Five Poems from Little-Known Operas

Patrick Donnelly

A poem sequence about Maria Callas

Maria Callas Went to Hamburg

In 1959 when Maria Callas went to Hamburg her hair
was still neoclassical. In the film she emerges at 0 minutes:
7 seconds, silk legs the clapper of an underwater bell.

But the moment I need to tell about is at 42:30, prelude
of the Pirata aria, when resting her left hand
on the conductor’s cage, head down eyes closed, cloistered,
thirty seconds forty fifty, she doesn’t know us, we are nowhere and no one,
descending figure, strings distressed, dissonant, trembling, swelling,

(remember Mom in the ’60s? her door closed sometimes till noon—)

Crackup at 14:36

—the trouble starts at “woe to him” (Lady Macbeth, letter scene),
    “who sets uncertain foot, and then retreats”—

—on “retreats” her mouth starts square, G, A, B, high CEEEEEE—

—then spreads, the C thins, curdles, acidic—

—but to me it’s less important that she cracks
    the high C—yes, she does, she did, 1959, moment 14:36—

—than what her face did, her hands—

—eyes widen/narrow/widen wider while she tries to save the note—

—after it splinters, all gone, went wrong so fast—

—her right hand apologizes—out from the breast, back, saying—

—well, I tried—I practiced for 22 years, for instance—

—so for a moment, (ten measures, horn, trumpet, trombone, strings)
    how about we shut our eyes and smile to ourselves—

—then, side-eye to the conductor—not your fault—moving on:

    “come on, hurry, I want to burn that cold heart of yours.”

YouTube: Broadcast Yourself

Go ahead, keep clicking around,
one of these days you’ll find yourself

in the little swamp of blame
where people post the Black Pearls,

Perle Nere, fiasco, immortal voices cracking,
the singing kite plunging, tangling, bursting into flame,

drunk slurrings
and stumblings,

forgot where they were
or what they were supposed to do.

Room after room of the peoples
abusing the peoples.

The peoples studied singing themselves!—they know better,
they had piano lessons and have perfect pitch!

The sacred art in fatal declining.
Give us back Ponselle, Melchior, Flagstad!

No wonder the poor cow had to steady herself on the rail,
apparently a sore throat, downed a glass of castor oil LOL

Rysanek couldn’t find the right pitch with a GPS
Is this Aida a hyena?

Poor Renée—she tries, twice, to hit the high E,
and fails, twice.

Poor Katia, poor Natalie, poor José, Franco.
Poor Monsterfat Cowbelly.

Poor Roberto, booed, shaking his fist, leaving the stage—
plain unprofessional in my book dont be a sensitive bitch—

understudy thrust forward—
a nobody tenor in street clothes that looks like Bigfoot.

Poor Luciano, live Spirito gentile in ’74—fine, really,
better than fine, a whole culture, a century, of legato,

except, yes, that one strangled C—
                                                             and a captured chuckle
from some guy near the mike.

You, reader, listener, maker. If you think intention
is everything, go ahead,

try to make something good. Try to forget
that happy laugh.

Long Muteness at 46:12

Then, after hiding, Callas opened her eyes
and raised in profile
her pointy chin, one of her mad scenes,

but where’s her voice?
I’m just a baby in a mud house in a mountain town,
so I can’t help much. Maybe

Mom will take me to the opera,
pull on her black Dior with the plunging back,
ask me to sponge Max Factor over her scars.

Those little white moons.
At 44:06 her face had one hope, at 44:16 it flowed out
through her eyes. But where’s her voice?

Her perfume was My Sin, her ’50s console full
of opera from Dick Aspinwall, sometime afternoon guy
who asked did I want a knuckle sandwich. I know now

that when I’m nine I’ll sing soprano,
Act One altar boy in Tosca, Trouble in Butterfly,
Marie’s kid at the end of Wozzeck on his stick horse,

hop-hop! hop-hop! and I’ll shake Stravinsky’s hand.
I can’t help this either,
but Dad might have worried less

about queers in the theater and more
about the afternoons he was away.
At 46:12 I’m still three so I won’t hear it

for another 55 years, when finally
is it day or night, am I alive or buried
she opens her mouth.

Envoi: Callas and My Mother Say Good-bye

I
After whoever filched her urn
From its niche in the columbarium

Then—sleepy? bored?—set it down
(I’m making up this part now) on

Christmas Day on the Path of the Dragon,
It was Vasso decided on the Aegean.

The sea being the one place
Where when you put something,
You always know where it is.

A windy day, her ashes
Blew back in their faces,

Their mouths.

II
Following me,
Watching, listening,
Writing this, you can’t save me.

Out the window I’ll sleepwalk
Again over the rickety
Mill race.

I’ll wake up
(It’s in my music)
Again on the divan of some man

Not your father. And again
I’ll cross the Alps
On just

My exhaled breath

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter