In Motion: The Talk of the Town

THE

NEW YORKER

In Motion


THE TALK OF THE TOWN


“Coleridge is one of my favorite poets, but I’ve had a hard time finding jugglability in his poems,” Cindy Marvell said when we phoned her recently at her place on Riverside Drive. On a happier note, she added that she had worked the kinks out of a three-ball sonnet. This is how Ms. Marvell has been talking since sometime in 1983, the year she hit on the idea of juggling while reciting verse. Her inspiration came when she recalled the opening Chorus of “Henry V” and realized that it was crying out for under-the-leg tosses. Now Ms. Marvell has a repertoire ranging from Shakespeare with plastic clubs to Wordsworth with beanbags. “I think one of the reasons I sympathize with these poets is they’re writing about something that’s just beyond their reach,” she says. “What they’re writing about is their frustration. You always fear you’re going to drop something, and physically everything is beyond your reach most of the time.” Not all poetry about the unreachable lends itself to juggling, though. “If a poem has principally color or texture imagery, chances are I can’t juggle to it,” she says. And the poems have to be short, because long poems make her arms tired. So Dickinson’s “A Route of Evanescence” is in, but her “The Lilac is an Ancient Shrub” is out. Keats’s “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” is in; his “Stanzas on Some Skulls” is out.

Ms. Marvell is just as picky about other things, such as her last name. The one she received twenty-four years ago from her parents—Friedberg—she rejected a while ago, on the ground that it lacked pizzazz. She considered switching to Rossetti, but decided that it didn’t work. Shakespeare? Too obvious. She settled on Marvell, after the poet, even though she does only two poems of his.

Ms. Marvell doesn’t look a whole lot like her namesake. She is more on the Pre- Raphaelite side, with chin-length light-brown hair, pale skin, and almost-plump arms and legs. Her neck swells a bit at the nape—a common side effect of juggling for several hours at a time, she says. On any given day, you might find her at the South Street Seaport, where she sometimes entertains shoppers, or on the plaza at Lincoln Center. She also performs on cruise ships, in theatres, at theme parks, and in night clubs. But she doesn’t do her juggling-and-reciting act, which she calls Poetry in Motion, in most of these places. Audiences tend to get confused when you give them juggling with their poetry, she says. So except at the New York Renaissance Festival, in Orange County, she keeps Poetry in Motion pretty much under wraps, and trots out more for-the-masses stuff. She can balance a ladder on her chin, and she can juggle five clubs, and she can keep aloft peculiar trios—say, a tennis racquet, a torch, and a raw egg. In 1989, she became the first woman to win the Singles Championship of the International Jugglers Association— the jugglers’ equivalent of Wimbledon.

Last July, during a visit to the University of California in Los Angeles, she demonstrated Poetry in Motion in a secluded campus courtyard, with us as her audience. She opened with Blake’s “Tiger.” Two yellow beanbags became the tiger’s eyes and, joined by a blue bag, the forests of the night as she recited steadily, in a voice that ever so faintly revealed her New York roots. For Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” Ms. Marvell grew lyrical. Five daffodil-colored corduroy beanbags bobbed like popcorn in front of her face and behind her back. Next came “Delight in Disorder,” by Robert Herrick. Ms. Marvell produced ten balls and a frantic look. Every line or so, she dropped a couple of balls, stooped to retrieve them, dropped some more. She deadpanned the final couplet, then dumped the entire load.

By this point, a crowd had gathered, and it clapped as Ms. Marvell collected her props for the dagger speech from “Macbeth.” “I’ve got a real dagger at home,” she said, and apologized for substituting a club. “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” she asked, dangling the club in front of her nose. Swiftly, she moved into a three-club routine, flipping the clubs into the air with even flicks. “Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible To feeling as to sight?” she said, balancing a club in an eye socket. “I have thee not, and yet I see thee still,” she said, and the clubs marched over her forehead like decoys in a shooting range. When Ms. Marvell accidentally dropped a club, she said, “Don’t worry—it’s only the tragic flaw.” In the end, the bell that summoned her to Heaven or to Hell was two clubs with a third swinging in between, clapperlike. She bowed, and the crowd applauded. “Oh, thanks,” Ms. Marvell said. “Would you like to see a little Hopkins?

JANUARY 28, 1991