ACTER Lilley entertains at coffeehouse with words and silence

Peter Gillette

Alexandra Lilley, a member of the British group ACTER, provided a welcome alternative to the din and dyslexia of midterm season, reading selections from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to a small crowd Monday night in the Coffeehouse. Her selections were chosen in part due to their relevance to our post-Sept. 11 world. Drawing from the confident, life-affirming “Song for Myself,” Lilley chose passages that—at different times—chilled the spine and soothed the soul.

Before she began, Lilley asked the audience to move to the first couple rows of tables, and told them to feel free to listen to poetry however it benefits them the most. “Don’t feel like you have to be a good, attentive listener all the time, either,” Lilley said. “I don’t mind if you sleep…All I ask is that you don’t snore.”

Lilley gave herself over to Whitman’s romantic lines, surging forward with her voice while conveying the poet’s passion. She used the intimacy of the setting to great advantage, using eye contact around the room to connect the poetry to the listeners.

Whitman’s themes of self-affirmation and seeing God in nature are timeless ideas, and the reading painted them as fresh and exciting as ever. Rather than philosophical ideas to be pigeonholed into Freshman Studies arguments, Lilley showed them as organic, essential, and exciting.

Sitting confidently, relaxed, on a stool reading off of a music stand, Lilley would pause between sections, choosing the next excerpt and letting Whitman’s words float into the silence.

A couple of the non-student audience members debated good-naturedly with Lilley and her fellow Brits who were on hand about whether Leaves of Grass would go over well being read in England. She replied that she left out some of the more patriotic passages, but that Americans are marked by their love of nature—Whitman sees it as practically a deity in and of itself—and their love of freedoms. The passages struck the right note of affirmation and elegy.

There was one passage that stuck out in particular, and brought a chill to my spine:

“I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken/Tumbling walls buried me in their debris/ Heat and smoke I inspired—I heard the yelling shouts of my fallen comrades/I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels;They have clear’d the beams away—they tenderly lift me forth.”

After that stanza, she paused, and as a collective we futilely attempted to realize how real Whitman’s words now were.

And, as the vents in the Union seemed so loud, I began to realize that only a great dramatist like Lilley could elicit a silence that was nearly as rich as Whitman’s words themselves.