Tomorrow belongs to me?

March 22, 2012

Things are looking a little brighter than a month ago: I’ve had a bunch of auditions and interviews in the last few days, and none of them might pan out, or they all might, and then I might have some really interesting decisions to make. Meanwhile, I’ve signed on to play for a production of Cabaret in April, so I have something to focus on in the immediate future. And in honor of that production, I’m posting a poem about the last time I did Cabaret, five years ago. (For the record, I always have links to a couple of poems hanging out in the right-hand sidebar under “Pages,” which I cycle in and out according to whim, and my stats page informs me that nobody reads them, ever. I’m sure plenty of you don’t like poetry, in which case, game on, but for the two of you who might like to know, I thought I’d point it out.)

Kresge Little Theater, MIT, 2007

Same scene every night: just past
the Pineapple Song, the pace slows, loosens,
costumed waitresses clear the empties,
German-labeled bottles. One dancer
taps my piano, whispers something in Spanish
which I never understand, smiles sadly,
slides a few marks in the tip jar anyway.
I nod my thanks and there’s the hostess,
beaming, red-corseted, ready to offer me
more of what makes the world go around
but only if I’ll play her favorite song, the one
with stags and linden branches and the Rhine.
I won’t play your dirty Nazi song, I grumble,
sotto voce: she laughs, knowing I don’t (can’t) mean it
and mounts black stairs to the stage within a stage,
listening for her cue. The sun on the meadow
is summery warm, she sings, and the room goes still,
the waitresses cease their banter. The melody lures
a few men in for the second verse,
harmonies twining around her, falsetto, baritone;
guitar and woodwinds croon. I lead from the piano,
nodding the downbeats, signaling how long
to hold that last fermata — the world is mine

an eternity, on a good night,
the chord a shimmering braid of sound
that finally tightens into unison.

Unfortunately, this poem was the subject of the least useful graduate poetry workshop I ever participated in. There’s this handy rule in most workshops that says the poet can’t speak while her poem is being discussed, so that she doesn’t cloud everyone else’s opinions with any “but this is what I was trying to say” statements. Normally this is a good rule. Keeps things moving along, avoids unnecessary argument, lets the poem speak for itself.

But sometimes it goes horribly wrong, as when the poem refers to something specific, like a play. And when your professor diligently looks up the poem’s title (it was called “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” at the time), as well as the song lyrics quoted in italics, the first several hits he comes up with have nothing to do with the musical Cabaret, but rather with some neo-Nazi site which has apparently co-opted the song as their anthem, without bothering to mention its original source. Probably just as well for the reputations of Kander and Ebb.

I sat on my hands for twenty minutes, squirming silently in my chair, as my intelligent, sensitive, well-meaning classmates debated whether or not this was a persona poem, from the perspective of someone working in a club in the 1940s. (Close enough.) But why did the dancer speak Spanish? (Character choice. The actress playing Texas was herself Texan and half Mexican.)  Why couldn’t the speaker actually refuse to play the song – what was at stake here? (It’s a play. If I don’t play the next song, it breaks.) And just what is the Pineapple Song, anyway? (Sigh.)

It’s kind of a funny story now, I guess. But there’s a reason why I changed the title to Cabaret. Even though I liked the old title better.


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