I was thinking about musical performances I love and how they might have inspired—or at least have some connection to—my poems. It’s a little hard to explain, since music (like poetry) is a mysterious phenomenon, but it seems that the musicians I most admire are the ones who “speak” to me, and I mean this more literally than it might sound. It seems to me that the greatest musicians—not only singers but also conductors and instrumental soloists—are the artists who actually inject their performances, their “phrasing,” with the inflections of speech. My pantheon includes the pianist Arthur Schnabel, the violinist Joseph Szigeti, cellist Pablo Casals, oboist Leon Goossens, and even a conductor who is usually not associated with “dramatic” music-making, Pierre Boulez. A singer like Maria Callas or, from an even older generation, soprano Maggie Teyte, even while they’re singing, also sound as if they’re talking. I think this is what people mean when they refer to the importance Callas gives to words. One of my favorite examples of this quality is a 1936 recording by Maggie Teyte, from her album of Debussy songs accompanied by the French pianist Alfred Cortot, who shares her quality of “speaking” the notes: Debussy’s setting of Verlaine’s bitterly ironic “Colloque Sentimental” (“Sentimental Dialogue”). Two lovers, or their ghosts, are walking together in a desolate park. One asks the other if his (or her—there is nothing to identify gender) heart beats faster at thoughts of their past love, or if he (or she) still sees the other in dreams. Verlaine’s couplet ends with a most unsentimental and abrupt “No.” In Teyte’s recording this sung-but-spoken moment is bone-chilling. So many of my poems include someone speaking. My first book, These People, was made up almost entirely of monologues and dialogues. For some years I had seriously wanted to become an actor. When I think about my life, all these predilections, personal and artistic, seem to fit together.
Why should I remember now? More than 20 years . . . The Paris
Opéra! My first trip to Europe.
In the next box: Gisela Brüning and her handsome
blond son. Had she sensed how lonely I was—
or just how uncomfortable, craning
from the back of my box to see the stage?
“. . . Maybe you would like to join us?”
They helped me over the partition (an usherette
outside, on guard against people
sneaking in where they didn’t belong).
Her English was good; her son’s
better . . . He’d have been 16—small for his age,
with a tense, serious look on his pale,
baby face; I was 24 . . .
“From Hamburg, we are.
My husband stays at home.”
(They resisted my attempt at German: I was
their opportunity to practice English.)
Even from the Brünings’ front-row seats, the opera was
hard to see. Roméo et Juliette—
never heard of. The soprano, “mature” for
Juliet, wore a hip-length blond wig.
(At least she could sing the famous Waltz.)
Our discussions animated the intermissions. Past midnight,
lingering near the Metro, we eventually
decided to meet next day. Gisela
wanted Holger to see Chartres—
so we went to Chartres.
* * *
They embarrassed me, and I was embarrassed
for them, these cultivated travelers turned
shouting to each other from
opposite ends of the vaulted nave: f-stops and
light-meters; which film; what scene to shoot.
(One photo they’d send—a chapel with
burning candles—came out rather well.)
“It is good to remember such scenes,” Gisela said.
* * *
We corresponded. Each air-letter had a motherly
postscript: concerts they’d heard;
museums she’d taken Holger to.
And the same invitation: Wouldn’t I
please visit? There was a bed for me. Plenty
to eat. Operas. Museums.
Hamburg was a
great city: so very many fine things to do—
please do not refuse.
* * *
The following summer, I planned a trip to Greece—and a week
with the Brünings. (They’d have loved to come
with me: Gisela wanted Holger to see Greece.)
* * *
Would I mind? Holger had written they were
vegetarians. And sure enough:
sunflower seeds and
raisins for breakfast; sunflower-seed-and-
raisin sandwiches for lunch. Bowls of
seeds and raisins on the table all day long.
In the War, Gisela and her husband were forced to eat
stray cats (if they were lucky to find any)—
she could never eat meat again.
Herr Brüning was much older than his attractive,
avuncular (more Dutch than German?); happy to be
so thoughtfully taken care of; “courtly.”
And proud of his only son’s accomplishments: first oboe
in his high school band (though too
shy to practice at home).
* * *
Gisela took us to the museum. She loved
the German expressionists—recognized
where all this luxury of color
could lead, but loved the danger
too, the brinksmanship.
Holger followed where she led, debating light meters
and floor-plans (how to get “There” from “Here”).
Gisela hardly minded contradiction from such a clever
boy who knew his own mind (even if she was never
completely convinced he was correct)—
they argued like sparrows.
* * *
We went to the opera. One night,
Rigoletto: arias in Italian, choruses in German;
once, Benjamin Britten’s Ein Sommernachtstraum—
a midsummer night’s dream of a production (all lights
and shadows); its sublime quartet
of awakening lovers . . .
* * *
She took us to the red-light district. Young men, she said,
should know about such things (and it was
Hamburg’s most famous attraction).
Olive-drab military barriers guarded each end of one
rows of narrow houses
with wide, open windows; buxom women leaning down
and out in gaudy peasant blouses (low-cut
elastic bodices digging into fleshy chests);
crowds of men cruising, stopping to inspect, to
We nudged and giggled, but Gisela was serious. She
approved of this system. Men, she said,
need to be relieved of their tensions.
And at least
these women were forced to stay clean.
Holger’s outspoken, enlightened mother made him blush.
* * *
They took me to meet Holger’s English teacher (his favorite).
Distinguished, dapper, his suit meticulously
pressed—he pressed my hand, pressed
me to return . . .
But Gisela had every minute planned:
so many interesting things for a visitor to do.
* * *
One excursion took us to Lübeck: Bach’s church; Thomas Mann’s
bathing cabinets, bikinis, and naked
children frolicking in the grey Baltic.
Was this the field trip I have the photo from? Holger in
lederhosen, I in my brown English raincoat;
a deserted grassy ridge.
We’re perched on a bench,
sitting on our crossed legs, eating—like tramps
out of Beckett. (Gisela must have taken this picture;
I’d forgotten she was there.)
* * *
Once, the Brünings had company: three or four
stylishly-dressed women—old friends.
There would never have been a war, they were
still complaining, if it wasn’t for the Jews . . .
Gisela never commented on this visit.
* * *
Once before I left she asked what was my
favorite food: she would make, she
insisted, anything I liked.
I was dying for
Was it thirty years since Gisela had prepared a steak?
She must have cooked it over an hour (like
I ate every leathery bite, while
the Brünings munched their healthy legumes.
* * *
Gisela packed me a lunch for the train: bread and
sweet-butter, raisins, fresh eggs.
We shook hands warmly (she had a vigorous
handshake: a tight squeeze, then two brisk pumps).
When I later cracked open an egg, it was
still soft (Gisela!), the entire compartment
laughing themselves to tears at my eggy
* * *
Holger’s letters began to arrive at
ever-widening intervals. He’d formed his
own wind ensemble (photo included); was studying
harder than ever at school.
The last one had bad news.
Gisela had bought a car, and taught him to drive.
They were touring; there was an accident (he
his mother had been killed.
* * *
I can’t remember the house.
I see a big, old-fashioned kitchen: on the table, bowls of
raisins and sunflower seeds. In a cramped bedroom, Holger
sleeping soundly in the next bed,
just out of reach . . .
In one dream, I’m locked in an opera box—everyone
singing a different language. Or I’m all
in the red-light district . . .
Gisela trying to placate her reddish frizz; brushing
the cornsilk strands out of Holger’s eyes (his narrow,
Herr Brüning at the breakfast table:
his pipe in his left hand—his contented,
There’s no car. Every day we walk to the station, on our way
to a museum—Gisela preparing us for the morning’s
her arms are exclamation points; her
voice shrills with excitement . . .
But the street is blank. The house is a blank.
Why can’t I picture what it looked like? Why should this
particular gap in my
memory disturb me so?
—Lloyd Schwartz (from Goodnight, Gracie,
University of Chicago Press)
HE TELLS HIS MOTHER WHAT HE’S WORKING ON
I’m writing a poem about you.
You are? What’s it about?
It’s the story about your childhood, the horses in the river.
The ones that nearly drowned? . . . I saved them.
You told it to me just a few weeks ago.
I should dig up more of my memories.
I wish you would.
Like when I lived on the farm and one of the girls fell
down the well?
I forget if it was Rose or Pauline–it was a deep well.
I remember that story.
Have you finished your poem?
I’m still working on it.
You mean you’re correcting it, with commas and semi-colons?
When can I see it?
As soon as it’s finished.
Is it an epic?
It’s not that long.
No, I mean all my thoughts, the flashes of what’s going
through my life, the whole family history . . . living
through the woe, the river and the water.
Will it be published?
I have to finish it first.
It’s better to write about real life, that’s more important
than writing something fanciful.
I try to write all my poems about real life.
You see, the apple never falls far from the tree.
I guess not.
You’re my apple.
There’s probably a worm crawling through that apple.
Then it’s got something sweet to chew on.
Well, you’re my tree.
Yes, I’m your tree—you’re an apple, I’m a tree.
—Lloyd Schwartz (from Cairo Traffic, University of Chicago Press)
Every October it becomes important, no, necessary
to see the leaves turning, to be surrounded
by leaves turning; it’s not just the symbolism,
to confront in the death of the year your death,
one blazing farewell appearance, though the irony
isn’t lost on you that nature is most seductive
when it’s about to die, flaunting the dazzle of its
incipient exit, an ending that at least so far
the effects of human progress (pollution, acid rain)
have not yet frightened you enough to make you believe
is real; that is, you know this ending is a deception
because of course nature is always renewing itself—
the trees don’t die, they just pretend,
go out in style, and return in style: a new style.
Is it deliberate how far they make you go
especially if you live in the city to get far
enough away from home to see not just trees
but only trees? The boring highways, roadsigns, high
speeds, 10-axle trucks passing you as if they were
in an even greater hurry than you to look at leaves:
so you drive in terror for literal hours and it looks
like rain, or snow, but it’s probably just clouds
(too cloudy to see any color?) and you wonder,
given the poverty of your memory, which road had the
most color last year, but it doesn’t matter since
you’re probably too late anyway, or too early—
whichever road you take will be the wrong one
and you’ve probably come all this way for nothing.
You’ll be driving along depressed when suddenly
a cloud will move and the sun will muscle through
and ignite the hills. It may not last. Probably
won’t last. But for a moment the whole world
comes to. Wakes up. Proves it lives. It lives—
red, yellow, orange, brown, russet, ocher, vermilion,
gold. Flame and rust. Flame and rust, the permutations
of burning. You’re on fire. Your eyes are on fire.
It won’t last, you don’t want it to last. You
can’t stand any more. But you don’t want it to stop.
It’s what you’ve come for. It’s what you’ll
come back for. It won’t stay with you, but you’ll
remember that it felt like nothing else you’ve felt
or something you’ve felt that also didn’t last.
—Lloyd Schwartz (from Goodnight, Gracie)
NOSTALGIA (THE LAKE AT NIGHT)
The black water.
Lights dotting the entire perimeter.
Their shaky reflections.
The dark tree line.
The plap-plapping of water around the pier.
The creaking pier.
Voices in conversation, in discussion– two men, adults–serious inflections (the words themselves just out of reach).
A rusty screen-door spring, then the door swinging shut.
Footsteps on a porch, the scrape of a wooden chair.
Footsteps shuffling through sand, animated youthful voices (how many?—-distinct, disappearing.
A sudden guffaw; some giggles; a woman’s—no, a young girl’s—sarcastic reply; someone’s assertion; a high-pitched male cackle.
Somewhere else a child laughing.
Tires whirring along a pavement . . . not stopping . . . receding.
Shadows from passing headlights.
A cat’s eyes caughtin a headlight.
Connect-the-dot constellations filling the black sky– the ladle of the Big Dipper not quite directly overhead.
The radio tower across the lake, signalling.
Muffled quacking near the shore; a frog belching; crickets, cicadas, katydids, etc.– their relentless sexual messages.
A sudden gust of wind.
Branches brushing against each other–pine, beech.
A fiberglass hull tapping against the dock.
A sudden chill.
The smell of smoke, woodstove fires.
A light going out.
A dog barking; then more barking from another part of the lake.
A burst of quiet laughter.
Someone in the distance calling someone too loud.
Steps on a creaking porch.
A screen-door spring, the door banging shut.
Another light going out (you must have just undressed for bed).
My bare feet on the splintery pier turning away from the water.
(from Cairo Traffic, University of Chicago Press)
WHO’S ON FIRST?
“You can be so inconsiderate.” “You are too sensitive.”
“Then why don’t you take my feelings into consideration?”
weren’t so sensitive, it wouldn’t matter.”
“You seem to care about me only when you want me to do
something for you.”
“You do too much for people.”
“I thought you were going home because you were too tired to go with me to a bar.”
“I was. But Norman didn’t want to come here alone.”
“I’m awfully tired. Do you mind taking the subway home?”
“You could stay over . . .”
“I’ll take you home.”
“Why do we have sex only when you want to?”
“Because you want to have sex all the time.”
“Relationships work when two people equally desire to give to each
“Relationships rarely work.”
“Do you love me?”
“Of course–; but I resent it.”
“Why aren’t you more affectionate?”
“Couldn’t we ever speak to each other without irony?”
“I love you, you know.”
“Yes . . . but why?”
“Do you resent my advice?”
“Yes. Especially because you’re usually right.”
“Why do you like these paintings?”
“What isn’t there is more important than what is.”
“Your taste sometimes seems strange to me.”
“I’m a Philistine.”
“A real Philistine would never admit it.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Aren’t you interested in what I care about?”
“Yes. But not now.”
“We should be more open with each other.”
“Shall we talk things over?”
“What is there to say?”
“Are you ever going to cut down on your smoking?”
“It’s all right—I don’t inhale.”
“Sometimes I get very annoyed with you.”
“The world is annoying.”
“Your cynicism is too easy.”
“Words interfere with the expression
of complex realities.”
“Do you enjoy suffering?”
“You can’t work if you don’t suffer.”
“But we suffer anyway.”
“Do you think we ever learn anything?”
“I’ve learned to
“You’re always so negative.”
“I feel death all the time.”
“Are you afraid of anything?”
“What shall we do for dinner?”
“It doesn’t matter-whatever you’d like.”
“Why don’t you care more?”
Lloyd Schwartz was born on November 29, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Queens College of the City University of New York in 1962 and earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1976.
Schwartz’s most recent book of poetry is Cairo Traffic (University of Chicago Press, 2000), which was preceded byGoodnight, Gracie (1992) and These People (1981). He is also the co-editor of a volume of Elizabeth Bishop’s collected works for the Library of America.
His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and The Best American Poetry. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
Schwartz has taught at Boston State College, Queens College, and Harvard University, and is currently Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He is also the Classical Music Editor of The Boston Phoenix and a regular commentator on NPR’s Fresh Air.
These People (Wesleyan UP)
Goodnight, Gracie, (Chicago UP)
Cairo Traffic, (Chicago UP)