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Poems from Cinema Muto

Saving Silence

“In an astonishingly short time--little more than thirty years, 1895 to 1927--the silent cinema evolved into a unique, integral and highly sophisticated expressive form, and then, over night, became extinct.”
David Robinson, preface to Paolo Cherchi Usai
s Silent Cinema, An Introduction

Isn’t that the way of things--
where is Carthage now,
the Dodo? In archives
in America, Japan & Russia
there are as many feet
of nitrate film dissolving
as there are bones
in the catacombs of Paris.
Of one hundred thousand
silent films, eighty percent
are as lost to us
as the dust our grand-
parents returned to.
So why do I care? Because
my mother went deaf,
because I am tired after years
of talk-talk-talk-talking.
Because as a child, I once
rode the elevator
to the top of the Eiffel Tower
where, like God,
I looked down &
saw the whole world
at my feet---
rendered not motionless,
but silent.

Imagine God As a Camera

“For Napoleon, Gance strapped a camera to the chest of one of his actors, lowered it in a cage into the ocean, lashed it to the back of a horse. Not until the French New Wave would the camera again come so close to both actors and action.”
Fuller, Silent Film

Imagine God as a camera
at the rich
end of the silent
film era.
The cumbersome
machinery of sound

will come later. For now,
God is as light
as a mouse. He
runs on top of the snow
in Gance’s 1927
Napoleon, rides

the boy Bonaparte’s sled
as it races down
the frozen slope
during the snowball fight
that foreshadows
all the future emperor’s battles.

God swims in the mad sea
as Napoleon flees Corsica
in his inadequate boat,
his sail
the tricolor flag
of the new French Republic.

Swings on a pendulum
over the unclean heads
of the citizens in the Convention
as they in turn cheer
then condemn the Girondists,
Danton, Robespierre.

Follows the hand
of Charlotte Corday
as she raises
her knife above
the turbaned Marat
in his bath.

God as camera
sees clearly
both the guillotine
and the mad clerk
who eats Josephine’s
writ of execution,

saving for history
one more empress.
If a mere camera
can come
this close to death,
surely so can God.

So though fine optics
separate Him
from the beings
He created,
He can almost taste
the ice and blood

in the boy Napoleon’s
mouth as as snowball
strikes home,
smell the sweat
of the crowds
welcoming the Terror,

know the sharp
cramp in the heart
Marat feels
as he slips
to God’s
side of the lens.

The Projector

The projector is the only creature alive--
hear it singing in the Teatro Zancanaro?
Singing its clacking heart out,
singing its clacking hot electrical heart out just for us--
though we have not arrived.
We who are the projector’s greatest admirers,
who make the seconds it counts down--
5, 4, 3, 2, 1 all the way to fin--
the rhythm of our lives,
who dream in lively black and lovely white---
we have not yet arrived.
Instead our hands fall to our sides
as we sleep heavily or sit restlessly
through the God awful video projections
on our transatlantic flights.
We are coming, we want to sing out--please wait!
We alone can hear the tiny fly buzz
of the distant projector.
We alone fret that disaster--broken film, melted acetate--
might arrive before we do,
stop the heart of our beloved.
We are coming, we whisper---wait, wait!
Our lives spent in passionate silence
in love with that hot light falling on the screen.
So in love, we scream through the night in our aeroplanes
trying to reach the projector, ready to kiss it
with our dry jet-lagged lips.
So full of love,
our faith has taught us, like magicians, to levitate.
So full of love,
our faith has taught us, like angels, to fly.