Thursday, January 30, 2014

Poem: Lament of the Opera Critic

Lament of the Opera Critic

I hereby apologize to all tenors, soprani, baritones, mezzos
for the finely crafted butchery I am about to perform
but pouring gallon after gallon of music into a pint jar
one is bound to spill

Suzuki, Butterfly
what you did just there
that long-stemmed Janus tone
witchcraft limbs spread out over a Nagasaki hilltop
drilled into your lungs and throat
memory of your muscles
countless green-room repetitions

It's gone, I'm sorry
no more than a comma, a police department sketch

Yankee pig, treble slut
coming in cold from the waterfront
spinning out great reeling ribbons of sound
straight through the wall of orchestra as if
you had been saving breath
all the way across the Pacific

It's gone, I'm sorry
modifying phrase, leaf on a koi pond

Madame set designer
you with the boxtop moon and skateboard walls
sliding around like wolves in a pack
Monsieur conductor
free-barter tradesman of tempo
figuring tariffs between pit and stage and
launching great ships with a stick
And you, ever-neglected oboist
waking the grieving bride from her sleep

I am so, so sorry
but this portal of ink is a rough, dull instrument
a chopstick in the hands of a Texan
trying to scoop up any measure of your depths but
falling always short
See the rainfall of black rice on newsprint
your sweat, your breath
the calluses on your fingertips
the numbers dancing through your head
the imitation heartbeat pacing your limbs

But believe me
for all the dripped-off ice
cream warmed-over last
week's chow mein pared-off gristle
that I parade as journalism

I admire you all the more
am constantly thrilled at the way you
turn yourselves inside-out on the
carousel pegs of a Saturday night
just so you and I and a thousand others may
live someone else's life, die someone else's death
and sing a song of centuries

First published in Comrades.

Photo by MJV

Gabriella's Voice, Chapter 14: The Mockingbird

 Buy the book at



            In the final year of our great sad story, mom would spend her weekday mornings in the backyard, tending to her prize rose bushes.  Roses were a little too hardy for such an avid gardener.  They required not half the daily attentions she would like to have lavished, but it was enough for mom just to pay a visit.  She would talk to them, of course, and, depending upon how long you’d been gone, she’d let out quiet musical sighs, or hum, or sing perhaps, and sometimes she’d scare off a tribe of aphids with a lively burst of descending “Traviata” laughter – Ah... ha-ha-ha-ha! – and a backhand flick across the leaves.
            In the months from mid-spring to late summer, mom was joined in the backyard by a mockingbird, a particularly energetic, vocally versatile specimen who liked to hang out on the telephone wire running from the eaves over the kitchen to the pole behind the bottlebrush.  Using his long gray tailfeathers to balance himself, he would spend the day rolling out a running repertoire of whistles, cheeps, clicks and caws.  Mother immediately named him Mario del Mockingbird (after Mario del Monaco, a frequent tenor co-star of Renata Tebaldi’s), and for years she tried to engage Mario in conversation.  For a long time, she failed; Mario seemed much more interested in the calls of other birds, as well as the occasional cat, dog, airplane, police siren or creaking gate.
            On a morning in late May, however, she struck gold, claiming to have elicited a direct response with a little run from Rossini (“Guillaume Tell,” I think), delivered in a Minnie Mouse tone, much like the traditional marinara chirping of Susanna in “Figaro.” Once she had established this beachhead, Mom was determined to cast Mario into a broad scientific exploration of inter-species intercourse.  Through the mornings of June and July, at least whenever you were gone on your trips, she would pull out every bird-like sound she could muster, every operatic quote, warm-up gimmick (mee-may-maw-moh-moo), messin’-around sound effect, mutter, bark or squeal, and on the infrequent occasions when Mario responded in kind, she would add it to their growing mutual vocabulary.  Among the operas, Mario displayed a general preference for baroque and classical – Monteverdi, Purcell, Donizetti, Mozart, Bellini – and rarely ventured into the romantic.  Verdi and Puccini were particularly ignored, their vocal lines being much too obviously human, but there were exceptions: a snatch of Strauss from “Der Rosenkavalier,” for instance, and even a little instrumental interlude from Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Dalila.”
            In late July, mere weeks before Mario’s annual departure, I tiptoed around the corner of the house to find Mom on mud-caked knees in front of her pièce de résistance, a citrusy explosion of orange and yellow blossom known simply as “Gala.” Mario was perched five feet away, shuffling back and forth like a Vaudeville soft-shoer atop a trellis of passion vine, and for the next ten minutes the two of them carried on an amazing tennis match of twitters, beeps and splendorous songburst.  It struck me that Mario wasn’t precisely echoing Mother’s offerings; it was more like he was offering birdish continuations, his expert opinions of where the line should proceed from there.
            Being a nine-year-old boy, I inevitably lost patience – even with a scene straight out of Disney – and made my presence rudely known by grinding a foot into the gravel of the garden path.  Mother turned around at an instant, and Mario hopped away to his telephone wire.  Far from being irritated, Mom broke into a broad smile at my approach and spread her arms wide, pulling me into a deep, rocking embrace.
            “Buongiorno, figlio mio!  You surprised me!  I was telling Mario del Mockingbird what a good little boy you were, and you know, he didn’t believe me!  He said there could not possibly be a boy that good in the entire world.”
            I didn’t say anything, partly because, in thrusting my head over my mother’s shoulder, I had planted my nose straight into the rice-paper folds of the biggest Gala rose I had ever seen.  I inhaled its overwhelming tangelo scent and tried not to sneeze.
            Mother let out a long, faltering glissando of a sigh and said, “I think sometimes, Billy, that I am Lucia di Lammermoor, and that Mario is my crazy flute.  I will miss him so much when he goes.”

            Some years later, these late-winter mornings of my Northwest exile, my own personal mockingbird is a willowy redhead with Lauren Bacall’s eyes and a lock on the remnants of my heart.  Now that we are neighbors, I can see (I can hear) that Gabriella is a musical balloon, letting out song in a slow leak that lasts the whole day long.  Though my cottage sits a good fifty feet from her room, I awaken to her showertime murmurings and unidentified sprinklings of phrases that echo off the tiles and sneak out like tiny insects through the windowscreen (and yes, apparently opera singers do sing in the shower).  Through the remainder of her toilette, as she picks out her day’s wardrobe, she runs through scales in a roughshod manner, pausing whenever she has to put on a sweater or a shoe, or extend all four limbs in a cat-like, full-body stretch.
            After that, she paces to the kitchen, from which place emanates the percussive clinkings of the teapot, water running in the sink, the gathering metal-play of flatware as she readies her tea and breakfast.  The accompaniment here is a dozen troublesome lines from Tosca, oft-repeated, hammered in like blacksmith etchings on the orange-hot iron of her memory bank, half-voice, just for the sound of them, just for the words (next to the sheer athleticism of the singing, this is what I cannot fathom about opera singers, the sometimes three-hours-plus of precisely timed, pitched and enunciated words, words, words).  I’ll admit, too, that this is one phase of my spywork that gets a little irritating, but if I take it all in as a malleable mass of sound, it doesn’t seem so bad (I’m sure those who attend Philip Glass concerts do the same).
            By this time, I am ready for some overt reconnaissance, so I pull on a sweatshirt and take in the thirty-one raindrops between my cottage and Maestro’s kitchen door for my morning tea and visit.  This particular morning, I find Gabriella in her Pegasus outfit – khaki pants, white blouse, black tennies – seated at Maestro’s timeworn Baldwin, picking out notes from her score of Tosca.  (The score is her sole foray into the visual arts, a reckless collage of the singer’s media triumvirate: highlighter, pencil, post-it note.  Lose it and she would be lost.)
            When she seems satisfied with her studies, she settles into a long, empty stare out the picture window, the little kid from around the corner tossing the local weekly onto Maestro’s front drive, seagulls painting a jumbled spiral against the gray sky, and Gabriella inside, ignoring everything, letting all the neuromusical signals boil down into the reptilian southlands of her mind.  After two or three minutes she blinks twice, smiles, and greets me as though I have just come through the door, as though I have not been there patiently waiting for the past fifteen minutes.  She accelerates quickly from niceties into gossip – our favorite morning genre – as she straddles a stool and affords me bracing country looks from across the counter.
            Evidently, the cast from “Figaro” was one of those rare productions which produced an absolute void of backstage scandal (which is probably why they’re all still friends).  With “Tosca,” however, they are threatening to make up for lost time.  The primary issue seems to be our baritone Joe, whose casting as Baron Scarpia has apparently gone to his head.  The State Ferry regulars have all met Jagoda, the sweet little Serbian florist from Tacoma with whom Joe has been involved for some five years (and whose name, pronounced YAH-go-dah, means “strawberry,” which I find entirely enchanting).  Which is why we’re all a little perturbed at his expanding flirtations with Lynn-Marie, the 18-year-old Dutch foreign exchange student who is acting as an assistant to our conductor, Antonio.  I can’t entirely blame Joe, since I myself have laid guilty dirty-old-man eyes on Lynn-Marie and found her pretty irresistible, but I cannot approve of her as a replacement for Jagoda, who in any case deserves better treatment.
            The less virulent gossip centers on Diego, the flaming gay tenor who has been squandering flurries of Italian-mama cheek-pinchings and transparent compliments on a unanimously hetero men’s chorus.  Beyond a little initial discomfort, however, Diego’s pretty harmless.  I myself spent a post-rehearsal gathering answering numerous leading questions regarding the non-development of my relationship with the lovely Gabriella (I believe his words were, “Maybe you’re fishing on the wrong side of the creek, bubbie”), and was honestly more flattered than offended.
            On occasion, after I drive Gabriella to her job, I accept her offer of a complimentary latte, sit in the corner under my “Aida” poster, and am quickly astonished at how completely she has abandoned her hard-ass Cafe Trademark personality.  Whether it be the calling out of orders, a greeting to regular customers, or just idle chatter with co-workers, what comes out of Gabriella’s mouth is just as likely to be sung as spoken.  She has clearly reassigned herself to her true identity, and doesn’t seem the least bit self-conscious about people’s reactions.  It seems as if her persona is at last catching up to her talent.
            The only truly ugly moments in Gabriella’s mockingbird recitals come every other day, just before her late-afternoon sessions with Maestro, when she spends a full twenty minutes letting out the most horrible hacksaw lightning bolt cat-on-a-rack screams – a process she refers to as “taming the monster.” My reward for this traumatic domestication process comes soon after, when the full blossom of Gabriella’s opera-level voice spreads its arms over the grasses and stones of Cape Umbra (for that is what we call it) and noodles every ‘skeeter and cricket into sympathetic vibration.  It’s a wonderful thing.
            I make a point at this time of wandering out to Maestro’s deck, rain or shine, to further my slow progress on his Chartres labyrinth as I listen to the great cascade of notes filtering from his studio.  My need to listen to this voice is insatiable; given a choice, I would donate a pint of blood for each five minutes of song.  More than a few times I have caught the faces of children peeking from behind the young cedars at Maestro’s camp-side border, curious children who heard momentous sounds pouring out of the sky and scrabbled up the supposedly unscalable cliff to investigate.  I pretend not to see them, and not to hear them later as they return to camp, trying to conjure sounds as big as those produced by the unseen opera singer.
            Tonight, as Gabriella wraps up the final touches on Tosca’s great lament, “Vissi d’arte” (she first sang it when she was ten – did I tell you that?), I am out here placing luminous chunks of white quartz along my carefully penciled-out pathways.  This is her last night of lessons for a while – the cast is headed into stage rehearsals this Monday – and I want to reward her with a stroll through these narrow, looping lanes: the way in for peace, the way out for life.
            And I’m sure you know, Papà, that I am looking for more from this tiny Stonehenge than the mere entertainment of my neighbors.  I don’t want to worry you, but the expulsion of Bobby’s final ill-gottens, combined with my one and only telling of his story, have not brought the great healing that I thought they might.  I have to admit that I am a mess of a man, reduced to playing with tinkertoys, and I can only hope that if I hold on to these deck-bound dentures long enough, something in this odd, death-strewn life of mine might come together.
            Don’t worry, mio babbino caro.  I am not thinking Butterfly thoughts.  I am the last Harness left, and to take that from you would be more evil and harsh than anything else I could think of.  But I need to know: when does the devil’s mark finally get taken up from our family’s doorstep?  When does the singing return?
            Please write to me.  I know that you find writing a great labor, but because of this your words come to me as strong and well-fashioned stones.  I like to pile them up in the cottage, under a photo of Freni, next to my clock, just to remind me that you are still around, still with me.

            Ciao, Papà.  Take care.



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Poem: Cavaradossi's Memo

Cavaradossi’s Memo

To write a poem now would clearly be a mistake
so I won’t


a tempo

Now when the Dots of Bott and
windshield wipers
have opened me up
the lobby swirling around me like
so much perpendicular nonsense
so much other people’s stuff

subito piano

And Maria Maddalena stares back at me with blue eyes.

(I will fall in love with her on a balcony
the wind blowing her hair into my face;
I am forced to place it back
against her neck
and hold my hand there
three seconds too long for

Morning on Sant’Angelo is deceptively clear
the bells coating Roma in jackets of brass
the stars still in their seats
and these nice military gentlemen
who deliver my notes
for the price of a ring

But they moonlight as a firing squad, you know
and they have their orders
their muskets inscribed with the names of great painters
Raphael, Michelangelo, da Vinci
(I am honored but not glad)

I may never finish the opera house
but I offer you this
I know Scarpia is dead and gone, Tosca, but the
sands of Capitola Beach
are no more forgiving than the cobblestones
of Italia

Give me one sure kiss and I will
receive my shots
like long-lost friends
empty myself out to the sky
and listen to your Doppler high C
all the way down from the parapet

First published in Owen Wister Review
(Laramie, Wyoming)

Photo by MJV

Gabriella's Voice, Chapter Thirteen: The Last of the Loot

Buy the book at


            Our reunion came in surprising fashion.  The sun had mangled and wrassled its way through our concrete Northwest ceiling for the first time in weeks, and this had given me the inspiration to crowbar my butt off the bed, hop onto Maestro’s creaking Schwinn and horsewhip my winter muscles down the island to the Pegasus.  Even after a twenty-minute forced feeding of cool, light Bainbridge air, however, I remained under the shadow of a dictatorial scowl, and thus was thrown that much further out of my rut when I pushed my way into the Pegasus and found Gabriella’s face at the counter.
            Gabi gave me a satisfied Cheshire-cat smile, like she had been expecting me.  “Billy! Buongiorno!”
            I floated to the counter on hovercraft tennies and reached across the wide marble counter to grab her hand and cover it with kisses.
            “I can’t tell you how good it is to see you,” I said.
            “Yes you can.”
            “Okay.  I’m... I’m...  I’m awfully damned glad to see you, Gabriella.”
            “I’m sorry I couldn’t call you when I got back in town, Billy, but this all happened kind of quickly.  Oh….”  She looked past my shoulder to the door, which had just clanked open with a delivery of seven or eight serious cyclists in seriously bright Italian racing togs.  “Hey, tell me what you’d like, and I’ll take a little break after this rush, okay?”
            “Oh, um, okay.  How ‘bout a macchiato?”
            “Gotcha.  I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
            I eased out to the back patio, where I watched pharmaceutical cotton clouds scudding over the harbor.  I must have slipped into a semi-doze, because I awoke to the feel of Gabriella’s hands on the back of my neck, the first feathers of a massage.
            “Oh, Guglielmo.  I’ve been so worried about you.  I thought of nothing else the whole time I was gone.  I even imagined you sitting in the audience on New Year’s Eve, with that small steady smile of yours, and those precious wide-open eyes, drinking in my notes.” She finished her neckrub and sat down opposite me.  “So here’s the news.  Maestro has decided to take me on as a full-time project, especially now that we’re doing Puccini.  He said, ‘TOSCA... will be your breakthrough, Gabriella.  You are ready now.  You are READY... to be a prima donna.’“
            The transformation to aging Italiano knocked her train of thought right off the rails.  She ran a hand through her hair and seemed to find the next station just past her left ear.  “So... Oh!  So I’m moving in!  I’m moving in to his guest bedroom, at the back, near the sound.  We’re going to be neighbors, Billy!”
            “That’s great!  That’ll save you so much time on the ferry.  But... what are you doing here?  I mean, here at the Pegasus.”
            “Well, thanks to you, dear one, we have such a great relationship with the place, and a few months ago when the owner found out that I was working as a barista in Seattle, she basically made me a standing offer.  When Maestro gave me the invite, then, I didn’t waste any time, and it turns out Barry had lost one of her best workers just last week.  She’s so great, too.  She said just give me your rehearsal and performance schedule, and I’ll work you in around it.  In return, we’re making Thursdays ‘opera night’ – little spontaneous recitals featuring me and whoever else I can drag in here.  She’s bringing in a piano from her house just so we can use it.”
            I had to laugh.  “You mean,” I whispered, “you’re going to reveal your secret identity?”
            Gabriella gave my hand a swat over the tabletop.  “Are you making fun of me?”  Then her eyes drifted off to the high forested hillsides of Eagledale across the harbor.  “Honestly, I think it’s about time I get over that, Billy.  It was all getting a little complicated, me and my little image preservation campaign.  And I wasn’t all that fond of Café Trademark, anyway.  Except for meeting present company there, of course.  And who knows?  Maybe the Pegasus series will be good for some cheap publicity.  But enough of that – how are you, amico mio?”
            The answer to that question seemed entirely too complicated, so I decided to leap-frog the subject.
            “What would you say is the swankiest, snobbiest, most expensive restaurant in Seattle?”
            Gabriella blinked her eyes in thought.  “Well?  Um, I’d say the Palisade.”
            “When would you like me to take you there?”
            “Done.  Steal the best outfit you can from wardrobe, and I’ll pick you up at... Oh.  Where will I pick you up at?”
            “Maestro’s.  The guys are moving me in tomorrow.”
            “Oh.  Do you need help?”
            “No no no.  We have sprightly young tenors and baritones for such things.  Don’t you worry.  Whoops!  Gotta go.  How’s seven o’clock?”
            “Bene.  I’ll meet you at your door.” Gabriella kissed me on the forehead and scurried back into the Pegasus, where a pack of ravenous, power-walking grandmas had just entered, hunting for scones.

* * *

            Instead of waiting for me to come to the main house, Gabriella appeared in my doorway wearing a long black frock coat, a burgundy silk scarf, and a top hat!  (She told me later it had been used by Colline, the philosopher from “La Bohème.”)
            Her first words, oddly enough, were, “What the hell are you doing, Billy?” Having cleaned and suited myself much too early, I had taken up my recent assignment, cutting out the pathways from a large fabric pattern of the Chartres Cathedral’s labyrinth so I could etch it onto Maestro’s central deck.  When Gabriella broke in on me, I was literally covered with it, its twenty-foot-square expanse wrapped around both legs and an arm, like a giant flat squid on the attack.
            “Oh, nothing much,” I said lamely.  “It’s Maestro’s latest thing.”
            “Well, okay, but do you think you could get out of that thing and take me to dinner, gosh-darn-it?  I’m hungry!”
            I let out a mighty harrumph.  “You nineteenth century Frenchmen are so rude!”  I then made a reasonable facsimile of a toreador swipe, thrusting the monstrosity to one side, patted the scissored leavings from my suit, and straightened up to give my monsieur a kiss on the cheek.
            “You look... handsome.”
            “Merci.  I thought it was high time I tried out a trouser role.”
            “C’est bien.  Allons?”
            “Uh... Oui.”
            It took a little while for Escamillo to warm up; compared to last year’s cross-country ramble, these ferry-boat jaunts were barely enough to get his water pump going.  (I imagine also that he was jealous, having sniffed out the scent of that rental minivan on my clothing.) Nonetheless, we hit the ramp at Winslow with magical timing, landing on the auto deck just as they were closing shop.  I followed the flagman’s cheerleading to a starboard spot with an excellent view of the southward sound: the eastward reach of Restoration Point, and Vashon Island in the far distance.  Gabriella felt too Gay Parisienne to expose herself to the passenger deck, so we remained in the car all the way across as she told me of her time in Vancouver.  It was a beautiful city, many times bigger than Seattle and surrounded by grand green mountains.  During her stay she had met a handsome young law student from Calgary.  They went out a number of times – movies, a hockey game, a couple of dinners – and things were proceeding quite nicely until one night when Mr. Alberta had outlined for her his ideal life: a highly domesticated life, as it turned out, composed of kids and pets, charitable dinners and the Sunday New York Times... and a stay-at-home wife.
            “I would usually have dismissed it as a fairly innocuous comment,” she said.  “Except for the fact that we had both been feeling the steady stream of hormones all week long, and had shared some pretty romantic moments – and in fact were about to turn our sails bed-ward, which is not something I give away at every streetcorner, mon ami.  So you see, I think this little performance had some pretty clear intent to it, some direction.  The nerve of that bastard!  What does he think, I just came out of the womb singing Bellini?  That it’s really no big deal?  I’m just using this little opera shtick to catch myself a man, and then it’s off to Niagara Falls and hello laundry room?!  Hello daytime talk shows?!  Hello honey how was your day at the office?!  What horseshit.”
            I had both hands on Escamillo’s steering wheel and imagined I was guiding him over the water to Seattle – a pretty neat little James Bond kind of delusion.  “So,” I said.  “Would it be reasonable for me to assume that this has happened before?”
            Gabriella let out a knife-sharp burst of laughter.  “Hah!  It’s a running theme, pal!  Apparently we opera chicks are big candidates for elbow-dressing in these parts.  If I had a theme song, it would be, ‘Honey, Why Don’t You Give Up La Scala and Come On Home to Me?’”
            “Well,” I chuckled.  “It certainly speeds up the screening process.”
            “You got that right, Bubba.  When F.  Lee Scaly took a restroom time-out, ol’ Gabriella checked herself out of the restaurant and hailed a cab home.”
            “Oh, Gabriella!” I swooned.  “You’re such a diva!”
            Gabriella fetched her top hat from her lap so she could tip it.  “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you so-o-o-o much.”
            I took a left out of the ferry depot and soon found myself heading north on  Alaskan Way, but for some reason thought I was heading south, so I turned off on Broad Street, near the Seattle Center, to get my bearings.  I immediately spied a tourist-trap horse-and-buggy perched at the curb, advertising strolls around town.  Gabriella cultivated a curious expression as I pulled over and parked.
            “Billy, what are you doing?”
            “The Palisade can wait, Oh Abraham.  There’s a stallion ovah yondah with our names on it.”
            The driver was one of those guys who really played the part, having grown a big ol’ mustache and waxed it to turn-of-the-century handlebar splendor to match his pioneer riding clothes.  I asked him if he had a regular loop we could take, and he nodded yes, about a half-hour’s worth, so I held Gabriella’s beaverskin and helped her up.  We tucked our legs under a wool blanket and were soon rough-rolling through town, the driver, the horse and two passengers all letting out vaporous streams of breath.
            We were heading east on Virginia when I spotted a restaurant called Pagliacci’s, and what more of a sign would you need than that? I knocked on the side of the carriage with Gabriella’s walking stick, and shouted for the driver to pull over, then tipped him enormously and helped my diva to the sidewalk.
            Gabriella pulled down on her embroidered vest and smirked.  “Well.  It’s obvious that to-night will be largely improvised.”
            Pagliacci’s turned out to be nowhere near as plush as I’m sure the Palisades would have been, but it had a warm, chatty elegance to it, and gorgeous washes of mango, Tuscan gold and latte-colored paint over the walls.  Gabriella’s outfit made a prime target for the host, a jolly, fat paisano with a big beefy mustache and comic demeanor to match.
            “Oh-hoh!”  He exclaimed with a sweeping bow.  “It is the gentlemen of Verona, out for a night on the town.  I will get for you a table in the corner, from where you may gaze upon all the bellas of Washington.”
            Gabriella missed not a beat, clapping our host chummily on the shoulder and replying, “Thank you, good sir! You are a gent, a mighty gent and true.” She leaned toward his ear and spoke in confidence.  “And please, my good man, if you could do us a great favor, do not reveal our true identities.  Under these fair garments, you see, I am not a nobleman at all but the poorest wretch of a student, Gualtier Maldè! And this being to my left, though he look as manly as any a burly, plaid-coated lumberman of Washington State, he is, in fact, the governor’s dainty daughter, Cleodora!”
            Fully invested in our little skit, our host eyed me studiously and declared.  “Good God, man!  What a brilliant disguise!”
            We eventually wrapped up our routine and were shown to a table next to a column of cappuccino-colored tromp l’oeil marble.  The items on the menu were not near costly enough, but I managed to coax Gabriella into a decently expensive grilled salmon, while I ordered us an appetizer of oyster and mussels in garlic sauce and a bottle of ten-year-old French cabernet, and got myself a bowl of cioppino with lobster that could well have supplied a week-long camping trip.  We finished up with a dessert of amaretto cheesecake and two espressos.  Still, when the bill came around, the total was not nearly high enough.  I waved back our waiter, whose name was also Bill, and picked up the wine list.
            “I’m sorry.  Could we add something?  Ah, here she is.  We’d like two glasses of this tawny Lisbon port.”
            “Certainly,” said Bill, and raised his eyebrows in appreciation.
            When Bill returned with our libations, I found Gabriella honing her award-winning squint.  I hadn’t seen it for months, actually, and it seemed like an old friend, come back to town.
            “You’ve been up to something all night, Guillaume.”
            I gave no answer, but lifted my drink, the color of maple syrup as painted by Monet, and almost as old as I was.
            “It’s all gone, Floria.  It’s all... gone.”
            Gabriella’s smile grew as the lights came on inside.  “Congratulations,” she said.
            We sipped the thick, buttersweet liquid and waited for the bill, which this time came to two hundred sixteen dollars and thirty seven cents.  I left three big portraits of Benjamin Franklin – the final withdrawal from my brother’s account – then we hurried outside to catch a cab to First Hill, where Gabriella would make her return to Café Trademark with style.

Photo by MJV

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Poem: Marcello's Lament



Marcello's Lament

(For Robert Pesich)

"To the ancient Egyptians, these stars (of Orion's Belt) were the resting place of the soul of Osiris, god of the underworld and a symbol of creativity and the continuity of life…"
            --National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky

Starving tenor finds the stone on a
black sand beach covered in driftwood

(If I said the wood was white as bones
I would be giving it away)

He kneels on the sand
where the ocean comes through the rocks
and reaches into the ribs of a burnt-out cello
plowing a pyramid of blackened chars
until he fingers the edges of its mineral heart
and pulls it into the sun

(If I said it was as red as Betelgeuse
I would be lying)

The stone is a jealous stone
it takes away his lovers
takes away his sleep
leaves his pockets thin and sallow

She is
Musetta, the woman you cannot
but if you hold her to your ear
she will sing you bright waltzes
and turn her lollipop eyes at you across the café

But the song and the glance are not enough
so Marcello takes the stone and grinds it up
spreads it across his Sunday salad

(If I said the dressing was Roquefort
I would be saying too much)

The fragments trunkle their way through his veins
and gather at the aorta
pressing northward to make his heart skip
on nights when Artemis neglects her duty
and mountainside lanterns
burst like meteors through the Paris streets

Years after Mimi's last breath
he comes back to the sea to
bare his skin to the inkwell sky
and wait for Orion's Belt to burn him down
leaving a coal as red as Betelgeuse
for the timpani waves to steam away

First published in Eclectic Literary Forum
(Tonawanda, New York)

Photo by MJV

Gabriella's Voice, Chapter Twelve: Wild Turkey

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            We journeyed to the great brick eye of the new Museum of Modern Art, which may not have been the best place to go for “beautiful things,” necessarily – but there were certainly things that intrigued.  Arriving on the third floor, we were greeted with the sight of an infant on the ground, placed at the center of a gold star, surrounded by concentric rings of faceless, coal-black standard poodles – hundreds of them, identical, standing at perfect symmetrical attention, all of them facing directly toward the baby.  Their neutral expressions gave no great hint at whether they were on guard or preparing for attack (contrary to the modern stereotype, standard poodles can be loyal, even fierce, watchdogs).  Gabriella found it a little eerie, but for my part I could not keep my eyes off of it.  After ten minutes of this careful study, Gabriella cried uncle and dragged me off to the permanent collection, where our first sighting was of a huge, gaudy ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, Bubbles.
            Our day and our energies were very short, but a late morning’s sleep the next day inspired us to venture out for a round of Christmas shopping at Union Square.  Along one of the small side alleyways, Gabriella found a little fashion store that specialized in accessories, and was soon waving her arms like Leonard Bernstein over a table of half-priced scarves.  The scarf, of course, is the de rigeur rehearsal-hall item for any serious opera singer – for reasons of function as well as style – so to Gabriella this was the mother lode, the answer to most of her Christmas-shopping needs.  She bought a different scarf for each and every principal from “Figaro,” taking a full hour and a half to carefully weigh such matters as coloring, personal taste, even roles played.  Jersey, for example, was quickly matched with a nautical silk number the exact sun-yellow and royal blue as Cherubino’s first-act waistcoat and trousers.  Joe, who had made no secret that he was dying to play Otello, would soon find himself cloaked in a banner of deep umber, with wild slashes of burnt sienna straight out of Morocco.  As for Maestro, ever the classicist, he was destined to have his neck wrapped in a silver number with embroidered art-deco geometrics of gun-metal gray, with a backside of soft raven-black fabric.
            After she had filled up a large bag with this textilian loot, Gabriella banished me from the store – I suspect because I was her next target.  I went out into the steel-gray overcast and cut the square in a diagonal path to the lobby of the St.  Francis.  I stationed myself in a high-backed armchair upholstered in blue and gold flowers, ordered a martini and listened to an old black pianist playing jazzified renditions of Christmas songs: “Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and, believe it or not, “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?” from Handel’s “Messiah.”  All done with a jaunty swing beat – I’m still not sure how he pulled that off, but he did.
It wasn’t until a half hour later, as I was paying my bill and heading off for the Square, that I recalled my big fat lies to Stephanie two nights before at the Opera House.  I had inadvertently placed myself right in the line of fire, right where I had told her I would be spending the weekend.  Nevertheless, I escaped without incident, met Gabriella at our appointed rendezvous at the ice skating rink, and took her for a dinner of seafood at Pier 39.
            On the ride back to the hotel, Gabriella seemed to recognize the haze of dark memory still gathered around my head like a cumulus baseball cap.  Her eyes brightened, and she suggested we cancel our plane tickets, rent a car and dawdle our way up the coast back to Bainbridge.  At this point, I was agreeable to just about anything, I enjoyed the idea of sea breezes wafting in through the car window, and I also thought it sweet that Gabriella would think of new ways to rid me of my money, even though she was now aware of its evil origin.  So I said yes.
            We started out on a foggy Monday morning, and by the time we reached the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, I could already feel the layers of crust loosening on my skin.  By the time we reached Gualala, on the Sonoma coast, the sun had kicked off its morning blankets of cloud and was giving us a full bath.  We tooled up a lush green detour past hillside fields of cows and sheep, sheep and cows.  Gabriella popped in a CD of Renata Tebaldi’s favorite arias and sang along full blast, creating a kind of stereophonic sound not available in any store, singing “Selva opaca” from “Guglielmo Tell” as we tooled onto the farmland flats in search of Mendocino.  I noticed how the sound of La Tebaldi and La Gabriella were beginning to meld, how her voice was beginning to take on the same buttery breadth and rounded low tones of our favorite Italiana.  I counted myself a lucky ragazzo to be in their presence.  Still, it was going to take something more than great singing to crumble the tectonic plates of my brother’s sins.
            A half hour later, I was wrapping my road-sore fingers around a downhill curve toward Fort Bragg, listening to Sinatra singing “The Summer Wind,” when I spotted a large, brown, rather whale-shaped creature embarking on a low flight just over the road, barely clearing an oncoming sportscar.  Twenty seconds later, as we were passing that identical spot, I glanced to the roadside just in time to catch a blue-green blob heading directly for the side window of our minivan.  The blob hit with a loud thwack! and shook Gabriella from her shallow slumber.
            “What the hell was that?”
            “I’m not positive,” I said.  “But I think we’ve just been hit by a turkey”
            It must have been a glancing blow; a look in the rear-view mirror didn’t reveal any feathered corpses, and a few miles later, when we stopped to inspect our vehicle, we were unable to find any blood, plumage, or even a recognizable point of impact.  We concluded that our fowl flyer had somehow bounced clear of us and continued his way across the road.  (We confirmed our story later with a local bed-and-breakfast proprietor who said there were, indeed, wild turkeys in the area, and that they were, indeed, excessively stupid.)
            In the end, I think there was something about this surprise attack that knocked something loose in my guts, some little tremor of silly haphazard poultry terrorism forcing me to acknowledge that, outside of mathematics, things are not obligated to come to some kind of reasonable solution, that one side of the equal sign does not always come out the same as the other.  Sometimes, for no reason at all, wild turkeys fly into the side of your minivan.
            I also found myself being followed around by writing instruments.  No kidding.  We climbed to the top of a seastack at Patrick’s Point, just north of Eureka, and I found a ball-point pen.  Sitting on a seawall outside the botanical gardens in Charleston, Oregon, I looked down to find a hunter-green pencil etched with merry silver snowmen.  Outside an ice cream parlor in Florence, just beyond the Dunes National Monument, I opened my door to find a fountain pen waiting for me on the asphalt, mapped out in finely drawn portraits of kitty-cats.
            What was all this supposed to mean?  I didn’t know, and I didn’t actually care, but I was thankful for the intrigue, the distraction of details, and the little homeless tubes of ink waiting for my arrival, inviting me to write someone a letter.
            We concluded our second day of driving at Newport, two and a half hours south-southwest of Portland, and in the morning we walked the widest flattest beach I’ve ever encountered, a veritable desert of a beach, a dozen football fields to the water.  We walked until our feet ached, until we hit a ring of rocky tidepools with mussel shells the size of small fans and anemones tight as fists, pockmarked with shellbits, waiting for the next tide to loosen up their flowered innards.

* * *

            I wish I could say that all of these inobvious wonders turned me into some kind of constellation-watching, rock-collecting, flower-naming optimist, but once we returned to Bainbridge I was bound to slip back downhill.  My mother’s story, after all, had been tragic but noble, 100 percent sympathetic, a prime candidate for non-profit grants from the American Catharsis Society.  My brother’s story – that was different.  It was poisonous, and once spoken was bound to set off nasty chemical reactions with Methuselan half-lives.  I was in for the mother of long hauls.
            For one thing, the winter mist had steadily gained weight until it worked its way up to winter rain, dripping unceasingly from the sky for days at a stretch, too warm to produce entertaining snow, too cold to do anyone any damn good.  I stayed in my little cottage and listened to tape after tape of Wagner from the Bainbridge Library; I also tried to read several classic volumes that Maestro had stashed away in his closet – “Walden Pond,” “Bleak House,” “The Brothers Karamazov” – but consistently lost interest at or near the hundredth page.
            The worst of it came in mid-December, when Gabriella left for Vancouver, where she had picked up a gig singing Rosalinda in a New Year’s Eve production of “Die Fledermaus.” Even though it was only a single performance, it was one of the company’s biggest fundraisers, so the singers were obligated to rehearse as if they were presenting a crisply professional month-long run.  I received postcards every two or three days, and on Christmas day I opened her present, a beautiful pair of replica art-deco opera glasses, modeled on a New York design from the thirties.  But nothing could replace her voice.
            I knew what I needed; I needed work.  But the one job I had – those rambling plank walkways just outside my window, crying out for the companionship of hedges – was something I could not possibly undertake in this kind of weather.
            That Thursday night, I arrived at the low tide of my exile.  I had wasted the entire day in an on-again, off-again slumber, aided in no small order by a completely non-descript overcast, dark enough to wipe all sense of time from the sky.   Finally the dark had turned to nighttime, and I was passing the time feeding logs into my woodstove, staring at the smoked-over orange glass with dead, nerveless eyes.  I had just turned on Maestro’s old radio, searching for a broadcast of “Aida” from the Met, when a series of crisp, rhythmic tappings came at the door.  It was the landlord himself – I could make out his long fishhook nose and the sharp, rough outline of his mouth through the criss-cross puzzle of the door’s tiny window.  His very appearance brought a smile to me.
            “Maestro!  Buona sera!  Come in – I have a fine fire for you.”
            “Bene, bene,” said Maestro.  He walked slowly to a rocking chair, measuring each step, left and right and left, and slid himself into it by careful two-inch descents.
            “You will... excuse me,” he said, just above a whisper.  “I have just FINISHED... my last... lesson.  I am very... tired.  It is that RODRIGO.  Always below the note, NEVER... on top.  He thinks he is a JAZZ... singer, he thinks he is SINATRA.  He can creep up from under like he is singing ‘Witchcraft,” and the girls swoon.  He is a NOTE-hunter, he is a Spanish cat, he is a SHARK.  He will be good, however.  This much I know.  His throat has been kissed by God.  That is what... I tell myself.  Oy.”
            Maestro slumped back in his chair, rocked it back a few inches and took a long, gathering breath (you could almost hear him counting off the beats, as he would with one of his students).  Then he passed his eyes over to where I sat, on a stool, next to my woodstove altar.
            “And you, my friend.  How are you? Come stai?”
            I weighed Maestro’s questions in either hand – the Italian question, the English question (they are never quite the same) – and decided it was best for me not to lie.  This was Maestro Umbra, after all, and like Santa he knew things.  He only asked as a matter of etiquette.
            “I am not so well, Maestro.”
            “You miss Gabriella.”
            “Yes.  And there are other things – but I cannot tell you.”
            Maestro blinked slowly.  I could see the wonderful old veins on his eyelids, the inside that comes out with age.  “I understand these things.” He gathered his hands and held his long fingers pad-to-pad under his chin.  “Gabriella is your angel, is she not?”
            I picked up a section of birch from the woodpile – quarter-rest slashes of black on startling chalk-white bark – and drew it into my lap like a small child.  “My angel, my muse, my siren.  I cannot seem to find a single mythological figure to encompass her, Professore.  How would I put this?  I am a man who is constructed of Swiss cheese; I started out just fine, but as I matured there came certain agents, certain yeasts and bacteria, that caused me to form great gaping holes.  Gabriella’s voice – and Gabriella herself – she helped fill them in.  Not completely – I’m afraid nothing could do that – but she makes them smaller, she enables me to walk around like a facsimile of a real human being, and most of all, she gives me something to believe in.”
            Maestro nodded slowly, so slowly that I could separate the ups from the downs.  I cranked open the woodstove and settled my birch baby over the coals, watching the white bark take flame.  When I turned back Maestro had shut his eyelids, but the pressure of my attention brought them back up.
            “I know for a FACT... that Gabriella is an angel,” he said.  “BECAUSE... because... she wanted to cancel... her opera, this ‘Fledermaus,’ so that she might stay with you.  You have opened up an old wound for her sake, she said, and it will not heal... quickly.  And I will tell you this, Guglielmo:  this ‘Fledermaus,’ it will make Gabriella MUCH more money than she makes at the café, or at the State Ferry Opera, and it is a good company, a good contact.  THAT... is how much she cares for you.  But ME... I don’t care for you quite so much.  Because I tell Gabriella NO... you cannot go back on your word to the company – that will TAINT... your reputation, and I... will not allow that to happen.  But you go, I tell her, and I... will keep an eye on your friend.”
            His hand flared up in a sweep worthy of a Mozart overture.
“SO.  Here I am, and I have a story for you.  Gabriella tells me you saw Licia Albanese in San Francisco.”
            “Yes.  We did.”
            “Good!  I will tell you a story about Albanese.  In Italia, you see, opera singers... they are like Olympic gymnasts.  We find them at a very young age, and we bring them UP... in the art.  That is why they are so good.  That is also why, in AMERICA... you have great baseball players, no?”
            “I know this, because this summer I see a game of Little League.  Very impressive.  Well.  ALBANESE... was apprenticed to a small touring company, and by the age of SEVENTEEN... she had learned four or five major roles.  Not PERFORMED them, you see, but she knew them.  Now.  She was on tour with this company, watching the older singers perform, studying the way they move, and they sing, and one night, in Parma, I think, she was in the audience, watching BUTTERFLY... by my teacher, Puccini.  After the second act, the teacher of Albanese... he comes to her, and he says, LICIA... the soprano has fallen ill, and YOU... will sing the third act.  So, ALBANESE goes backstage, puts on the costume, and she sings the third act.  BEAU-tifully!  One of the TOUGHEST... acts in all of opera.  But you know this.  And that was the first time she sang a role, EVER.  It eventually became her signature role – she sang it hundreds of times.  But she is so PETITE, you see, and her dark features, and light voice – she is the perfect Cio-Cio-San.  Now... let me see your palate.”
            “Your palate, Guglielmo.  Open your mouth wide, like the dentist, and tilt your head back.”
            What could I do?  I did what I was told, and Maestro made a careful study, leaning forward in his chair to get just the right angle (though I couldn’t tell for certain, as I was staring at the ceiling).
            “Ah, you see, this I know, I know this.  Gabriella, she tells me you are not a singer, but I can tell, the way you talk – and your palate.  You have a tenor’s palate, nice, high, even palate.  And this much more – you have a singer’s soul.  You are made of Swiss cheese; this is what I hear.  And you love the opera, no?”
            “The opera is my church.”
            “Bene!  Bene.  You should come to me for a lesson.  I will MAKE you a singer.  I will BRING... you a voice.”
            “Perhaps I will,” I said, as I unlatched the stove and gave the coals a punch with the poker, for no good reason.  “But tell me, Maestro.  That story about Albanese.  No offense, but...  was there a point to that story?”
            Maestro’s eyes flashed in the firelight and he gave me his stage smile, the lips drawn away from his gums like an oversize sweater.
            “Some stories have a point, Billy.  SOME... are for entertainment.  THAT story – entertainment.  But you take from it what you will.  NOW... I have a job for you, because I KNOW... you need a job.  I would like for you to make something.”
            He reached into the inside pocket of his tan corduroy jacket and handed me a fold of papers.  On one of them was an intricate circular design, broad lines like a plate of fettuccine, looping back and back on themselves until they came to a small, clover-shaped clearing at the center.
            “I know that you will make a labyrinth... with hedges, in the spring.  But now, I would like you to work on this.  It is from the famous cathedral, the Chartres, in France.  It is for meditation, for the spirit.  It is for my singers, when they come for lessons, to take them out of the world, into the music – and for after, when I have worn them out, perhaps made them angry.  I do that sometimes.  Here.  I will give you this.  The REST... it is up to you.  Let me know anything else you will need.”
            I traced the path of Maestro’s strands with my fingers, then looked at him and smiled.  “Thank you, Maestro.  Grazie.  I will start right away.”

Photo by MJV