Ideas and actions wear their significance like a brightly colored shirt. With too much repetition, the color fades. Ideas become cliché. Actions become mechanical, rehearsed: playacting.
Kay Ryan’s poem by that name begins with a short excerpt of prose from W.G. Sebald’s Campo Santo, which explains that participants in tribal rituals of initiation or sacrifice on some level thought of the rites as “in essence mere playacting,” even while being fully invested in the experience.
I feel almost annoyed with the poem for relying on prose. It would be meaningless without Sebald’s excerpt, but ironically the same sentence “Playacting” depends on for its meaning at the same time reduces it to meaningless — “mere playacting.” But somehow Ryan manages to convince the reader of its meaning nonetheless.
The poem is modest — short and nearly rectangular in shape — but it still caught my attention. The language depicts an almost incomplete image that I find compelling. I imagine the end of a performance on an empty stage, the relief of it being over, the squinting to see if the color of the shirt has changed under the harsh lights. “There will be a curtain” to give some privacy after it’s all over, a chance to fall out of the act without anyone having to witness the disappointing shift from playacting to reality, “maybe or maybe not/some bowing, probably/no roses,” the recognition is irrelevant, it’s the performance that matters. After, there will “certainly” be “a chance to unverse/or dehearse.” It’s the nonsensical which Ryan is most sure of. There is a hidden logic to those lines, though. Both “unverse” and “dehearse” take a common word and replace the “re-” prefix with something that means the opposite, to undo, to deactivate. But reverse and rehearse also have almost opposite meanings, despite sounding phonetically similar. To reverse is to go back to the past, while to rehearse is to prepare for the future. The latter makes more sense in the context of playacting, but neither is actually happening. A chance to reverse is a chance to rewind the metaphorical tape, which means that a chance to unverse is unwinding the tape, not just going back in time but erasing the moment from time. Perhaps it’s not a true deletion, but still, it’s making the moment inaccessible. I can blurrily recall old VHS tapes getting caught in a VCR and unwinding in a mess of tangled tape, rendering the video unplayable.
The resemblance between unverse and universe also can’t be a coincidence. I mean, “unverse” keeps autocorrecting to universe as I’m typing this, for god’s sake. So maybe the “unversal” is the actor’s way of exiting their play, their constructed reality, and returning to the universe.
Why is that so important? Because “some/fraction of the self/has always held out,” and if you don’t return to it you might risk losing it. But even throughout the playacting, the inherent falsity of performance, some remnant of truth — “evidence” — has been “compounding/in a bank becoming/grander and more/marble,” the evidence growing while the bank grows around it to provide a residence worthy of that small fraction which is only getter larger, too, only getting grander, too. It accumulates as “small/change…/of a different metal/… in a strange/account.” These coins are unfamiliar, the account is unfamiliar, but their importance is obvious from the start. After all, these coins aren’t truly coins but “change”: change as in development, change as in what brightens the washed out color of those old t-shirts which have been getting too much wear recently, really. And it keeps building up throughout the show. There’s a shift in awareness — this is only playacting, not real life. If you can make it to the final bow maybe you can make it out. You try to calculate how much you need, the price of escape. You realize the point of the change growing with interest in that unfamiliar account.
“What could it/be for but passage out?”