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STAGE REVIEW : THE POEMS OF DELMORE SCHWARTZ

Oh your life, your lonely life,

What have you ever done with it,

And done with the great gift of consciousness?

What will you ever do with your life before death’s

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Provides the answer ultimate and appropriate?

These are among the opening lines of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which set the tone for a short but just about perfectly measured concert reading of poems and stories by the American poet Delmore Schwartz.

The program (Sunday afternoons at the Itchey Foot Ristorante, the Mark Taper Forum’s downtown Los Angeles literary cabaret) was conceived by Taper dramaturge Jack Viertel, Jon Robin Baitz and Peter Frechette, and together they’ve had the good sense to let the poet speak to us through his words instead of imposing a narrative or biographical frame to mark off a portrait in the mind’s eye.

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“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” begins in a spirit of despondency, the kind of anvil gloom that can’t be lightened by Haydn, a singing actress or even a fat sandwich from the icebox. And it ends on a recollection of the day the poet was born, which leads him to think, “Patience, my soul, the truth is never known/ Until the future has become the past. . . . “

In between we hear his deliberations on poetry, “the most fatiguing of occupations,” in “Baudelaire,” which ends with a sad and funny note to the poet’s mother: “Please send me enough money for at least three weeks.”

“The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” is a poem on “The with-ness of the body,” an “inescapable animal” that ends with the pullulant image of dragging its reflective tenant “Amid the hundred million of its kind/ The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.”

“In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave” recalls Hart Crane’s “Harbor Dawn” with less sensual immediacy but with a similar thought about re-enacting “early morning, the mystery of beginning/ Again and again.”

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The title piece is a longer prose imagining of his parents when they were dating, wherein he conceives of them and what they must have been like as though he were watching a movie. The movies had to have been a novelty to Schwartz, born in 1913 (maybe a threat as well, to someone to whom literature and the word were paramount).

Here we recognize the enticement of what it means to sit in a movie house and become pure consciousness, and how the pictures become so real that they make him cry out (censors, critics, sympathetic authorities--they’re in the audience, too, in the form of people consoling him or yelling for him to pipe down). The protective darkness makes one probingly bold. What is this uneasiness his parents share, this young potential for unhappiness they’ve borne through their genes to him?

Schwartz, who died in 1966, was not a great poet. But this program captures the good that was in him, as well as evoking the troubled deliberative spirit that transcends his words. Since the selection is spare, you listen harder. Frechette is the reader-performer. He hasn’t matured vocally enough to deliver the poetry with perfect tonal pitch, but his lean, intense, Romanesque features suggest a young 20th-Century Seneca half-infatuated with language and the spell it can cast.

Randolph Dreyfuss’ music is dead-on (he plays piano), with delicate single-note signatures of disquiet collecting into heavy, off-center chords darkened with portent (William Bolcom composed some additional music).

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The program does to us what a good poem does: It makes us keen listeners to the process by which sensation congeals into words, and how the poet, as witness to that transformation, will often feel a holiness about it, or at least a sense of mission.

Not that “Dreams” has anything to do with religious or moral uplift. The only joy we witness here is in the recognition of what one’s life is, and the understanding of it. The rest is like the headachy, lousy feeling you have waking from a bad dream. The effect is drearily palpable, and except for a few strange images that hang on for a while, the cause has disappeared into the unreachable.

This is a captivating program. Baitz adapted and directed, Viertel produced. It’s a pleasure to see the grace and freshness of mind Viertel gave us when he was a drama critic now carried into the theater.

Performances Sundays at 5:30 p.m., 801 W. Temple St., (213) 972-7337, through June 29.

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