Poetry / David Kirby
:: Big Meal with Gioachino Rossini ::
I tell my students not to use words like Beauty and Truth because, first, nobody will know what you mean and, second, nobody cares—they’d much rather go on a picnic with somebody and try to make out with them or roast a chicken or have their oil changed and tires rotated than sit around and worry about whether or not such actions are beautiful or true. Yet when I am in Florence, whereas most people hurry to the tomb of Michelangelo in the church of Santa Croce or gather in front of the monument to Galileo there, I always bend a knee before the sepulcher of Gioachino Rossini and think, beauty! Where would we be without The Barber of Seville and William Tell? Why, there’d hardly be any popular culture at all, no Daffy Duck or Tom and Jerry cartoons or Lone Ranger, all thanks to this jolly fat man who composed so beautifully. Or jolly-seeming, I should say: who knows what joy lurks in a man’s heart, fat or not, and the same goes for the heart of a woman, though to comment on a woman’s size is something no man would ever do, or at least no gentleman. As for truth, there are two ways to look at it. Think of that James Bond movie in which James Bond is trapped in a hall of mirrors and thus faced with multiple images of the villain, so that it is only when he shatters all the mirrors that he sees his enemy in the flesh, suggesting that we, too, are surrounded by distractions which we must eliminate in order to get at the truth, which is imminently getatable. Then there is the school that says no, truth is a rabbit in a briar patch, that when you reach in and try seize it by the neck, you put your hand on the spot where it used to or will be but isn’t. So which metaphor do you like, the hall of mirrors one or the rabbit in the briar patch? Wrong question, since it assumes that truth can only be expressed in words, whereas the truth that springs from Rossini’s music is no less true for being inarticulatable any more than a beautiful dinner is less so for being anything other than itself. Gioachino Rossini, how I would love to sit down to table with you. Let’s start with some antipasti misti, then on to the pasta course: ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach for you, and for me, fettucine with ragù. Now for the hard part, which is fish or meat? Okay, meat: we’ll have fish next time. One of us should get the veal chop and the other the veal cutlet. It doesn’t matter to me, either; let’s just get both and decide when the plates arrive, though we’re also going to need some side dishes, a plate of fried zucchini flowers, maybe, and artichokes sauteed with garlic and parsley. Okay, and now to the essential: what shall we drink? Brunello, Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Sagrantino—why, the very names sound like your lyrics! You like Haydn, don’t you? Of course you like Haydn, probably for the same reason Keats did. Keats said that Haydn was like a child, “for there is no knowing what he will do next.” May we not say the same of your Figaro? “Everyone asks for me, everyone wants me,” Figaro sings, “women, children, old people, young ones,” and no wonder: “I am the luckiest, it’s the truth! Ready for anything, / night and day / I’m always on the move.” That’s the way, isn’t it? Moving from one thing to another, no matter how big or small the thing, how long or short the journey. Look, the antipasti! Often you were left in the care of your aging grandmother, who had difficulty supervising you, so while your father played his horn and your mother sang, you were left in the care of a butcher and later apprenticed to a blacksmith—no wonder you’re at home in the heart of the ordinary people, of a barber, say, or a serving girl. This chop is bigger than that cutlet, and I want you to have it. No, no, I insist. I’m putting my foot down, Rossini! Pass the vegetables, please. “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing,” you say, “and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time.” Ha, ha! Strong passions, Gioachino, strong passions! You say, “Give me a laundry-list, and I’ll set it to music.” How about a cheese course? Oh, that’s right: you’re the one who says ice cream, always. Sempre gelato: if every politician had that as his or her campaign slogan, they’d all get elected, and then where would we be? And if you can make a sonata or a cantata or an étude or a scherzo out of a laundry list, think what you could do with this beautiful dinner we’re having! I’m glad the restaurant is playing Bellini and Donizetti tonight. I bet you’d feel silly if we were listening to The Lady of the Lake or Cinderella. But I just want to say that when I listen to those works on my own, I feel more in touch with the times in which they were composed yet closer to something that’s bigger than this world, that’s infinite, even, that dishes up more love, compassion, excitement, gentleness, more good of every kind than I have already. Music doesn’t teach us anything; it teaches us everything. Yes, yes, it’s late, but do let’s take a digestivo, a grappa or Sambuca or both. It can’t hurt— well, it can, but who cares? Tomorrow we’ll wake up with information and sore heads.
:: My Crappy Saint ::
Try not to be dissatisfied with organized religion, reader. It works for the people who believe in it, and it offers many satisfactions to those who don’t. Take me: at the little church on the top of the hill in Fiesole, a brother of the Franciscan order is just coming off his shift at a perpetual prayer vigil and pauses when he sees me and smiles, so I ask him why he and the others pray all night. That’s when the devil’s out, he says. Good answer, yes? How I loved the Church as a boy: the Latin mass, the incense, the guilt, the certainty that my enemies would roast in hell, the statuary and stained-glass windows. You can imagine how excited I was when I came across a calendar of saints, one for each day, though the saint for my birthday was not Michael or George or Gabriel with a sword and shield or at least a trumpet but Saturninus, whose unpronounceable name just looked dumb to a 12-year-old eager for hunky male role models who stopped wild animals in their tracks, parted seas, brought the dead back to life. All Saturninus did was piss off a bunch of pagan priests in Toulouse because they stopped receiving messages from their gods whenever he was in the neighborhood, so they subjected him to “a great variety of indignities,” according to the old chronicles, and had him dragged by a wild bull until dead. The chronicles also say he went by the name of Cernín, Sadurní, Sadurninho, Sarnin, Satordi, Saturdi, Saturnin, Saturnino, Serenín, Sernin, and Zernin, as though the old chroniclers themselves didn’t know how to pronounce a word that sounds more like an adenoid condition than a name. You say Saturninus, I say gesundheit. But I wasn’t mad at you, Saint Saturninus; it’s just that I wanted a marquee-name saint: John the Baptist, say, or Thomas Becket, or at least one with a cool name, like Leo the Great. Then there’s Joseph Moscati, Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Bernard Scammacca . . . why do so many saints sound like mafiosi? A really cool saint would be Saint Margaret of Cortona, patron of homeless people, midwives, single women, people who are tempted sexually and who are mentally ill (not the same group, but think about it), people ridiculed for their piety, and tertiaries. What are tertiaries? A tertiary is composed of lay members of a religious order, that is, men and women who do not live in a monastery or convent but who wear the habit and participate in the practices of that order. Everybody wants to belong to a club, to the Catholic Church, say, or the mafia. I belong to the biggest club ever, ex-Catholics. Most of us are good people, I bet, or at least interesting ones. We should get together and find out. The young Franciscan who tells me they pray at night because that’s when the devil’s out also says the rates are cheaper then, and when I ask what he means by that, he says it’s like long-distance calling: everybody prays during the day, so at night, there’s less traffic. During the day, he says, students pray for good grades, women pray for grandchildren . . . at night, it’s just us.
From the writer
:: Account ::
In the fall and spring, I give pretty much all of my spare time to my students, so the summer is when I really get the writing done. This summer especially was productive in ways I hadn’t imagined. Barbara and I rented an apartment in Florence for three weeks, and the first day there, the poems started gushing out like water from a fire hydrant. Italian culture alone gives you a lot to think about, and when you add the Catholic Church on top of that, it’s as though the world is writing the poems and I am its secretary. We’d have our coffee in the morning, go out and look at art, come back for lunch and a nap, and then write well into the evening; since Italians eat later than we do over here, we’d go out at 8:30 or 9:00 and “eat like priests,” as the Italians say. I was raised Catholic but let it go when I discovered science and girls, yet I still love the architecture of the great cathedrals, the mental rigor of orders like the Jesuits, the compassion that so many nuns and lay people show when they care for those the rest of us have forgotten. These days, poetry is my religion.
David Kirby’s collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. Kirby is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” His forthcoming LSU collection is Get Up, Please. For more information, see www.davidkirby.com.