They scream as a train screeches on the rails. Their translations join, and shreds of being entangle. Strangeness is more and more an everyday encounter—uniformed militia and murderous propaganda—even as stage lights beckon. The scream is not Munch’s but it reaches backwards toward the nineteenth century, when modernity belched with the suddenness of a train’s whistle. They laugh and clutch each other’s hands as they walk through Berlin’s exquisite evening.
She finds the warmth of the spotlight on her skin, compresses her life into its white arc. The audience is lit by lamps and blue emanations, their shifty movements are caught only in shadows. There’s a moment, at the end, where she’s sitting side-saddle on her Bentwood chair, pumping her legs and singing as the chorus girls beat their palms on the floor. It’s a march, an invitation, a precursor to the goose step. She flings her left arm in a wave of green nail polish. And then, she takes off her hat. It’s a salutation, a longlined yielding to the end of things.
The boy stands upright into idealism, evoking a future where the power of Teutoburg returns and tomorrow’s cruelty for a moment looks weirdly benign—as in some grotesque fairy tale. Legions are once more massing behind nostalgia’s banner in the peaceful, bird-singing countryside. The song prospects future journeys on old feudal paths and broken Roman roads. In the meantime, they clasp each other, believing in love’s strength, nibbling each other’s lips and cheeks, undressing in a rented room. Champagne fizzes in their kissing mouths and old songs quiver.
There are no more prairie oysters, no yolks stirred with Worcestershire sauce, no fork tines sticky with protein. This time, it’s her egg marching down her fallopian tube, implanting in the lining of her uterus. He’s shirtless, except for a tie, a felt hat resting on the tips of his ears. They clink glasses in the candlelight, and in shadows of the feathers and costumes, he plans a life for them. She turns the crank handle of the gramophone and music fills the space between her arms. A candle swivels, the world rights itself even as it teeters. She holds him closely as she fingers the fur coat’s collar.
It begins with distortions of cheekbones and mouths colliding on a face, a leering ventriloquist dummy, darkly animated. The cupid’s bow mouth invites a devil’s pact as the players are introduced. There is intrigue in pallor, in the shapes and sizes of bodies silhouetted against velvet curtains. In this theatre of the absurd, their faces are painted in perpetual seduction and wry surprise, their lingerie old and ripped. Frame inside frame, Otto Dix’s Portrait of Sylvia Von Harden2 is re-enacted from the floor as the emcee orchestrates an evening of glitter and doom. Slowly, freedom disappears like a magic trick.
We are both prose poets and have been writing and publishing collaborative prose poems for a number of years. Because we both enjoy the visual arts, along with film, dance, theatre, and the like, much of our recent collaborative prose poetry has been ekphrastic. Although there has not been a lot of poetic ekphrasis about film, we enjoy the opportunity to write about performative works. We both read Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical The Berlin Stories (1945), on which Cabaret is loosely based, when we were students and neither of us have ever tired of the movie. We recently watched it together, pausing it at key moments and discussing various of its aspects—Cassandra has a powerful interest in the work of the choreographer, Bob Fosse, and Paul is knowledgeable about the period in which it is set.
We are also especially cognisant of the film’s evocation of liminal moments; moments of transition and change. We have written in an article that in poetic ekphrasis, the reader-viewer “may be simultaneously tugged at by different forms of art but unable to come to rest in either” and that it “is as if each work begins to stretch, and in-between the works, in the ekphrastic space, the push and pull of both works of art...exerts considerable pressure...a feeling akin to being shaken and tossed.”3 Such shaking and tossing is a characteristic of the kinds of ekphrastic prose poems we aim to write.
is a widely anthologised and award-winning prose poet and scholar of prose poetry. She was a Harvard Visiting Scholar in English and a Visiting Fellow at Sophia University. She is Professor of Writing and Literature at Deakin University, a commissioning editor for Westerly magazine and associate editor of MadHat Press (USA). Cassandra is co-author, with Paul Hetherington, of Prose Poetry: An Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2020), and she co-edited the Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (Melbourne University Press, 2020).
is a distinguished Australian poet who has published 16 full-length collections of poetry and prose poetry. He has won or been nominated for more than 30 national and international awards and competitions, recently winning the 2021 Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize. Paul is Professor of Writing at the University of Canberra, head of the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI), and joint founding editor of the journal Axon: Creative Explorations.
⚡ Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington in Conversation with Rosanna Licari in Stylus Lit (Issue 9, March 2021)