Hell Mouth

Singing the praises of a soap opera.

by Robyn Schiff

It’s 7:08 am and I just watched the “cold open” of yesterday’s episode of Days of Our Lives online. The episode has been loosened from its forty-seven-year-old programmed slot by what the television industry calls “time shifting.” Every age gets the science fiction it deserves. There’s a tight one-beat shot of a sealed manila envelope. It has an anachronistic black wax stamp. Standard-issue inter-office mustard against the jet of the wax makes for a disorienting prop, giving the apparent secret concealed within the impression of having been documented by a hooded procurement specialist sent from the Renaissance to buy envelopes at Office Depot. Hope leans into the frame. “Ready? It’s gonna be good.” She and Bo have been waiting on this documentation concerning the legitimacy of their marriage for a long time. She draws a single sheet of white paper from the envelope, and it falls below the frame. “What? No. No!” She releases the envelope and the sheet of paper into the void and drops tragically into an armchair.

Soap opera plotting turns on documentation. Marriage contracts, adoption records, birth certificates. In a world where amnesia is as common as seasonal flu, time-stamped public records say “I was here” with the authority of law and physics. Soaps share their enthusiasm for documentation with gothic novels, another genre with a primarily female audience. Soaps, too, are obsessed with property, and though this is sometimes expressed in shifts of wealth and dynastic power, more often they are concerned with self-possession, outrageous gestures that not only say “I am here” but “I am free,” despite having been fated by committee and set in motion by Proctor Gamble.

As contrived as the twists can seem, there is something beautifully improvisational about the form. Plotlines run concurrently in a perpetually open narrative, and soaps not only operate with no end in sight, but also without a clear origin, because the past has as many possibilities as the future. Even if a plotline seems to achieve closure, narrative satisfaction is temporary at best, qualified by the soap opera rule of return through which characters come back from dark pasts dreamt up in the present. For instance, Hope’s son was killed in a motor vehicle accident by the daughter her husband conceived sixteen years earlier, unbeknownst to anyone, even the writers then, during the years Hope was presumed dead. The art, it seems, is to throw open a few windows as you go so they can be crawled through later. The term “Hell mouth” is sometimes used to refer to trapdoors in a theater, and it seems like a fitting term to describe the multi-generational revolving doors through which soap characters come and go past-ward into the future.

I admit this kind of time travel shocks me for the same reason that I am shocked when a poet reenters his or her own text through something of a wormhole, as Lyn Hejinian did in her revisions of My Life. It was written in Hejinian’s thirty-seventh year. A work of formal exactitude consorting with abandon, it was then thirty-seven reeling stanzas of thirty-seven lines each. Hejinian revised it eight years later though, adding eight new sections, and eight lines to each previous stanza to recalibrate the work. But here’s the thrilling part: the new lines are not always at the end of the sections.

Encountering this manner of revision feels like stepping into time itself with a toolkit. An integration of present perceptions of the past into a record that’s already standing! It makes me woozy.

Bo: What did it say? [He’s holding the document now.]
Hope: No.
Bo: No. It can’t be true. It’s not true.

Hope is still stunning after more than twenty years on the show, but whittled in the uncanny manner plastic surgery has of bringing the corpse right up to the edge of the soul. Hope is a variety of hero who is most herself under duress, as Marianne Moore says of the type:

hope not being hope
until all ground for hope has
vanished.

The ground for hope has vanished many times over and Hope is hope indeed in Salem, the fictional city where Days is set, a city whose very name resonates with powers of transformation and possibility. She’s been kidnapped, forced to marry, dipped in a vat of toxic waste, brainwashed, and has confused her own identity with a deeply suppressed angry personality within that resides in the trauma of the early loss of her mother who was killed when she stepped between Hope and an oncoming car. If something outside the realm of nature occurred in real life, I’d call it supernatural; when the already unnatural laws of a soap contort to a new extreme, I don’t have a word to describe the warp. But when I look at Hope, I am looking into the face of Time.

My husband just came into the room. “Are you watching Days of Our Lives? Are you depressed?”

“No. I’m working.”

“Is that Hope? She looks like a skeleton.”

He wants an update of the goings-on in Salem since 1990, and I’m not surprised that I can brief him almost entirely in words that describe time. I say “again” and “still” and “now” over and over. Because of the tension between the eternal and the momentary, summarizing either a single episode or a decade of Days I might as well say to my husband, quoting Shelley famously gazing on Mont Blanc:

The everlasting universe of Things
Flows through the Mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour.

Each “now” like a precarious climbing hold jammed right into the cliff face of the everlasting, with each new “now” dissolving in succession as time courses the earth and the poem. Or consider Suzanne Buffam’s startling and startlingly brief poem “On Geological Time.” It reads in its entirety:

Enjoy the view while you can,
Mt. Everest.

The juxtaposition of momentary time with eternal duration here is so vertiginous that the couplet itself appears to erode before our eyes, and Mt. Everest is left peering into the inevitable abyss of its own temporary footprint.

Couplet; couple. A few weeks later I tune in again and Bo is coming out of a medically-induced coma mumbling about what is “past, passing, or to come” so incoherently that Hope can’t tell if he’s issuing a warning about the future or recalling the past. Bo has lost Hope and Hope Bo so many times that their relationship is an ongoing reenactment of a harrowing of hell in which they take turns saving each other simultaneously against all odds and against the clock. And those are Everest’s sands, or Mont Blanc’s, trickling through that famous hourglass in the Days title sequence.

Originally Published: July 2, 2012

COMMENTS (2)

On July 26, 2012 at 3:34pm Ben Elvis Mettin wrote:
Shelly and the dreamers meet again. Sweet.

On August 6, 2012 at 1:09pm Shayna wrote:
Nice! I like this piece. Twisted paths and such of the Soap Operas. Like the added scenes from the soap and other poetry.

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2012

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Biography

Poet Robyn Schiff was born in New Jersey. She earned an MFA at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an MA at the University of Bristol. She is the author of the poetry collections Revolver (2008), a finalist for the PEN Award, and Worth (2002). Her work has been featured in several anthologies, including Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (2007) and Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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