Cartoon Featurette

I saw you tumble from the roof.
It broke your head in two.
Stars and robins spun around
the doubleness of you.

Your right eye looked up to the clouds
where God was roused from sleep.
And in the background, music swelled
and made the angels weep.

Your other eye was just an X,
a cancellation mark.
It blotted out the clouds and yard
and filled the sky with dark.

But as my eyes adjusted,
I came to see the truth—
This was a darkened theatre
and high up in his booth

the projectionist had gone to sleep.
A reel was spinning there,
its loose end flapping as it churned
the warming, dust-filled air.

 

The first three stanzas of Kevin Prufer’s poem “Cartoon Featurette” describe a scene that the poem’s narrator observes. Several clues indicate to us that this scene is actually a cartoon playing on a screen. The title of the poem itself suggests this, as do the “stars and robins” which spin around a character who has tumbled from the roof, an eye that is “just an X,” and the music swelling up in the background. However, the narrator seems to take this scene as reality. The way the narrator addresses the cartoon character as “you” gives the scene an intimacy we normally reserve for real-life relationships. And then, the beginning of the fourth stanza confirms for us that the narrator has mistaken the cartoon for reality, as he suddenly has a realization: “But as my eyes adjusted,/I came to see the truth –/This was a darkened theatre.”

It’s here in the fourth stanza that the turn appears, when the narrator finally realizes the truth of what he sees as his eyes adjust to the dim light of the theatre. The turn then moves us, along with the narrator, into an even greater moment of insight as the poem ends:

This was a darkened theatre
and high up in his booth

the projectionist had gone to sleep.
A reel was spinning there,
its loose end flapping as it churned
the warming, dust-filled air.

Now the turn becomes a door, taking us beyond the realm of the physical world into the metaphysical. Here we infer that the projectionist is God, who earlier in the poem was “roused from sleep” by the cartoon character’s fall from the roof. Since God is asleep and the movie reel spins loosely, we see that God is no longer in control, nor does he seem to care. The turn into the metaphysical now makes us return to the first three stanzas of the poem and question our initial reading of them. Perhaps the cartoon scene is actually reality, made to seem unreal by the projectionist’s (God’s) apparent disinterest. And we have to wonder, since the reel is spinning, “its loose end flapping,” how we are able to see anything at all.

All in all, the turn in this poem makes us question our ability to know truth and to discern between truth and fiction. It makes us wonder whether we are able to see or know anything at all.

 

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Marci Rae Johnson holds an MFA in Poetry Writing from Spalding University. She currently teaches at Valparaiso University, where she serves as Poetry Editor for The Cresset and on the English department reading series committee (Wordfest). She is also the Poetry Editor for WordFarm press. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in The Valparaiso Poetry Review, Perihelion, The Louisville Review, Phoebe, The Christian Century, Strange Horizons, and 32 Poems, among others. Her first collection of poetry won the Powder Horn Prize and will be published by Sage Hill Press later this year.

“Cartoon Featurette” from In A Beautiful Country © 2011 by Kevin Prufer. Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All Rights Reserved.

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