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P.R. van Pottelberg
P.R. van Pottelberg

Date of Birth: 12/21/58
Location: Toronto, Canada

An excerpt from The Mechanical Poet

We have been guilty of a double error, wrote Sartre. We believed, without giving the matter any thought, that the image was in consciousness ...

Like a doll in a cupboard, thought Ray.

We pictured consciousness, wrote Sartre, as a place peopled with small likenesses and these likenesses were the images ...

Like Doll Land, thought Ray. A place peopled with small likenesses. Voodoo Doll Land. He understood Sartre's point, that mental images were consciousness itself, not things in consciousness. But this hardly seemed important. Ray put aside the book. He was transfixed by the notion of a voodoo island behind the cupboard door. The throb of drums from inside the wardrobe.

Ray remembered reading somewhere that real voodoo dolls do not resemble human beings. Real voodoo dolls in Haiti were oval objects, dark and egg-shaped. Ray imagined them dancing and drumming in a clearing in the jungle on the voodoo island in the cupboard -- nasty purplish little creatures like rough eggplants with spindly legs. He imagined himself, or himself as the child-hero of a book, opening a crack in the cupboard door to peer inside. His peering eye hung like the moon in the eastern sky over the tropical island. The bar of light from the crack in the wardrobe door sliced through the middle of the clearing and through the circle of outraged dancers. The dancers stopped dancing and looked up. The bar of light lay among them like the club of an exclamation point, like a toppled totem.

This image -- the motionless dancers staring up in anger at the sky -- will not easily resolve itself through a decisive fictional gesture, thought Ray. Not the way his writing had been going lately. It will lead to certain deadlock, he thought.

The moon-eye looked down at the silent dancers. There was no inclination on their part to believe that this was their god staring at them from the heavens. They know I'm just a busy-body, thought Ray. For Ray (or for the moon-boy he was pretending to be), the only decent thing to do now would be to shut the cupboard door quietly, which is exactly what he did. But though restored to their unwatched darkness, Ray knew the eggplant voodoo men felt disgruntled and sore and a little silly now. The ceremonial tension had been dissipated. The sweat on their backs and under their arms had gone cold inside the rank burlap and wicker voodoo-eggplant costumes. There was no use continuing the dance that night -- or on any future night. Not if that damn moon-eye could intrude again at any moment.

One of the eggplant voodoo men, the champion of the tribe, might have thrown a spear at the eye when he had the chance, thought Ray. This then would be a cautionary tale. The boy-hero would stagger back from the cupboard, blinded in one eye by a pencil-length spear. In the last shot the camera would focus on the tiny, sweaty palm print of the tribal champion still stamped darkly on the shaft.

"They won't do anything if they know you're watching."

"Why not? I want to seeeee!"

"Little boys who peek get their eyes put out."

Ray was uncomfortable with this version of the story. In time the one-eyed boy would become a one-eyed man with his bitterness twisted around that empty socket. This psychological extention into the future and adulthood ballooned the legend far beyond the simple framework Ray intended. (Keep it tight, he thought. Keep it close to the skin.) Besides, he had not pictured the eggplant dancers with free arms. In order to throw his mighty pencil spear at the moon, first the tribal champion would have to struggle out of his eggplant-voodoo costume. This would be an awkward operation accompanied by much swearing and rolling on the ground (the tribal champion had not been alone inside his eggplant costume when called to greatness). Heroics are a matter of good timing. Delay is fatal and comic. Ray did however like the epithet that came to mind for this adventure-which-would-not-be: Blinded for life by eggplant voodoo islanders.

Ray hunkered down beside the child's bed and explained the dancers to his son. "Their arms are inside their costumes," he said. "One hand grips an internal handle to stabilize the wicker egg while the dancer dances The other hand is needed to work the clack-clack mechanism and to masturbate at the climax of the ceremony." Ray was not sure what the clack-clack mechanism was, though it seemed familiar to him. Both he and the moon-eyed boy had been kept awake for several nights by a mysterious clack-clacking sound coming from the cupboard. One sleepless night alone in his bamboo hotel room, Ray had noted in his travel diary: The clack-clack mechanism may be an apparatus which opens and closes a mouth on the costume (the eggplant voodoo costumes are more like great masks which enclose the whole body above the thighs). Or perhaps the clack-clack is just an internal noisemaker. Further study is needed.

... uninterrupted, the ceremony of the eggplant voodoo men will reach a fever pitch of dancing. The dancers then pick up short spears from the ground with their toes and thrust them with deft kicking gestures into each other's costume-bodies, the points fixing themselves in the wickerwork beneath the burlap. The risk to the dancer is commensurate with the strength and skill of the thrusts of the spear-kickers. The dancer looks down within his costume to see how close each barb has come to piercing his flesh. The closer the barbs come to the flesh, the more satisfactory -- the more erotically satisfying -- it is. To have a spear actually make contact with his flesh, to draw blood, is a kind of ecstasy for the dancer, but this rarely happens anymore on the island. The dancer signals the other dancers of the nearness of each strike (and his resulting excitement) with the clack-clack mechanism (which may or may not also open and close a mouth in the costume, thought Ray as he read the pamphlet he had found on the bamboo bedside table, left there by the island tourist board). The intensity of the clacking announces his level of excitement and this sound in turn excites the other dancers who imagine in the darkness of their own costumes the nearness of the barbs in his.

Sometimes in the throws of ecstasy a dancer will cast off his costume and crawl up into the costume of another dancer. The costumes are entered from the opening underneath through which the legs of the dancer protrude. By tradition these openings are made just large enough (facilitated by perspiration and the flexibility of the wicker) to accommodate a second dancer. Once inside the costume the second dancer must cling to his host's body to maintain their balance. There is only one internal handle to grip, and this is held firmly by the left hand of the primary dancer. With two bodies filling the interior of the costume, the chance of a spear-thrust piercing the skin of one of them is greatly increased. There is a tribal law (of recent invention) forbidding this doubling-up of dancers, but when the ecstasy of the dance seizes the group, the law often goes unheeded. It has not yet attained the status of taboo among the islanders.

The eggplant voodoo ceremony of today is a public remnant of an archaic private ritual no longer condoned on the island, but still practiced occasionally in great secrecy. Secluded in a small hut deep in the forest, two naked ritualists insert pins in each other's flesh. The art and the ecstasy of this practice lies in the simultaneous insertion of the pins with a precisely matched pressure and rate of penetration, the object being a kind of synaesthesia in which neither partner can distinguish between the pain he is causing and the pain being inflicted upon him, creating the illusion that he is feeling his brother's pain -- that the insertion of the pin into another's flesh is the immediate cause of your own exquisite suffering. Ideally, their eyes remain locked during the ritual, but the only actual communication between the ritualists is a peculiar clicking of their tongues. The rapidity of the clicking indicates the intensity of their pain. These clicking signals allow the ritualists to synchronize their mutual sensations to a very precise degree.

Leaning against the closed wardrobe door, Ray imagined that under their costumes the dancers were lithe, naked, sinewy men. At first he thought they were black men; then he thought they were white men pretending to be black men, white men who had run away to perpetuate the customs and rituals of a race of black men who had become extinct, or who had been enslaved and exiled to a less pleasant island cupboard. However, arriving on these shores and finding no written record of the culture of the vanished black men, the white men had invented freely, dreaming a culture suggested by the climate, the surroundings and a few enigmatic carvings they found in a cave. Or rather, thought Ray, since this was Voodoo Doll Land, they would be white dolls pretending to be black dolls. Dolls utterly similar to men in every detail. Only their size indicated their status as dolls, and size of course is relative in the absence of comparisons to other systems. Ah, thought Ray, that was why the eggplant voodoo men had been upset by the sudden appearance of the moon-boy-eye in the sky over their island. This sudden reference to a larger system outside their own world had made the dancers feel silly and small (like dolls) instead of like the lusty, sweaty men they believed themselves to be inside their voodoo eggplant costumes.

Ray, while re-reading the entry in his travel diary, noticed that he had written "black men who had become instinct" (instead of extinct). Vanished black men who had become the instincts of the white men impersonating them. Ray had no idea what this meant, but he liked the way it sounded. It made him shiver with a penetrating aesthetic pleasure. His heart beat faster. He decided that the anthropology of the voodoo island was too complex to be understood in a single evening. Instead, Ray tried to think about the boy who had tactfully closed the cupboard door when he understood that the eggplant voodoo men would not continue their dance as long as he was watching them. It was difficult to know what this sleepy boy had thought of his brief glimpse of their dance. White doll-men with black doll-men running around inside their heads. Nesting dolls. This thought had occurred to Ray suddenly. Black men nested inside white men nested inside eggplant voodoo men. "But," the boy assured Ray solemnly, "real eggplant voodoo men are eggplant voodoo men all the way through, like hard chocolate." Ray knelt by the bed and listened as his small son explained that the real voodoo eggplant men danced in a deeper jungle behind the cupboard. Sometimes late at night you could hear their clack-clacking and their click-clicking -- coming as if from another room behind the wall of his bedroom.

Yes, thought Ray, dozing at his desk. That is what the moon-boy would have thought just before falling asleep again. A deeper jungle. A more secret dance.