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James Joaquin Brewer

Juan and Donne

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.
                                                                 – Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations (VII, 61)

Botanisches Theater by Paul Klee

Act One

The professional principle of sticking to the script had not seemed to require debate or discussion. All of the evening’s headlined participants agreed that it made practical sense. However, they did not each claim with the same degree of commitment that the highest priority tied to that principle needed only two words: safety first. Although none of the four tag-teaming competitors believed that this cautionary perspective was unimportant, one had emphasized more than once to his fellow wrestlers that honoring the traditional narratives was just as important. This was the stated position of the Honorable George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale, author of the satiric epic poem Don Juan (and whose ring name was, appropriately, “Juan The Don”). Of the other three, it was known that the grappler most passionate about playing strictly by both spoken and unspoken rules in the new match—with the spoken rules defined largely by whichever particular promoter would be paying the performers—was Carl “The Butcher” Sandburg, the broad-shouldered bard working out of Chicago. Perhaps that was because from the quartet of rhyming wrestlers, he was the one most comfortable with the role to which he had been assigned by whoever had outlined the ritualistic ring rhythms to be followed in the next renewal of a seemingly eternal form of conflict-entertainment. Carl was elated to be slated to perform as a good-sport/good-guy (what wrestling fans call a “face,” short for “baby face”). As a relatively innocent fan favorite, he would almost always keep in character, ready to creep peacefully around the outside perimeter of the ropes in his pale-blue tights and soft new wrestling shoes trimmed with fluffy, gray-white fur at the ankles in near-futile attempts to tag his teammate. During this repetition of frustration, he would be progressively earning the sympathy of the crowd, their collective groaning growing as they watched him routinely get insulted and assaulted outside the ropes by one of the two bad-sport/bad-guy “heels” determined to prevent Carl The Butcher’s outstretched hand from finding and fingering his fellow face, Edward “Scot-Free” FitzGerald. At a predetermined moment he would, of course, appear to abandon his long-held patience, would finally erupt in hard-earned and undeniably righteous rage and pick up a metal chair to mime the motion of smashing it over the head of the notorious heel John “The Dungeon” Donne while Scot-Free FitzGerald would feign the simultaneous smashing of a wooden stool over the head of Donne’s partner heel, Juan The Don.

Approximately forty-eight hours before the beginning bell was supposed to ring, a rumor ran rampant around the wrestling world that Juan The Don was a bit worried about “that Ed guy,” a last-minute substitution for a different “Ed”—Edgar Poe having suffered a severe muscle tear in Baltimore while practicing his signature “Ragin’ Raven Elbow Drop.” It was gossiped that the author of all sixteen thousand lines in the seventeen cantos of Don Juan was of the literary opinion that Edward FitzGerald’s reputation among certain arrogantly ungenerous academic critics was destined to be stamped and stained with the esoteric insult label “pseudepigraphic fabrication” and therefore . . . and so . . . well, at least one sophomoric wrestling-oriented sportswriter was wondering in print, “So what?” It was not as though Juan The Don cared all that much about whether or not a high percentage of the quatrains making up the text of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam had really been authored by Persia’s most notable polymath before being translated into rhyme-patterned English six or seven centuries later; no, this troubled soul’s perhaps paranoid concern was that this inexperienced opponent—a replacement trained only recently for making what he jokingly and pseudo-poetically proclaimed would be “my maiden voyage / into that tethered arena / the squared circle / of rope-tempered truth”—might feel free to wander off-script, based on his having wandered that way occasionally as five varied editions of his masterpiece had been revised and released, with some scholars suggesting that several of the revisions resisted being traced to source manuscripts of Omar.

Over a sumptuous Crowne Plaza breakfast on the morning before the match was scheduled to take place, Juan The Don confessed to Carl The Butcher his growing suspicions that the word-tinkering man from Suffolk, who was never in need of seeking funds for publication but seemed always in need of seeking improvement in the lines of a freely translated poem, might be looking also for ways to improve the lines of a wrestling script and end up disrespecting, intentionally or otherwise, the ancient allegorical hallmarks to be honored in the agreed-upon drama. Sandburg seemed stunned that Byron would take such a possibility so seriously.

“Now, Juan The Don,” Carl began in a folksy tone intended to be soothing, hoping to make light of the topic, “unless you think my fellow-face Fitzy will be killing time and his thirst back in the dressing room before the bout begins, I strongly doubt that he will be idly fiddling with the flow of scenic beats in our exhaustively choreographed encounter. I am at a loss to know what his motive would be—or what you fear his revisions would result in for you.”

“You’re probably making sense,” said Juan The Don. “The true risk, however, and probably not actually malicious, might be that he forgets some key part of the script—gets the traditional sequence of heel-and-face transitional trade-offs jumbled up—jeopardizing the integrity of the climax to come. But motive? Well, I do think he has always been a mite jealous of what he might mistake for permanently meaningful—certainly not mean—attitudes in my . . . social experiments . . . with certain ladies. I have heard he has thrown in with the crowd that considers my . . . contributions . . . to the eventual outcome of an ill-conceived marriage . . . to be evidence of . . . inciting cruel and beastly behaviors. Our freshly minted face might momentarily reveal a bitter bit of his own heel and happily hand me a hunk of humiliation.”

“Hmm,” hummed the sometimes folk-singing poet of proletariat Illinois, “yeah, well, okay, although I know little of such delicate matters taking place beyond the pond. To be honest, I am surprised you are comfortable sharing such unseemly perspectives with me. Then again, I spoze maybe yer thinkin’ of that infamous quote about the mental health of his family. Mightn’t ya be?” Carl chewed on a forkful of pulled-pork omelet and picked up a mug of un-creamed, un-sugared coffee.

Juan The Don pushed away his half-eaten plate of “Crowne Plaza Cornish-Game-Hen-on-Toast” and arched his eyebrows. “Oh? You say? Some quotation? I must have missed the morning paper that day.”

“I think it’s a joke, m’Lord—a lark, a display of low wit, a type of perhaps traditional, apocryphal deprecation.” He lifted his steaming cup with one hand and waved with the other in a gesture too vague for Juan The Don’s liking.

“No, Butcher Carl, really. What did he actually say?”

“Oh, one of my folk-singing friends from Scotland told me that our Ed once opined that everyone in the FitzGerald family was crazy, but at least he—Fitzy himself—unlike the others, admitted it! My buddy was trying to compose a song referencing that little confession. He was going to call it ‘Free From the Family Tree,’ but he never finished it. It had but one good line anyway, something about being content to sit on whatever limb Nature assigns.”

Act Two

Out at LaGuardia, Scot-Free FitzGerald had been waiting since near-noon for John Donne’s flight from London to arrive, his own having landed from Paris an hour earlier. The two had arranged to meet and share a taxi to the Crowne Plaza, where they would get together later for an evening meal with Carl The Butcher and Juan The Don to go over the details of the match. But there was a problem: after his arrival, a complex mechanical breakdown in conveyor belts was preventing the retrieval of Dungeon Donne’s baggage. The poetic pair then decided, anticipating an extended delay, to seek sustenance inside a reasonable facsimile of a British pub. Over bottles of cool Bass and a tray of sizzling snacks, they renewed their friendship and reviewed their thoughts regarding the plans they had painstakingly—though only virtually—“rehearsed” with the other two grapplers two days before via a new and expanded 3-D augmented reality version of Zoom.

Of special interest to Donne was the rhythm of the build-up early in the bout to establish the degree of faithful “face theme” that FitzGerald would represent on behalf of the more virtuous fans—in contrast to the degree of heinous “heel-theme” that Juan The Don would represent. “Fitzy, I’m not sure Byron is entirely comfortable with the verbal and visual tropes related to his real-life club foot—the one he keeps hidden in the black boot with the silver laces while he sports a silver boot with black laces on the normal foot. You know, how at first he grabs a microphone and loudly threatens to kick you with the deformed hoof encased in black and how you—”

“Yes, yes, of course, I know.” Fitzgerald pawed at the plate between himself and Donne that had arrived piled high with French-fried onion rings several minutes before but now held only a few of the greasy morsels. Even though Fitzgerald sometimes called himself “an almost vegetarian,” he thought it odd that Donne refused to order appetizers containing meat. Yes, he knew Donne had implied in one of his poems that animals have souls, and knew also that his wrestling “opponent” had said lately that he was considering a suite of poems opposing animal cruelty, especially the treatment of circus elephants. But today Fitzgerald was looking forward to the taste of—

“And therefore?” said Donne. “And so? Do you share my potential concerns?”

“Well . . . let’s remember that Butcher Carl, whose otherwise innocent emotions are seen by the fans of face to be gradually unraveling, will run over to Juan The Don, shake his head laughingly over the silver boot, nod his head menacingly over the black boot, and pull at its laces as though to remove them, prompting me to rush out frantically and pull him away in order to publicly preserve my co-face partner’s reputation—to make it clear to the fans that such teasing and threatening action would represent taboo! At least in the ring we must respect Juan The Don’s life-long, deformed-limb trauma, show our sensitivity to it! I think we all agreed to that on the conference call. But I could be wrong, Dungeon Donne; my memory is not what it once was. Tell me, did I overlook something?” He eyed the one remaining onion ring, thought he should sacrifice it to the metaphysical poet, then changed his mind.

Donne turned his palms up and shrugged his shoulders. “Fitzy, Byron does not trust you!”

The crispy crackling sound from Fitzgerald’s mouth interfered only slightly with the clarity of his question: “How do you know that? With what aspect of this less-than teapot-tempest have I remained uninformed?” He wiped glistening crumb residue from his lips.

The author of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” sighed. He placed his first two fingers straight down onto the starched tablecloth in an inverted peace sign. He kept one of them static but traced a nervous curve back and forth with the other. “The Honorable George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale seems excessively sensitive about that foot. He has told promoters more than once ‘I’m willing to be a heel but unwilling to expose my heel.’ Or something to that mostly-metrical effect. Carl called me and said our Juan The Don thinks you might flip the script—egged on by the crowd after they become upset about the way he kicks you in such an unsportsmanlike way with that black-booted stump.” Donne lifted his fingers and pointed them toward his friend, moving them up and down as though cutting the air between them with a pair of imaginary scissors.

“I would never do that,” said FitzGerald, looking around for a server. “Don’t call me a script-flipper! I think he’s still jealous about my getting that big red yacht. I invited Shelley to take a little water-trip with me in Italy but apparently neglected to slavishly invite the sixth Baron Byron along. Hey, Dungeon Donne, shall I order us a plate of wings?”

“Don’t ask,” said Donne.

Act Three

Long-time promoter Thomas Stearns Eliot had been annoyed greatly upon being informed that on the very afternoon of the evening’s scheduled spectacle, Wallace Stevens had changed his mind about serving as the ring announcer. Wally was claiming that his agreement the week before during an early-morning telephone call with Eliot had taken place after a night of excessive competition in William Faulkner’s Mississippi man-cave during which the pair shot endless games of nine-ball pocket pool to the soundtrack of a vintage jukebox loaded with a rare collector’s treasure, classical-music 45 RPMs obtained via generous contribution to a PBS fund-raising beg-a-thon emceed by post-Beatle, sacked-drummer, ringless Pete Best. In the few days following, Stevens asserted, he had been listening to the “necessary angels” of his nature and, “Tom, it turns out they prefer me when I’m sober.” Eliot reluctantly accepted the Hartford insurance executive’s apology but was not enthusiastic when Stevens added that he knew with certainty that venerable Whitman was available. The proponent of the poetic “objective correlative” concept was worried that the often free-versifying declaimer’s choice of introductory phrasings might be excessively “subjective,” even self-aggrandizing. Acknowledging, however, that time’s wingèd limousines bearing wrestlers and their handlers would be bearing down soon on the underground entrance ramps of marvelous Madison Square Garden, he admitted he had few viable options and placed a call to U.S. poetry’s elder-statesman legend. At least, he solaced himself, his original selection of once-infamous Pennsylvania wrestling villain Felix “Cruel Paw” Katz as referee had been confirmed and was all but guaranteed to drive ticket sales within a certain sadistic segment of wrestling fans (many of whom recalled the glory days when the cauliflower-eared contender with the untrimmed fingernails was billed as “The Fabulously Felonious Feline from Philly”).

But now, after the preliminary matches had concluded and there were only a few empty seats awaiting late-comers, Eliot was breathing sighs of mostly relief as he watched through thick-lensed spectacles from his skybox and listened with both hands cupped behind his ears as the white-bearded bard from Long Island shuffled to the center of the ring in a long, gray, wool overcoat, ready to initiate the Main Event. Eliot held his breath, slightly worried that Whitman had not been paying close attention over the phone when the modernist poet had corrected the author of “Song of Myself” after he had mispronounced twice John Donne’s name; “It’s Dungeon Donne—pronounced Dun! It does not rhyme with Juan The Don!” Whitman had repeated it . . . twice . . . to Eliot’s satisfaction.

“Lay . . . deez . . . and men who may . . . be gentle . . . Eliot Productions proudly invites you to perch on the edges of your catbird seats and enjoy the rest of this evening of wrestling excellence. I have the honor tonight of celebrating not myself, but introducing other selves. And those I welcome, I assume you shall welcome, for every talent bringing excitement to me, will as well bring excitement to you. I stand and attend each action; I applaud and take my pleasure perceiving each twist of a tortured wrist, each turn and burn of a leg-lock, each yank and crank of an arm-bar.”

Whitman clapped his hands together, releasing into the air dust, or powder, or pollen, or something else granular and maybe magical but clearly visible and palely similar to the color of his beard. Patrons in the exclusive ringside rows arose and clapped as well, stimulating a ripple effect as grappling fans in row after row, leading all the way back to the cheapest of seats, stood to applaud and thunder their approval.

“Reminiscent of memories my own, memories I will always own, found in times of hope, formed in rings of golden rope, forged in cages of silver steel, when I, too, excelled at the stimulating hell of simulating a heel . . .”

Here, T.S. Eliot un-cupped his ears, stretched out one white-shirted arm and used the hand of the opposite arm to pull back a starched cuff to reveal the sweeping second-hand on the face of his street-purchased Piaget wristwatch. “It is time,” he muttered, “it is time . . .” At this pace, it would be bedtime before Byron was introduced. He let out a long breath, crumpled an emptied sack of peanuts, and made a mental note to request that wastebaskets be placed in each of the skyboxes. Re-cupping one ear, the impatient promoter resumed staring at his pseudo-vintage timepiece. “It is surely time,” he whispered, pursing his lips in preparation for sucking at a wide straw stuck down through the perforated plastic lid of his jumbo ginger ale.


“Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same, now I . . . surpassing a century of age, but still of perfect voice . . . welcome to this often hallowed mat-padded stage, two teams who will be tagging one another and tugging, too, at your hearts while competing without pause for your plaudits, your applause, your affection!”

“Which team of talented tugging taggers will you choose as favored for your rooting? Which, should it lose, will you ostracize with your hooting?”

It was soon after this point in the proceedings that the first apparent deviation occurred. After having bombastically introduced each of the faces, Edward “Scot-Free” Fitzgerald and Carl “The Butcher” Sandburg, and introduced one of the heels, John “The Dungeon” Donne (correctly pronounced), Walter Whitman looked around as though confused, seeming to wonder where the other one was—the one with the (literally) deformed hoof. Eliot, too, looked confused—and would soon become confused even further as all the ceiling lights in the building became instantly extinguished and a single spotlight aimed from some mechanical monstrosity that could have passed for a Civil War cannon shot a blazing red light down out of the far-away rafters to encircle a humanoid, purple-cloaked figure slightly limping on its way along the widest aisle in the arena, moving toward the corner of the ring where his partner had been visible moments ago. At first too stunned to open its collective throat, the crowd’s minute of silence was suddenly shattered by loud outcries—of surprise only? of actual shock? of moral outrage? of disoriented emotional pain?—as a second spotlight, light blue not bloody red, revealed something shambling along on four legs behind the figure in purple: a white-hooded black bear the tips of whose abundant threads of fur glistened in the artificial light like aluminum icicles on an indoor Christmas tree.

Eliot now not only un-cupped his ears, he clapped his hands over them as cacophonous symphonic music of a classical genre he had never before explored exploded brassily at deafening decibels through the Garden’s military-grade public address system. Just before the music ceased and the ceiling lights returned, Eliot stood up to look for the nearest on-duty security guard, believing that actions of criminal chaos and citizen panic were about to ensue. But then something sorcerous occurred: the face-masked figure removed his cloak, swirled it above the bear behind him, dropped it across the beast’s black head, shoulders and back, then gesturing quickly with what might have been a diminutive, magician’s wand or possibly a miniature, farmer’s flail, seemed to command the ceiling lights to go out again—plus also the separate spotlights—but only for less than half-a-minute, and when the lights returned, they disclosed the cloak flat on the floor but not a bear or wand in sight! After devoting a moment to scratching their many heads, after taking it all in, the members of the audience leaped to their feet, each person cheering the feat, with chattering voices loud in near-unison over scatterings of clapping and whistling and laughing. Even Promotor Eliot felt an involuntary tension-releasing grin crack across his banker’s face.

Whitman looked perplexed. Shuffling away from the center of the ring, one end of the hand-held microphone wedged within one of his coat’s wide side-pockets, he merely mumbled into the other end, “And that, of course, ladies and gentlemen, is the one, the only—thank God—Byron . . .”

So it would not be Scot-Free FitzGerald who flipped the script, nor Carl The Butcher Sandburg. As uncloaked Juan The Don clambered up the carpeted steps and began leaning down and forward to navigate the limited vertical space between the second and third strands of hawser-thick rope, Dungeon Donne appeared to lose his cool, lose his temper, lose his future wrestling credibility, found himself hauling partner Byron awkwardly through the ropes and into the corner of the ring, where he proceeded to poke two fingers through the eyeholes of a face-covering mask and then slam his fist into the back of a muscle-bunched neck, rendering his tag-team mate momentarily dazed, chest on the canvas, the point of his usually charming cleft chin leaving an uncharming dent in the mat.

Referee Katz rushed across the ring, snatching Whitman’s microphone along the way, bent down over Juan The Don’s groggy body, and slapped the canvas once, twice, thrice! He stood rapidly, reached for Dungeon Donne’s arm, and raised it in victory.

Up in his box, T.S. Eliot fainted.

Down on the mat, the Honorable George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale, regaining some segment of his network of  “senses,” perhaps surprised to realize he was being treated like a stooge, lifted his black-masked head and reached up to grab the microphone from Felix “Cruel Claw” Katz. “Ain’t done yet!” he snarled, rubbing his eyes through the mask-holes then looking around blindly. “This match was made for two falls—best two out of three!”

“Not now,” loudly hissed referee Felix, “it’s one and done!”

“Go back to your mistreated bear and beg for sympathy,” demanded Dungeon Donne of Juan The Don.

The fans in the stands did not know whether to cheer or to boo. The predominant mood was eerily subdued, a sense of uneasy anticipation . . .  “Stop crying, Carolyn,” a mother’s voice could be heard in a tone of desperate admonishment, “they’re only getting started—this is what we call foreplay, must be much more to come!”

High above, a teen-aged usher whose name-tag read “Rachel,” the only niece of a middle-aged Brooklyn rabbi who had declined her offer of complimentary tickets to the evening’s festivities, flipped the plastic lid from a skybox-discarded paper cup (displaying red and blue stars on its tall, white sides) and gently guided runny remains of its crushed-ice contents across the forehead of the fainted poet who she did not know was the author of certain anti-Semitic verses. The sticky melt dribbled down across his shuttered eyes, reviving him with a blinking shudder just in time to fuzzily focus on two faces dancing daintily across the ring to kneel in front of the fallen Baron and take advantage of the microphone left lying on the mat. (The fresh closing of Eliot’s eyes so soon and without re-opening alarmed the young usher. Rachel rushed out in search of a doctor.)

“Scot-Free Fitzgerald” spoke from his knees:
A face of virtue underneath the mask?
A jutted jaw, a cock of head—why ask
If I opposed proceeding with our plan?
To conceal within a variant task? 

He shrugged his shoulders, laid the microphone softly on the mat, and moved his right hand in an ambiguously angled pattern—some sort of blessing? He and partner “Carl The Butcher” stood, then strode in retreat to their corner.

Juan The Don did not stand, although by now Dungeon Donne had helped him achieve a sitting position, leaning back, head up, with spine straight against the corner post, scalp beneath the padded turnbuckle, blinking his masked eyes rapidly to the accompaniment of clanging bells (courtesy of certain hand signals referee Felix was making to the hammer-wielding official at a table just below the ring apron). The Baron’s brain was less clear than his voice: “John—what the hell—that bell—is it ringing for the beginning or ringing for the ending? For me? For them?” He pointed a shaky finger toward the pair of poetic antagonists in the opposite corner.

“Do not ask,” said Donne.
Just as the clanging stopped, Byron slumped, cleft chin toward his chest, lips working laboriously, then slowly but successfully picked the microphone from the mat.

Why am I in this ring? Is it only for show?
This purple posing in spurious array
Prepares the way for actions to flow
Whose meaning, now hidden, begun in foray
Pretends to underscore—what I do not know,
For whose climax I stay primed but pray delay
To hope when fortunate falls are finally counted
My faces are images worthy to be mounted.

Felix half fell, reaching through the ropes, but righting himself adroitly, balancing on the floor, finally succeeding in retrieving the flattened, bear-less, purple cloak. He handed it back up to Donne, who tenderly wrapped it over the shoulders of his partner.

“Do not ask,” repeated Donne.

Eliot snored. The crowd roared.


About the writer:
Raised on the rural coast of Oregon, James Joaquin Brewer currently shelters in West Hartford, Connecticut, while working on a novel about political protest on college campuses during the Vietnam era. Educational experiences influencing his writing include pulling endless streams of lumber in a sawmill while contemplating Camus’ version of Sisyphus and earning a Ph.D. in English from Binghamton University. Published writing of a  variety of genres appears in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Write Launch, LitBreak, The Hartford Courant, Aethlon, Jeopardy, Rosebud, The Poetry Society of New York, Closed Eye Open, The Manifest-Station, Quibble.

Image: Botanisches Theater by Paul Klee (1879-1940). Oil, watercolor, and pen. 19.6 x 26.3 inches. 1934. Public domain.

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