncontrived, relaxed, playful, intellectually rhythmical.
Keeney's contemporary commentators are two lovers, mostly imagined in bed or in amorous circumstances, responding as if with "pillow-talk" or love-making to the hymn that precedes each colloquy. "Heracles (the Hero)" begins:
O masculine man worker with hands time-toiler, pleasure pusher . . .
you man-arrow miracle provokes:
she: you are heavy
he: am I hurting you?
she: yes, no
he: I'm sorry do you want . . .
she: I don't know, just be for me
Nemean Lion, Cretan Bull, Thracian Horse, Acadian Boar the hind of Achaea oh . . . the stinking stables of Augeas.
he: I will wind you round my waist and wear you well!
(from "HERACLES (THE HERO)" 96-7)
Keeney's lovers are lightly characterized — they are different, however much united in concerns and joys. "She" gets the longer, more extravagant, emotional, or speculative lines, and is more likely to expostulate; "he" sounds somewhat more "down to earth," and speaks a little less than "she" does, but he encourages and relishes her speculations, sometimes completing — or altering — her sentences, as, for example, in their different responses to the hymn for Rhea (Engenderings). The hymn itself is a gloria to a terrifying divinity:
god's mother lightning wombed bearer of round divinity wearing your snake apron
drum beater shield clasher
shake your hissing heads against our troubles . . .
(from "RHEA (ENGENDERINGS)" 58)
The contemporary couple can not react to the idea of such a goddess — their world is not magical nor religious — but they do recognize the fear that accompanies giving birth:
she: suppose I give birth to a monster
he: or a marvel. you begin life
she: it roars through me, ruining I will die
he: or start a dynasty ("RHEA (ENGENDERINGS)" 59)
Keeney's contemporary couple share with the ancients a sense that disaster, including war, seems rather like weather, something that just happens — but, they do not admire the warrior qualities nor react rapturously toward "divine" power. Instead they are acutely aware, as seem to have been the authors of the Orphic hymns, of the apparent disorder and meaninglessness of life.
Responding to "NOMUS (UNIVERSAL LAW)," "she" postulates:
she: what if there is another force some manic conductor experimenting with every variety of cataclysm in the service of a perfect hidden pattern what if . . .
she: what if neither science nor environmental abuse can explain it away?
he: you're saying the same fanatical order that studs the night sky shoves tides around their salty beds shrinks and balloons the moon this insatiability when certainty gets boring simply stirs things up because it can?
she: and maybe because we're supposed to learn something
(from "NOMUS (UNIVERSAL LAW)" 5)
Maybe. Keeney's "she" is just speculating idly — and this is as close to religion as Orpheus in Our World gets. The collection ends with the hymn to the Fates: how much can we (or it) influence our destiny. "He" asks "what keeps us going?" "She" replies "not knowing" ("MOIRAI (THE FATES)" 137).
That will have to do. Keeney makes no argument — she presents two worlds, ages apart, but with similar concerns.
A good read! I highly commend Patricia Keeney's two worlds.
M. Travis Lane's most recent books are Hand on Fist (Palimpset) and The Witch of the Inner Wood: M. Travis Lane Collected Long Poems (Goose Lane).
1 Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, p. 195, p. 1047.