Peter Hughes: Berlioz (Part 6)


a young woman in white lay dead
in diagonal evening light
that sloped down through
the towering space of the Duomo
Santa Maria del Fiore
the young bride had died at noon
the priest hurried through the business
the body was trundled to a chapel of rest
for a final night above ground
in the vertiginous candlelight
the professionals mumbled
that which is mumbled
& slopped as much wet wax
about as they decently could
to be harvested immediately
by raggamuffins & then reused
at the expense of the next
family to be mugged by grief & loss
I stood in moving shadows
at the entrance to the resting place
& was invited in by a local
with his hand held out
I followed him in to the
otherwise deserted space
where he lifted her head
with its black hair & sad smile
& intolerable beauty: È bella
he grinned while letting her head
thump back down on the table


the echo of the thud
seemed absolute profanity
I froze like a statue of brutality
then melted & knelt
with her dead hand against my mouth
my guide still grinning
my heart imagined a young husband
suddenly appearing & misunderstanding
this gothic tableau
perhaps he would have deserved it
where was he how could he be elsewhere
& I dreamt goodbye to her
in Italian
forgive the strange intimacy
these stranger's tears on the pale
hand of death that can't take love
or my religion the arc of art
I left for another world


In Milan I went to the opera
but the whole audience was eating
drinking chatting picking each other up
playing cards & facing the wrong way
so I couldn't hear a note of Donizetti
music for the Italians seems to be
yet another kind of olive oil
something nice to drizzle on your
elevenses or whatever else is due
to be licked or inserted
in the next half hour
a tickle on the cymbal
a grope on the cello
a pounding in the background
on the big bass drum
it's all too voluptuous
& Italian for we French


all roads lead away from Rome
one way or another & I went home
a good six months early
I moved into Harriet's old flat
only to find she'd been back
& was still in Paris
as I prepared for my concert
she was back on the Paris stage in Shakespeare
that was no longer this month's flavour
slowly sucked downwards by debt
her spirits fell then so did she
she suffered a double fracture
& married me


one benefit concert featured
both Liszt & Chopin yet still
the cave of debt stayed dark
she brought her list of creditors
& I my anger
& the gristly business
of concert planning & self-promotion
we were ground together like
black & white pepper
I conducted & felt
a yawning chasm behind
which echoed nothing
but my pulse knocking


the micro-politics of the petty minded
almost showed the road to ruin
but you tunnel forwards like a mole
till one night the hall explodes
with praise & light
& Paganini pumping your arm
insisting on a commission

a work for orchestra & viola
to be played by the master himself


I decided the viola
would be me walking
through Abruzzo
like the lines of Byron
treading on through
mists & frustration
hangover longing
mind diseased with
its own beauty &
jagged aspirations
& yearning to cast off
definitively           still
I began to call in
notes from all over
the memory of being
borne upon that landscape
I allowed them to settle
above the magnet of
my heart let these describe
the indescribable


Paganini already dying
gave me a year's pay for nothing
so I could compose
for seven months I lived in
Romeo & Juliet to give back
what I could to Shakespeare
Paganini & Harriet
I hear it now
the introduction & adagio
Queen Mab
the haunted voice of Friar Laurence
'tis an ill cook that cannot
lick his own finger
if much of what you've made or done
doesn't move you deeply
it may be time to change your life


Spontini once told me
after hearing my Requiem
you know you are wrong
to moan about Rome
without Michaelangelo's
Last Judgement
you never could have
imagined your Requiem
actually the picture
disappointed me
I saw all the torments &
paraphernalia of hell
but nothing that could
help me see
humanity assembled
for one final bow

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