There Are No Words For Certain Things
If you give yourself to me you will never find out who you are
Actually, you are no one
the light gold thirsty landscape is queenched
Order your coffee the waiter is here.
If you rest in my arms
If you rest in my arms that are made of gardens and the play of light on stone archways all across the east you will never do anything with your life
[Your fate will be bougainvillea endlessly exploding up towards the Mediterranean sky
Your fate will be honeysuckle and evening air]
—Elana Greenfield, from THE VOICE OF THE COURTYARD AT THE AMERICAN COLONY HOTEL
In the work of Elana Greenfield, there is a mistrust of borders and boundaries that seems to extend to the medium of writing itself. While she is putatively a playwright, her work defies classification, occupying an indeterminate space between poetry, fiction, playwriting, and sub-genres like radio plays, oral storytelling and prose poetry. One could imagine her pieces making up a singularly enchanting evening of theater just as easily as one could imagine them as a collection of poems, to be enjoyed privately. In her writing, both form and content are mutable, in a way that is universal rather than cosmopolitan—while it can be mystifying in one’s initial approach to it, it is, in the end, charming, funny, and familiar in the way that dreams are; she creates archetypes capable of speaking to us through the strange haze created by an overload of meaning.
“We all come to a work with assumptions that we’re not necessarily aware of; but as you know, those are the most dangerous kinds,” she tells me in a recent interview. “We can impose those assumptions so strongly that we never get the work. But they’re just assumptions. All categories, all forms have to do with assumptions, and that’s political, too.” One gets the sense, reading Elana’s work, that hers is an aesthetic world in which borders—whether those of genre or medium, or of politics and geography—are, if not obliterated, then deliberately, willfully defied. This fascination with displacement owes itself, in part, to Elana’s own experience, moving from Israel to Iowa City as a young girl: “The world was much larger then, in the late 1960s. There were opposite kinds of cultures [in my life], each with different rules. I think that speaking two languages as a child makes your brain function differently. You begin to realize that, in certain places, there are no words for things. Having a word for something means it exists. [Being bilingual,] you realize that there are no words for certain things, and you start to wonder why.”
Elana has been compared favorably to Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, and for good reason. As with those authors, time and distance collapse in her work. Narrative misbehaves with the ruptured continuity of a dream and the dizzying, untenable speeds of modern global capitalism. However, while her world is informed by globalization, she doesn’t linger in its generic landscape (malls, highways, airports). Subtly defiant, she salvages and reveals places that are still specific, detailed, irreplaceable. Despite a more or less constant sense of disorientation, her geography lives and breathes; we smell the verdant lawns outside of her suburban house parties, or feel the thick, dry dust of her Jerusalem on our palms. Her work, like that of Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, finds the magical and the terrible hiding in the banal, and transcends borders without ever slipping into truisms or generalities.
“I’m interested in the uniqueness of places,” she explains. “In places that can’t be made into ‘no place.’ I’m interested in verticality. Those modern, deterritorialized spaces are the opposite of what I’m interested in. Those are horizontal, and I’m interested in the vertical; how in ancient places, when archaeologists would go there, they would find cities built on top of other cities. I feel like places like that are slowly disappearing. When we’re children, places around us imprint themselves on the geography of our bodies —what places contain, how they smell a certain way. When every place is alike, there’s a charge or an energy that has no place to go, and I think that’s some of what begets all the violence we’re seeing.”
Elana’s writing does contain a verticality, whether the disorienting sensation of vertigo that seems to pervade her work, or the sense that, in the ground, beneath both storyteller and listener, there lives something ancient and magical, sometimes menacing or sometimes whimsical, but unmistakably present.
(Mozart’s Requiem plays)
I walked in this way in this music around the neighborhood for a long time. When the maid came the next day—I assumed it was the next day—she helped me out of a chair and showed me to the guest bathroom where she said I could clean up. I went straight to the garage, there was no sign of the guests or the hosts. The oven was still in flames.
The maid kindly pointed me in the direction of the train station. I walked for an hour or so in the bright sunlight and caught the express out of White Plains, which stopped only at Bronxville, Mt. Vernon, and 125th Street before reaching Grand Central Station.
(sound of lone violin transforms slowly to complex eastern music)
The first time I saw the devil was in the desert thirty-five kilometers north of Shaarm, a multi-national army base. The devil first appeared to me in the form of a huge scorpion but it took on many forms during our brief encounter, some of them insect, some of them human, and once as a desert turkey, which I came to prefer. The roof of meaning, at any rate, was gone.
I am convinced the devil mistook me for someone else.
—from Possessed By A Demon
Elana’s full-length play Nine Come is, as she puts it, a love story disrupted by war. It is also a comedy, a sort of absurdist farce in which characters constantly try and fail to tell stories when faced with constant distractions and interruptions. The play explores how the act of telling a story is interrupted and finally broken by the rise of, among other things, a new wave of violence. Like all violence, the actions in this play constitute a competing narrative, acting in opposition to the act of storytelling, and in so doing creating a new order. As in her other work, there is a distrust, not of narrative per se, but of a particular variety of narrative—that is, the narrative created by the conqueror over the conquered. “I would like to create a space for the reader or audience in which, whether we know it or not, we’re being freed of our assumptions,” she says. “I want to create a childlike response, without heaviness. It’s like if you throw out everything you know, then we could begin to save the world.”
STORYTELLER: (starts again) Many years ago when I was a younger man I journeyed for some nineteen months in the general direction: east. When I returned I stepped lightly and easily into my usual life, and considered myself, although nineteen months older, completely unchanged. I had heard many tales during my travels and at the time I listened to them all with the detached interest of a tourist, never suspecting they were my own.
Raskolnikov enters. He is in a great rush.
RASKOLNIKOV: Listen I have a plan. I mean a question. There are two old ladies who live in my apartment who have turned themselves into cats. Most annoying. The whole country is falling apart. Have you noticed? Well, never mind. Now you know my apartment. Corner of Varick and King.
(both men nod)
You know how noisy it is.
(both men nod)
You know how it is truly two apartments identical, one a mirror image of the other, with the two little kitchens both useless fit into the corridor so absolutely no one but a cat can possibly reach the sink. And the diagonal bathrooms.
(both men nod)
And you know how one half of the apartment is filled with the old ladies’ junk who live there as two old cats. Two old cats whom I feed. Which is part of my agreement with the two old ladies. Can this agreement be held up in the courts? An agreement made with two parties who have transformed themselves into cats. Or is the apartment mine? To consult you as a lawyer on this very point. I’d like to know.
PAUL: You have no time for this digression. Give him his answer quick and hope he leaves.
STORYTELLER: The legal system makes no allowances for transformation. You will have to ask them to transform themselves back to old ladies in order to be able to take them to court and obtain the lease on the apartment.
—from Nine Come
The emotional life found in Elana Greenfield’s writing is, like every other space in her writing, a place where opposites collide; her landscapes are both lush and whimsical, compassionate and violent, fantastic and banal. Harnessing these conflicting forces, she seeks to translate the untranslatable. And after immersing oneself in her world for a time, one thing becomes distinctly clear: while the gentle humor that pervades her work may or may not be a palliative to the violence she is concerned with, it is quite possibly the only sane response.
Elana Greenfield is the recipient of a 2004 Whiting Award for writing. She is the author of the book At the Damascus Gate: Short Hallucinations (Green Integer, 2003) Her play, Nine Come, is slated for publication in the anthology New Downtown Theater, forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press, 2006. An excerpt from this play is printed this summer in the journal Bomb.
Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.