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Spoon River Anthology (Adam Dudek, Aleksander Nowak)

...or the presence of things past.

A multimedia installation conceived as an arrangement of video projections and sound in space.

The projections show opera singers performing songs to selected texts by the American poet Edgar Lee Masters from the Spoon River Anthology. The protagonists of this Anthology are inhabitants of one town, who once lived side by side, and now lie side by side, dead. Each poem is a brief story of life and death told by one or two Spoon River citizens.

The Spoon River episodes resemble the narrative of Divine Comedy in which Dante, deeply moved, listens to the life stories of the souls he meets during his peregrinations. An apparition comes, materialises and comes to life in the story he or she tells. The memory conjures up a life, and each spectre has just a little while to come back to life in the memory.

The naked bodies of the performing artists are filmed in such close-ups that individual identification becomes impossible. Instead, we can observe the life that goes on under the skin: its tensions and vibrations, heaving and flowing, contractions and releases, and all the movement of the bodily matter which brings sounds to life and is itself brought to life by those sounds.

This installation was made possible through a scholarship from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

Adam Dudek

Spoon River Anthology
Edgar Lee Masters 1915

Ollie McGee
Have you seen walking through the village
A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?
That is my husband who, by secret cruelty
never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty; 

Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,
And with broken pride and shameful humility,
I sank into the grave.
But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?
The face of what I was, the face of what he made me! 

These are driving him to the place where I lie.
In death, therefore, I am avenged.

Fletcher McGee
She took my strength by minutes, 
She took my life by hours,
She drained me like a fevered moon 

That saps the spinning world.
The days went by like shadows, 
The minutes wheeled like stars. 
She took pity from my heart, 
And made it into smiles.
She was a hunk of sculptor’s clay, 
My secret thoughts were fingers: 
They flew behind her pensive brow 
And lined it deep with pain.
They set the lips, and sagged the cheeks, 
And drooped the eyes with sorrow.
My soul had entered in the clay, 

Fighting like seven devils.
It was not mine, it was not hers; 
She held it, but its struggles 
Modeled a face she hated,
And a face I feared to see.

I beat the windows, shook the bolts. 
I hid me in a corner –
And then she died and haunted me, 

And hunted me for life.

Sarah Brown
Maurice, weep not, 
I am not here under this pine tree. 
The balmy air of spring whispers through the sweet grass, 
The stars sparkle, the whippoorwill calls,
But thou grievest, while my soul lies rapturous
In the blest Nirvana of eternal light!
Go to the good heart that is my husband,
Who broods upon what he calls our guilty love: –

Tell him that my love for you, no less than my love for him, 
Wrought out my destiny – that through the flesh
I won spirit, and through spirit, peace.
There is no marriage in heaven,

But there is love.

Johnnie Sayre
Father, thou canst never know
The anguish that smote my heart
For my disobedience, the moment I felt
The remorseless wheel of the engine
Sink into the crying flesh of my leg.
As they carried me to the home of widow Morris
I could see the school-house in the valley
To which I played truant to steal rides upon the trains.
I prayed to live until I could ask your forgiveness –
And then your tears, your broken words of comfort!
From the solace of that hour I have gained infinite happiness. 

Thou wert wise to chisel for me:
“Taken from the evil to come.”

Harold Arnett
I leaned against the mantel, sick, sick,
Thinking of my failure, looking into the abysm,
Weak from the noon-day heat.
A church bell sounded mournfully far away,
I heard the cry of a baby,
And the coughing of John Yarnell,
Bed-ridden, feverish, feverish, dying,
Then the violent voice of my wife:
“Watch out, the potatoes are burning!”
I smelled them ... then there was irresistible disgust.
I pulled the trigger ... blackness ... light ...
Unspeakable regret ... fumbling for the world again.
Too late! Thus I came here,
With lungs for breathing ... one cannot breathe here with lungs, 

Though one must breathe.... Of what use is it
To rid one’s self of the world,
When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life?

George Gray
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me –
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment; 

Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny

Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness, 

But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire –
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

William and Emily
There is something about Death
Like love itself!
If with some one with whom you have known passion, 

And the glow of youthful love,
You also, after years of life
Together, feel the sinking of the fire,
And thus fade away together,
Gradually, faintly, delicately,
As it were in each other’s arms,
Passing from the familiar room –
That is a power of unison between souls
Like love itself!

Penniwit, the Artist
I lost my patronage in Spoon River
From trying to put my mind in the camera
To catch the soul of the person.
The very best picture I ever took
Was of Judge Somers, attorney at law.
He sat upright and had me pause
Till he got his cross-eye straight.
Then when he was ready he said “all right.” 

And I yelled “overruled” and his eye turned up. 
And I caught him just as he used to look 
When saying “I except.”

Ernest Hyde
My mind was a mirror:
It saw what it saw, it knew what it knew.
In youth my mind was just a mirror
In a rapidly flying car,
Which catches and loses bits of the landscape. 

Then in time
Great scratches were made on the mirror, 

Letting the outside world come in,
And letting my inner self look out.
For this is the birth of the soul in sorrow,
A birth with gains and losses.
The mind sees the world as a thing apart,
And the soul makes the world at one with itself. 

A mirror scratched reflects no image –
And this is the silence of wisdom.

Tom Merritt
At first I suspected something –
She acted so calm and absent-minded.
And one day I heard the back door shut,
As I entered the front, and I saw him slink 

Back of the smokehouse into the lot,
And run across the field.
And I meant to kill him on sight.
But that day, walking near Fourth Bridge, 

Without a stick or a stone at hand,
All of a sudden I saw him standing,
Scared to death, holding his rabbits,
And all I could say was, “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t,” 

As he aimed and fired at my heart.

Mrs. Merritt
Silent before the jury,
Returning no word to the judge when he asked me
If I had aught to say against the sentence,
Only shaking my head.
What could I say to people who thought
That a woman of thirty-five was at fault
When her lover of nineteen killed her husband?
Even though she had said to him over and over,
“Go away, Elmer, go far away,
I have maddened your brain with the gift of my body: 

You will do some terrible thing.”
And just as I feared, he killed my husband;
With which I had nothing to do, before God!
Silent for thirty years in prison!
And the iron gates of Joliet
Swung as the gray and silent trusties
Carried me out in a coffin.

Elmer Karr
What but the love of God could have softened
And made forgiving the people of Spoon River

Toward me who wronged the bed of Thomas Merritt 
And murdered him beside?
Oh, loving hearts that took me in again
When I returned from fourteen years in prison!
Oh, helping hands that in the church received me, 

And heard with tears my penitent confession,
Who took the sacrament of bread and wine!
Repent, ye living ones, and rest with Jesus.