In Clockfire, Jonathan Ball proposes 77 hypothetical plays, all connected by the fact that they’re impossible to produce. Impossibility is Ball’s chief conceit, as his plays range from a performance where a Goddess creates a new world to a scenario where actors hold the audience hostage before murdering a “saviour.” To enter Clockfire is to enter a new cosmos — one of disorder, improvisation and unpredictability — all three of which Ball insinuates are lacking in modern theatre.
Clockfire is constructed almost entirely of short prose pieces that are focused around ideas rather than linguistic interplay. In fact, upon first reading, it’s striking how little poetry there is to be found in what’s being marketed as a book of poems. While Ball’s prose is consistently flat, his dramatic proposals are inspired and imaginative. Think of Clockfire as an instruction manual for altering your perception of the natural world, and it becomes clear that Ball constructs poetry from his reader’s reactions rather than language on the page. Take “The Doppelgangers,” where Ball writes: “Patrons file into the theatre, but before they have a chance to sit down, they are confronted by their doppelgangers. / This cannot be. / Only one from each pair may exit the theatre. The other must remain, dead or alive, to attend the next performance.” This poem immediately takes the onus off the poet and places the reader in control of their destiny, eliciting a personal response and allowing room for a new poem of the reader’s own making.
Throughout Clockfire, Ball leaves his dramatic scenarios open-ended in a way that’s reminiscent of his first book, Ex Machina (BookThug, 2009), which required readers to construct poems based on fragments of text. In this way, both of Ball’s books read like Choose You Own Adventure novels — free of the limits that define traditional poetry. In Clockfire, Ball’s sense-of-play manifests into an obsession with audience participation, so much so that the line between artist and audience is often removed. Check out “As Children Might,” which begins: “In this play, the audience members are also the actors. They play as children might, freed from the burden of their lives for the duration of their time on stage.” The type of escapism Ball describes here gives his audience a chance to join him, a fun proposition based on the number of genuinely arresting moments in Clockfire. Of course, if none of Ball’s theoretical plays appeal to a given reader, he espouses creation when he reminds that there is always “The theatre empty. Stage bare, lights out. Doors barred. The play waiting, undreamt”. (Jim Johnstone)
Jonathan Ball, 104 pgs, Coach House Books, chbooks.com, $16.95