Episode 10

 

The Illusionist by Mark McGuinness 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses his poem ‘The Illusionist’.

Poem and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

The Illusionist

by Mark McGuinness

The theatre’s gilded like a music box.
The lights go dim and someone takes the stage.
‘Good evening everyone, I’m Arthur Fox.’
We know he’s not. The real one’s still backstage.

The lights go dim and someone takes the stage.
He looks the part; we gingerly applaud.
We know he’s not. The real one’s still backstage.
‘And here’s the man you’ve all been waiting for!’

He looks the part; we gingerly applaud.
The curtains part. The curtains close again.
‘And here’s the man you’ve all been waiting for!’
‘Thank you all for waiting in the rain.’

The curtains part. The curtains close again.
We troop back slowly to our starting spots.
‘Thank you all for waiting in the rain –’
‘Sorry Arthur – the pillar blocked the shot.’

We troop back slowly to our starting spots.
The cameraman walks sideways through the crowd.
‘Sorry Arthur – the pillar blocked the shot.’
‘I know. It feels a bit disjointed now.’

The cameraman walks sideways through the crowd;
we part and close behind him like the sea.
‘I know it feels a bit disjointed now.
The whole thing will look seamless on TV.’

We part and close behind him like the sea.
He reappears behind the left-hand door.
‘The whole thing will look seamless on TV.
I know the repetition’s such a bore.’

He reappears behind the left-hand door.
His eyes are covered; both hands firmly tied.
‘I know the repetition’s such a bore.
Please take your time, examine every side.’

His eyes are covered; both hands firmly tied.
The dazzling spotlights keep us in the dark.
‘Please take your time, examine every side
and let the camera see it, clearly marked.’

The dazzling spotlights keep us in the dark.
The volunteer does everything he’s told.
‘And let the camera see it, clearly marked.
That’s right. Just there. Now cut along the fold.’

The volunteer does everything he’s told.
We half expect to see him levitate.
‘That’s right. Just there. Now cut along the fold.
The time has come. Let’s hope it’s worth the wait…’

We half expect to see him levitate.
A moment’s pause that seems to take an age.
‘The time has come. Let’s hope it’s worth the wait…
and look whose name is written on that page!’

A moment’s pause that seems to take an age.
He takes the sheet and holds it up as proof.
‘And look whose name is written on that page!
I’d like to ask you all to raise the roof!’

He takes the sheet and holds it up as proof,
although the mechanism isn’t clear.
‘I’d like to ask you all to raise the roof:
please give a big hand to our volunteer!’

Although the mechanism isn’t clear,
we’re still transfixed by what we’ve all just seen.
‘Please give a big hand to our volunteer!
Just wait until you see yourself on screen!’

We’re still transfixed by what we’ve all just seen:
a show that never actually took place.
‘Just wait until you see yourself on screen.
The stops and starts will vanish without trace.’

A show that never actually took place
will be assembled in the cutting room.
‘The stops and starts will vanish without trace.
When Charlie gives the signal we’ll resume.’

We’ll be assembled in the cutting room.
‘Good evening everyone, I’m Arthur Fox.
When Charlie gives the signal we’ll resume.’
The theatre’s gilded like a music box.


Podcast transcript

This is a poem that started off with one foot in reality and then went somewhere else. 

The initial idea came from my experience of going to see the filming of a show by a well-known illusionist that was being recorded for TV. And it was the first time I had been to see a live TV show being recorded. So that in itself felt a bit like going through the looking glass, having grown up watching countless shows on TV and particularly when I was younger, having the feeling of ‘Wow, that looks amazing! Imagine what it would be like to be there in person, right in the middle of the audience, right up close to the stars’. 

You know, there’s an idealism about the way popular entertainment is presented on television, everything looks sparkling and glossy and flawless. So even though I was a grown-up, it felt exciting to be there in person. And on one level, it was exactly what I was hoping for. It was everything you would expect from being part of a a smallish audience in a beautiful setting, up close and reasonably personal with a big star. 

But as the evening went on, I gradually had the sense that there were two levels of illusions, operating at the same time. So on the one level, there were the illusions that were part of the act, which were really impressive. And, you know, when you watch a magician on TV, it’s natural to think, ‘Well, if I was there in the audience, I’d be scrutinising every move to see what’s really going on. You wouldn’t be able to fool me with clever TV angles!’. And there were some things that I saw in the show that I remember thinking, ‘Well, that is seriously impressive. I saw it with my own eyes and I don’t believe my eyes’. And that was quite magical.

So on that level, we experienced the illusions that were advertised, if you like, but also, as the evening went on, I became aware of another level of illusion, which was the illusion of the show itself. Because of the logistics of filming something for TV, what actually happened in the venue wasn’t quite the same as the seamless performance that you would see on television as the finished product. 

There were lots of stops and starts, where the performers had to do things several times so that they could get the right take. For instance, the illusionist walking out onto the stage for the first time. We, the audience, had to rehearse that before it happened. And so somebody walked out on the stage. And he said, ‘Good evening, everyone. I’m [the name of the illusionist]’. But he wasn’t, and we knew he wasn’t, and he knew that we knew he wasn’t, but we all had to pretend that he was so that we could get warmed up and they could practise the camera angles so that they got just the right shot when we did it for real. And even when the man himself came on, he had to do it maybe two or three times before the director was satisfied. 

And this went on throughout the show. We had to applaud several times, or move back, so they could get the cameras in for a close-up of the stage action, and then we moved forward again so they could get a shot of us right up against the stage. So all the way through there was this stop-start effect, a sense of two steps forward, one step back.

And so I gradually realised there were two sets of illusions operating at once, the illusions on the stage and the illusions of the stage, the illusion of the show itself. It was like finding myself in a Hall of Mirrors where there were two sets of mirrors facing each other, so that the reflections multiplied off to infinity in both directions. And for me this was a wonderfully disorienting and mind-expanding feeling. I had the sense that this feeling was suggesting something about the nature of illusions and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. But even now when I think about it, I get, you know, there’s a spine tingling quality to it. 

And I’m pretty sure it was during the actual show or possibly very shortly afterwards, I had the feeling that ‘this reminds me of something’. And again I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. It was as if I recognised this experience. This repetition, this two steps forwards, one step back movement. It felt like deja vu or maybe I’d had a dream or a premonition of this. Then I realised it wasn’t deja vu and it wasn’t a premonition. It was like being inside a pantoum. 

What’s a pantoum? It’s a verse form, that ultimately originated in Malaysia, and like a lot of verse forms came to English poetry via French poets who started using it in the 19th century. It can be as long as you want it to be, although most of them are fairly short. It is composed of quatrains, four-line stanzas, and every single line in the poem is repeated once, in a set pattern. So the second and fourth lines of every stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. And of course I can hear you asking ‘But what about the first and third lines of the first stanza?’ Good question. They reappear in the final stanza, but they are flipped around, so that the third line of the first stanza becomes the second line of the final stanza, and the poem begins and ends with the same line. 

If you’re feeling a little confused don’t worry, that’s normal. It’s actually the desired effect of the pantoum: it has a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ motion, that is disorienting, and which I find delightfully beguiling and mesmerising. And when it ends with the same line it began with, there’s a sense of finding yourself back where you started, but finding it somehow different than before.

Okay. So there I was in the theatre experiencing this two steps forward, one step back motion, and realising I was basically inside a pantoum. It was quite an odd feeling, actually knowing that I was inside a poem as it was happening in real life. It was like I was in the poem’s engine room and I could look up and see all the gears and levers and pistons moving around me. And of course at that point I knew I had to try and write the poem down. 

Now, the challenge in writing a pantoum is that you are taking the same lines and shuffling them together in different ways, and when you repeat the lines there’s always a risk that the lines that made sense in one context will not make sense in the new context, even on the level of basic grammar, the words need to fit together without the join showing. So you have to have a line that will work both ways.  So there’s quite a lot of adjustment and care required to get the lines just to fit together and play nicely alongside each other. 

And that’s before you think about the overall arc of the poem, whether it’s telling a story or making an argument or expanding on a theme. It’s a little bit like a house-buying chain, it’s all very well if the first few lines fit well together and get the poem off to a great start, but that’s no use at all if you can’t get the rest of it to follow on and link up properly; there’s always the danger that you might have to give up and look somewhere else entirely. 

And of course, if you really want to unlock the magic of the poem, it’s no good just being competent, so that the lines make sense and the story or the argument is easy to follow. You want those repetitions to start opening up and unlocking double meanings, so that the same line means something different when it’s repeated in a different context. And the more you can do that, the more the hall of mirrors of the pantoum opens up, and the more magical the poem becomes. 

So when I was back home, after a discrete interval, I tried to follow Wordsworth’s advice when he said that poetry ‘takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’. I recollected as much as I could about the magic show and started writing it down and trying to assemble the pantoum. And while I was writing I found a third level of illusion starting to open up… because at the beginning it felt like I was very close to the experience of that particular show I’d been to see. But the more I wrote, the further away I got from the details of that specific show, to the point where I realised it wasn’t a documentary, realistic, reportage kind of poem. 

Instead of being a description of that particular illusionist performing that particular show, the illusionist of the poem became a composite of all the illusionists, all the  magicians I’d ever seen, on TV and on stage and even at parties and in books and movies. It was as if my illusionist, Arthur Fox, started grabbing phrases and gestures and tricks and techniques from all these other illusionists and he started taking on a life of his own. 

So for instance, the line, ‘and look whose name is written on that page!’, I’m pretty certain the actual performer didn’t do a trick with someone’s name on the page and didn’t say that line, but I’ve seen a version of that trick countless times. You know, where the magician asks the volunteer to ‘think of somebody and don’t tell me who it is’. And then it turns out he’s written it down – it’s always a he, for some reason – he’s written that exact name on the piece of paper three days before the show, when he was locked underwater in a submarine or whatever, before he’s even met the volunteer. 

And it was important to get his name right. I knew he was a Fox, because that rhymed with ‘music box’, so the surname was obvious. Foxes of course are magical tricksters in mythology, and there was also a little bit of a suggestion or a whiff of Fantastic Mr. Fox from the Roald Dahl story. You know, a very charming and charismatic character, but also a bit rakish and unsettling and not entirely respectable. So the surname was easy but I tried several different first names before I found one that felt like him. As soon as I christened him ‘Arthur’, it was like he came to life and I saw the glint in his eye and a little quiver of his moustache, as if he were almost winking at me, but not quite.

And as the poem went on, I remembered watching magic shows on Saturday night as a kid, that sense of wonder: How do they do that? Is that possible? Is it just a bunch of clever tricks? Could it be real magic? 

And of course, logically, we all know it’s not real, it’s supposed to be trickery it’s all a clever game. But surely even in the most hardened of hearts, there’s a sense of wonder, you know, we’re seeing something we can’t explain and maybe there’s something genuinely inexplicable going on. And certainly as a child, there was a part of me that couldn’t help hoping and wanting to believe that maybe there’s some real magic at the heart of it all.

It’s as if illusions are something that we crave or at least something we can’t avoid. I mean, most obviously, they happen in the entertainment industry. Saturday night magicians are really the updated version of the Victorian circus, you know, ‘Roll up! roll up!’. And it’s a bit tacky and a bit garish. And it’s obvious that we’re been deliberately and willingly hoodwinked.

But it’s not just in entertainment that we find this sense of illusion, of performance, a of collusion in the fantasy. I mean, think about the average business meeting, when everyone is being polite and professional and using the right jargon, and there’s the veneer of politeness and professionalism. And yet we all know that there’s an awful lot of stuff going on that is unspoken and unsaid, and there’s more than a little smoke and mirrors in what is being presented to us as factual and incontrovertible. And certainly we can see that in politics, and anything to do with public life.

Even something as mundane as going to the restaurant. I remember reading that one reason why people, or British people at least, don’t complain about bad service or bad food in a restaurant is that they don’t want to ‘break the spell’. You know, the illusion that this is the perfect evening out. And the people here really care about us, and the food and company are wonderful and we’re all having the best time. And we don’t want to spoil it for everyone else. So we keep the illusion going.

And there are plenty of other situations in our lives where we do this, where we are all making an effort to keep the illusion going, but without telling each other that we are making an effort to keep the illusion going – because, of course, that would break the illusion, wouldn’t it?  

It’s almost as if life and illusions go hand in hand. And, conversely, when we are truly disappointed, when we are truly devastated, when we are truly out of love with life, then the word we use is disillusioned. Which if you think about it suggests that when we are in love with life, when we are happy, when we are in the thick of it, we must be illusioned, if that can be a verb. So of course from the perspective of disillusion, then what we are seeing when the spell is broken is the naked truth, the, the bare facts, the existential horror. 

But Arthur Fox could flip it around again and say: ‘Well, maybe illusions and life do go hand in hand. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe there is a playfulness, there is a joy, there is fun to be had in creating and maintaining an illusion, like playing a wonderful game together.’ 

And, of course, the challenge for me as a poet is to create and maintain an illusion in words, to create my illusionist with nothing but words to hold him up. And I have to say in this case it wasn’t easy!  

So for instance, most pantoums are not as long as this one, they are typically much shorter, and I discovered one reason why, which is because it gets harder and harder to maintain the form as you go along. You know, that balance of having the repetition and having it make consistent grammatical sense, and also narrative sense, of the story progressing in a meaningful direction, and also that that icing on the cake, that magic of the double meaning, is there throughout as much as possible. And I lost that thread several times in the writing process. 

This was quite a few years ago, and I remember taking it to Mimi Khalvati’s workshop at the Poetry School, and she made me rewrite it about three or four times. She kept saying, ‘This is going to be wonderful!’. And I’d be wincing at that future tense, ‘going to be’. And I’d say ‘You mean I’m not done yet?’ ‘Oh, no…’. 

And that meant that I had to go back and unpick the whole thing. The analogy comes to mind is unravelling the knitting, when I’ve seen my mother or my daughter unravelling a load of knitting because it’s not right, and then you’ve got to do it all over again.

But I’m really glad Mimi did challenge me because eventually it came together. And sticking with the sartorial analogies, the feeling was like when you’ve got a zip that’s snagged and all the teeth on either side are out of alignment, and you think it’s broken forever and it’s really annoying because it’s a favourite bag or coat or whatever. And then suddenly you manage to free it and the zip moves freely again. And you get that glorious moment where you pull the zip and the two halves come together and it all zips up neatly. And that’s what it felt like to finish this poem. 

So I can testify that illusions take a lot of work, to create and maintain and perform. And if illusions are the stuff of life, maybe that’s why life can feel so hard at times, but also, maybe why it can throw up moments of pure magic. 


The Illusionist

by Mark McGuinness

The theatre’s gilded like a music box.
The lights go dim and someone takes the stage.
‘Good evening everyone, I’m Arthur Fox.’
We know he’s not. The real one’s still backstage.

The lights go dim and someone takes the stage.
He looks the part; we gingerly applaud.
We know he’s not. The real one’s still backstage.
‘And here’s the man you’ve all been waiting for!’

He looks the part; we gingerly applaud.
The curtains part. The curtains close again.
‘And here’s the man you’ve all been waiting for!’
‘Thank you all for waiting in the rain.’

The curtains part. The curtains close again.
We troop back slowly to our starting spots.
‘Thank you all for waiting in the rain –’
‘Sorry Arthur – the pillar blocked the shot.’

We troop back slowly to our starting spots.
The cameraman walks sideways through the crowd.
‘Sorry Arthur – the pillar blocked the shot.’
‘I know. It feels a bit disjointed now.’

The cameraman walks sideways through the crowd;
we part and close behind him like the sea.
‘I know it feels a bit disjointed now.
The whole thing will look seamless on TV.’

We part and close behind him like the sea.
He reappears behind the left-hand door.
‘The whole thing will look seamless on TV.
I know the repetition’s such a bore.’

He reappears behind the left-hand door.
His eyes are covered; both hands firmly tied.
‘I know the repetition’s such a bore.
Please take your time, examine every side.’

His eyes are covered; both hands firmly tied.
The dazzling spotlights keep us in the dark.
‘Please take your time, examine every side
and let the camera see it, clearly marked.’

The dazzling spotlights keep us in the dark.
The volunteer does everything he’s told.
‘And let the camera see it, clearly marked.
That’s right. Just there. Now cut along the fold.’

The volunteer does everything he’s told.
We half expect to see him levitate.
‘That’s right. Just there. Now cut along the fold.
The time has come. Let’s hope it’s worth the wait…’

We half expect to see him levitate.
A moment’s pause that seems to take an age.
‘The time has come. Let’s hope it’s worth the wait…
and look whose name is written on that page!’

A moment’s pause that seems to take an age.
He takes the sheet and holds it up as proof.
‘And look whose name is written on that page!
I’d like to ask you all to raise the roof!’

He takes the sheet and holds it up as proof,
although the mechanism isn’t clear.
‘I’d like to ask you all to raise the roof:
please give a big hand to our volunteer!’

Although the mechanism isn’t clear,
we’re still transfixed by what we’ve all just seen.
‘Please give a big hand to our volunteer!
Just wait until you see yourself on screen!’

We’re still transfixed by what we’ve all just seen:
a show that never actually took place.
‘Just wait until you see yourself on screen.
The stops and starts will vanish without trace.’

A show that never actually took place
will be assembled in the cutting room.
‘The stops and starts will vanish without trace.
When Charlie gives the signal we’ll resume.’

We’ll be assembled in the cutting room.
‘Good evening everyone, I’m Arthur Fox.
When Charlie gives the signal we’ll resume.’
The theatre’s gilded like a music box.


Mark McGuinness

Mark McGuinness portrait photo

‘The Illusionist’ by Mark McGuinness was first published in The Rialto issue No.80.

Mark McGuinness is a poet based in Bristol in the UK. His poems have appeared in various magazines, including Anthropocene, Brittle Star, Magma, Oxford Poetry, The Rialto and Stand. His competition awards include Third Prize in The Stephen Spender Prize for 2016 and a commendation in the 2021 Ambit Poetry Competition.

He is the host of the poetry podcast A Mouthful of Air.

MarkMcGuinness.com 


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

Listen to the show

You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms

Listen on Apple Podcasts

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