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Three Arrangements
These are rearrangements of words first encountered at the age when what words are telling is absolutely new, and when you have not begun to grasp how much you are being shaped by them, even as you turn them about, play with them like toys or trinkets, savor the ability to inhabit in apparent freedom the places they make mysteriously available. A children’s encyclopedia, an almanac of theatrical productions, an omnibus of synopsized novels were books to be returned to again and again because they promised so much, something like comprehensive knowledge of a world almost entirely unknown. Returning to those books so long afterward and moving the words around, as if to discover another otherwise unattainable book underneath, is play that becomes a form of autobiography made entirely of what was already there.


Nineteen Forty Six

in burial places
of people who died long ago
are found drums of wood
and pipes of bone and clay

in Peru people with hair eyelashes 
and fingernails all perfect
are found wrapped in clothes
in which they were buried thousands of years ago

some groups made statues of their gods
and put food before them
there were toy boats
in the tombs of Egypt

at first there was no language
man had to learn slowly
to use special sounds
to mean certain things

in the remote jungles of the Amazon
the Indians sleep in hammocks 
kill fish with poison
gather fruits in the jungle

people who do not know about science
rely on magic for many things
they hear voices
or find signs in nature

in Central Africa
are dense green jungles
there are deserts in the south
in Arabia

the cities of Colombia and Ecuador
are up in the mountains
islands have been thrust up
by volcanoes

some great harbors
are found at the mouths of rivers
others are in sheltered bays
along the coast

lakes may rest
in the old cone of a dead volcano
wind and rain go to work
wearing down high rugged mountains

water trickles through the rocks
dissolves out materials like lime and silica
soil is being made all the time
as rocks are broken down to powder

new animals are formed by buds
which break off and sink to the bottom
showy outside ray flowers attract insects
and less showy center ones develop into seeds

the bat flies with wings of skin
and sleeps hanging upside down
the great sea tortoises
sometimes live a hundred years

wild bees store honey
in holes in hollow trees
peanuts grow in clusters
under the ground

among the most fascinating wonders 
are meteors from outer space
the jewel-like fossils preserved in amber
the gum of ancient pine trees

the dinosaurs had all died out
long before men started to draw pictures
men had to guess at many things
in making their maps

the first bridge
was probably a log across a stream
the first house was a cave
the earliest boats were rafts

for many years in ancient times
no one ever thought of counting
the first calendars
were just sticks with notches in them

man has found ways to change
plant and animal forms
a man who studies science is a scientist
he asks himself many questions

cloth is produced by passing threads
over and under one another
if leather is for harness use
it may be filled with grease by dipping 

men from the forests in the north
conquered Rome
camel caravans
carried the silks of China

a group of wagons is called a train
of trucks a fleet of boats a convoy
whenever ships come from another country
they are quarantined

pirate ships belong to no country
for they obey no laws
slave trading
is no longer permitted

a navy is the armed force
that guards against attack by water
fighting men were often dropped
by parachute during invasions

people of the various nations
have moved about increasingly
sometimes places are named
because of something that happened there

in the early days
no one needed money
there have been taxes
as long as there have been governments

sometimes there are sweeping changes
in the laws and customs of a country
at the present time a plan
for world government is being developed

millions of people have their fingerprints
on record with government agencies
our time is sometimes
called the machine age

most people buy clothing
made in factories
city people need
to be supplied with many things

powdered milk and eggs
keep almost indefinitely
a great deal of work has been done
in developing synthetic rubber

crushed stone can be blasted out
and crushed still finer
modern highways
are carefully planned

pencils and egg beaters
hoes and screwdrivers
can openers and spoons
all are tools

oils are taken from the ground
it costs only half as much 
to pump oil through pipelines
as it does to carry oil by train

railroad spurs run to piers
to receive freight
newspapers bring us stories
just a few hours after the events have happened

there are millions of people
occupied in thousands of jobs daily
there are many jobs in the stores
selling clothes and other articles of apparel

in the spring the trees
are floated to the mill
when each person does his work well
the group can produce more

cowboys live and work
out on the broad plain
in summer the cows
eat grass in the pasture

on a legal holiday
many people do not go to work
the bicycle is used
largely for pleasure

pets are animals or birds
kept to be fondled or played with
in a zoo all the animals are fed and cared for
all they lack is freedom

manners are the ways
a person acts with other people
some people make a hobby
of collecting things

some play music or act in plays 
or do beautiful dances or write poems
the swan dive the jackknife the back dive
are all very graceful

there are primitive people whose dances
are part of their religion
there are running games singing games
dancing games guessing games

very gradually a sign
came to stand for an idea
a signal is a way of giving a message
a pattern for the signal is called a code

in many countries portable theaters
are carried from place to place
many people
have libraries in their homes

opera singers must spend years in study
before they can perform
the woodwinds give a special color
to the music

every painter has his special style
some paint things as the eye sees them
inventors are working every day
to improve radio and television

light passes through a lens
into a dark chamber
it is possible to photograph distant stars
that cannot be seen at all

it is hard to say what light is
and hard to say what it does
raindrops break up sunlight
into the colors it is made of 

the ocean is deeper
than the land is high
the simplest plants
do not even have roots

weather is the state
of the air around us
even a bird
is pulled down by gravity

the sun’s heat and the tides
are sources of power not yet harnessed
the earth and a compass needle
both are magnets

as one side of the earth has night
the other has day
so it goes endlessly
as the earth rotates

in the clear night sky
one sees about three thousand stars
the universe is so vast
that no one can really understand it

[source: Dorothy A. Bennett, The Golden Encyclopedia (1946).]


Where Failed Plays Were Set at the End of the 1950s

A Mexican border town in summer at the present time
A small New England town in the mid-1930s
In and around the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, late last century
After a recent war near a frontier in a European country
A small island in the Pacific during the latter part of World War II
The home of the Elliot family just outside London
The Wallings’ living room in an American suburb
The Grenville home in Shorewood, Connecticut, in early autumn
The living room of Edith and Walter Simms, somewhere in Long Island
The Lawtons’ house in a medium-sized American city
The living room of a country house in Southern California
In a two-family house in Canada during the spring and summer
During mid-summer in a barn and a farmhouse kitchen
The living room of a hotel suite in Palm Beach, Florida
The Board Room of the law firm of Wheelock, Wendell and Farrington
In the Conference Room at Lowell & Lynch Advertising and in a hotel room
The Jolly Roger Bar and an apartment in New York City
From dawn to dusk of the fifth of July in a sparsely populated town in a Midwestern state
A secret missile launching site in Alaska at the present time
At the train station in Pluma, Alabama
At the present time in a house in the desert

[source: Daniel Blum, Theatre World, Season 1958–1959.]


97 Best Novels Condensed

the memory of the sad childhood provided a personal flavor
his weak frame was tried beyond endurance
many were the fireside tales of ghosts and evil spirits
the family hurried away from the dreary prison
he almost died or believed he was dying of despised love
twice she had missed the prize of happiness
she was little known and shunned any intimacy with the townfolk
he continued constantly to haunt her footsteps gliding like a shadow
they reckoned without a new force that had entered this world
it resolved into a battle of the alchemists
the mob pressed forward to the very gates of the palace
every heart but the victor’s was wrung with the pity of it all
a dimness began to fill the sky
at the end of this valley was another still more dread
an abominable desolation a blackened world that had been green and fair
the village was reduced to a mass of ruins before his eyes
grief so afflicted them that they were insane from sorrow
the unsuspecting travelers pressed through the thick forests
he looked into the vast foggy heart of the smoke
she heard the splash and rushed to the riverbank
he had time to hide his money in the haunted forest
she was taken away while he was wandering in the forest
her only chance for life lay in the ordeal of battle
the drums began to beat and the trumpets sounded
his veins thrilled with the blood of a hundred soldiers
broadsides roared and the decks grew slippery with blood
the admiral was in a state of painful indecision
a storm overtook their little craft
the wind became too much it came on like a solid wall
the ship put in to a strange bay for water
they sailed to low wooded hills spangled by fireflies
there were wild fruit trees and also goats running wild
in the brushwood they saw strange people who fled before them
for the first time he was one of a working gang of men
it almost seemed as if he loved to provoke danger
one bottle led to another until they were all full of wine
murderous quarrels made the hours hideous
the duel only made them closer friends
their striking resemblance was in outward appearance only
his chief characteristic was a burning ambition
he measured what every phase of that seething caldron offered
a man was to be valued for what he was in himself
he took pride in making himself indispensable
his experience with libertines and bandits had sharpened his wits
they met again at a fancy dress party
she still had an indefinable involuntary feeling toward him
the reflection her glass threw back was one of rare beauty
at a signal she sang without accompaniment
her singing called him from his trances
the melody blended harmoniously with the water of the cataract
on the eve of marriage the duke died in a duel
the hasty marriage led swiftly to sorrow
the count threatened to tell of the family skeleton
a mysterious person stole up to her in the twilight
everyone paid court to the mysterious stranger
now began attacks of mental distress
by a stroke of ill-luck his fortune was swept away
the brook ran in flood and the mill was carried away
tradesmen who had been servile now became insolent
the pain borne in secret was beginning to tell upon him
the discovery was a cruel blow to his faith in humankind
the rigid rules of his forebears gripped him
the child screamed and fell senseless at his feet
he began to have fears accentuated by the delirium of drink
he walked in his sleep as far as the cabinet
she had been playing with him and felt ashamed
her customary serenity deserted her completely
exhaustion brought the dreamy state that precedes unconsciousness
the one candle was dying out the room was full of moonlight
she took no notice of the rain driving across her bare shoulders
she sat nodding sleepily on a mossy bank
she sank her head upon her hand and remained as unconscious as a statue
in a thicket she came upon a wild-looking man
the naïve woodsman was blind to feminine wiles
by poison she accomplished her purpose
the potion was a poison to drive the drinker mad
the doctor sat at the window like some disconsolate prisoner
there followed days of wandering and secret inquiry
some excellent people considered her a most injured woman
in the shadow of the scaffold she was reprieved
she returned alone to the little dwelling by the forest
she found comfort in devoting herself to the motherless children
the girls all had leanings toward luxury and ease
she rejoiced in her lifelong service for the poor and suffering
all who entered her presence looked upon her as an angel
now began the strangest chase that was ever known
he fled vainly from the terrors of his own memory
at last he fell victim to a monster of crime
the revelation prostrated the impostor
a mortal combat followed near the edge of a cliff
at the disclosure of the dead man’s eyes he fell to the ground
his enemy was sucked down into the grim depths of the bog
he resolved to go back to his own people
the sea was illuminated by powerful electric beams
the spot dwindled nothing was visible but the sea
the mist lifted and fled away
the shuttle of life wove back and forth over the ocean

[source: Edwin A. Grozier, One Hundred World’s Best Novels Condensed (1919)]

Geoffrey O‘Brien’s poetry has been collected in Who Goes There (Dos Madres), The Blue Hill (Marsh Hawk), and Early Autumn (Salt). His books of prose include The Browser's Ecstasy (Counterpoint), The Phantom Empire (Norton), and Where Did Poetry Come From: Some Early Encounters (Marsh Hawk).