“Incantata,” a Galway International Arts Festival and Jen Coppinger Production, presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre, is a poet’s lament of loss, of heartbreak, of anger, of grief channeled into the making of art. Written by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Paul Muldoon, directed with sensitivity and spirit by Sam Yates, and performed by the astonishing Stanley Townsend, it is a tour-de-force, a challenging work of language and love attempting to bridge the divide between life and death. Originally written as a poem, “Incantata” is an elegy for Mary Farl Powers, who, though American, was one of the most important printmakers in Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century; she was also Muldoon’s former lover and close friend.
Man (Townsend), is in his artist’s studio, compulsively making potato prints. On the left are a series of brightly-colored prints affixed to the wall right up to the ceiling. A pile of potatoes sprawls out in the right corner, ostensibly for his prints but also a nice metaphor. He has a video camera that initially records, up close, how he makes a print; then the camera, atop a chair, becomes a stand-in for Mary. Man reminisces: “…of tea and ham sandwiches in the Nesbitt Arms Hotel in Ardara.” He obsesses. He plays music: Caruso, Frankie Valli, Van Morrison – and he dances. Blondie fans will be pleased. He berates Mary:
“The fact that you were determined to cut yourself off in your prime
because it was pre-determined has my eyes abrim:
I crouch with Belacqua
and Lucky and Pozzo in the Acacacac-
ademy of Anthropopopometry, trying to make sense of the ‘quaquaqua”
Mary Farl Powers was diagnosed with breast cancer and eschewed western treatments in favor of homeopathy. She died in 1992 at the age of 43. But even in death, she gives as good as she gets:
“…though you detected in me a tendency to put
on too much artificiality, both as man and poet,
which is why you called me “Polyester” or “Polyurethane “.
Man rages. He tears down what he has affixed. He longs to come to a kind of peace. So he repeats what he thinks, what he knows and how he feels about Mary, to Mary – because what we have left of a person is not only the memories to go over, again and again and again. The relationship continues. Death ends the life, not the relationship.
“…than that this Incantata
might have you look up from your plate of copper or zinc
on which you’ve etched the row upon row
of army-worms, than that you might reach out, arrah,
and take in your ink-stained hands my own hands stained with ink.”
“Incantata” is hardly straightforward, but neither is the mountainous process of grief. To listen to Townsend’s bass-baritone speak these lines is to bask in the beauty of poignant indirection; in a menagerie of ideas and literary references and music. And then let “Incantata” take “your ink-stained hands” into the light.