Nell'ora del dolore perché, perché, Signore, perché me ne rimuneri così?
(Tosca, Giacomo Puccini, 1900)
Language has been on my mind recently. It always is, humming and thrumming and tinkling away in swirls of cadences and vowel sounds, ready for me to pluck out the correct ones, the expected ones, and pin them neatly on strings of clauses like freshly scrubbed washing, drying in the breeze. But recently, for one reason or another, I’ve found myself picking away at the words, dissecting them, like the bird in the Emily Dickinson poem: ‘Split the lark - and you’ll find the music’ she says, arranging her feathers in overlapping rhythms and the frail bird bones in connecting dashes. Words, written down, have always been how I best communicate with people - when speaking aloud, I often stumble and stammer over the simplest phrases, overcome with the immediacy of composing something comprehensible, the feathers stick in my throat, dry and itchy.
I much prefer writing it down. I can scrape away words and redraw them and find the best possible way to express how I feel in as much time as I need. I envied poets and story writers and essayists for as long as I could remember - they had honed their tongue down to a fine, sleek instrument, silver and glistening, and the sentences gleaned off majestically in trills and grace notes, with such seeming effortlessness it made me prickle. I read; if I could read, the words would then come surely, I’d win their friendship the more time I spent with them, their affection, their respect. But then I’d read something so cold and strange I wouldn’t know how to befriend it; take this paragraph from Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star:
Words are sounds transfused with unequal shadows that intersect, stalactites, lace, transfigured organ music. I hardly dare shout out words at this vibrant and rich, morbid and dark web which has its counter tone in the thick bass of pain. Allegro con brio.
How do you begin to parse such a sentence? I sat down from the book, opened Spotify on my laptop, and played Mozart’s Symphony No. 5 in G Minor. The Allegro con brio. The taut, grandiose strings slid over Lispector’s words as I reread them as if the music would unlock something about the words, make them bristle with emotion even, emotions that I could empathise with. What did Lispector mean? How could I attempt to reach her, to understand her, when the words were composed with such stark, spectral, mute beauty? I closed the book, as the symphony trembled into the Andate con moto. I never really understood classical music either. There were no words. And if there were, they were usually in Italian.
Often when I walk to work, I’ll try listening to Vivaldi, or Schumann, or Stravinsky, as if aligning the rhythm of my body to the music will amalgamate the harmonies to my critical understanding, reveal their pure meaning to my brain, in emotions predictable and pedestrian as my feet hitting the pavement one after the other. The meaning still felt obscure though, no matter how many times I relistened to the same piece over and over. After graduating from university, and working to pay for a postgraduate, as my friends make their way into the world of work, this failure to find some kind of singular and performative meaning in things began to frustrate me to irrational levels. My life, my early twenties; I had to discover the meaning of it as soon as I could - there would be no opportunity to rewind, relisten, rediscover, I felt.
Having studied English Literature, I had been trained to split many larks, and arrange their small, lumpy organs neatly and surgically, like a lepidopterist who pins and names entrails instead of butterfly wings. I had been very good at arguing the cruciality of the lungs’ importance compared to the heart within the context of the ribcage, or why the throat of the lark that sang its mellifluous music was in fact a postmodern construction, a trachea ridged with Julia Kristeva and Eve Sedgewick. I had squashed many larks under the base of my wrist in my career so far. And now I wondered why, as I tried to pick up some light summer reading, instead of the easy and absorbing experience I expected, I was faced with a fistful of bloody feathers, snapped beaks, and crunched feet. The books opened their paper wings and flew away from me. It had been months, and I still couldn’t make one stay long enough to coax its song out. I hadn’t managed to finish a book in many weeks.
The Amen of Rossini’s Stabat Mater boomed in my ears as I made my way to the bookshop. Poetry was the answer, not fiction. Lines so slender and heavy with meaning, like a branch laden with waxy summer fruit. A bite into the skin of some sonnets would cure me of this strange reading slump, revitalise something gone hard and cold inside of me. I left the shop with a thick hardback bumping against my hip in the canvas bag I slung over my shoulder: 100 Queer Poems, edited by Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan.
I had been drawn to the anthology above my other options (a collection of Yeats and yet another translation of Dante) as I had reflected on whether it might help coax something else out of me besides an ability to read again; two birds with one stone. Queerness was something I had accepted as an intrinsic part of my identity for some time now, and yet it was something I had difficulty expressing in my person, let alone in words. The terminology, the discourses, the opinion pieces, and Twitter threads I consumed to justify the validity of my own identity had made me feel like my Queerness was something awkward and uncomfortable, like a lumpy knitted jumper twisted around my shoulders. What should have been the source of joy and, yes, affection, had shrunk instead of blossomed over the years to something resembling the stone of a fruit rather than the flesh, something small and difficult.
My identity was theoretical, intellectual property instead of something I could experience with any kind of bodily or emotional value. In lieu of fulfilling Queer experiences, I suppose, I had turned, as many do, too long words and long conversations to prove to society I still deserved the lexicon of Queerness. Queerness: a word I didn’t know how it could apply to me, or what it meant, but in theory, it should. It should. Picking apart the ribcage of a Queer poem, (100 of them!) would surely provide the answer to both my lack of literary feeling and the opaqueness of my identity simultaneously. It had to; what else, after all, had I built myself up from if not from the heavy materials of words?
By page 32 I took a breath. Padriag Regan’s ‘Aubade with a Half Lemon on the Summer Solstice,’ its compact rectangle cutting a fairy window in the page, made me consider my real intentions with the book whose wings I was gripping in increasing anxiety. ‘The / open half of a lemon had / been weeping into the grain of / the table.’ Maybe the lemon was meant to be gay. It’s a sad gay lemon and the table is society. Maybe the truth of my whole identity was half a sad gay lemon. I was a fruit (oh my God). I finished the poem pondering this citrusy revelation; ‘I squeeze / out what’s left of the juice / & a paper cut I didn’t / know I had begins to sing / Puccini’s Vissi d’Arte.’ I opened my laptop as I had done with Lispector, preparing to listen to Puccini’s Tosca, the opera from which Regan’s soprano aria comes. Was Puccini gay, maybe? Let me open Wikipedia. Padriag Regan, whom I also searched up, was beautiful, elegant, intellectual looking (and Irish!), and who also wrote other wonderful poems which I pursued with a sweet appetite. Oh no, Puccini wasn’t gay. Apologies to Elvira Puccini. Where might I find a translation of Vissi d’Arte then - would that provide something conclusive for me? Oh but of course, an Aubade is a morning love song, a poem written about lovers separating at dawn, I thought, finally finding a decent translation. My degree put me in good stead, in some regards anyway.
As I read through the translation of the aria, it wasn’t what I suspected. Floria Tosca, lamenting on how God has abandoned her in her hour of need, with the threat to her love, Mario Cavaradossi, sings:
I lived for art, I lived for love, I never harmed a living soul! With a discreet hand I relieved all misfortunes I encountered.
In this hour of grief, why, why Lord, why you reward me thus?
To split - the lemon was split, like the skin of the speaker, like the lovers at dawn… and out of this comes Puccini, comes pain written as art. Was that it? And reward? Could that be right? Rewarded with pain, with suffering? Was that the price of love, of Queerness, of poetry? Was Regan’s poem, an unutterably beautiful rendering of dawn, God’s reward for the pain of the morning separation of its subject? I considered the lemony lungs, the sour broken wings I prodded about the page with my pen, like a child reluctant to finish a meal. I realised I had done it again - I had split the lemon, split the lark, and now its juices were stinging my skin, the flesh I had opened up to discover its meaning. I thought of Puccini, Floria Tosca, Napoleon and Italy, and God’s reward of suffering. Of the accumulation of human experience and history and tradition that had grown, tart and bright, on the stalk of this one poem. And then I went back to read the poem again.
It was too beautiful to dissect like this. Like some kind of strange revelation, I came to understand the severe, rich, impossibly yellow rind of a freshly picked lemon on a summer's dawn, the wounding aroma of the juice as it ran down an arm seasoned with sand. Of a lover. Would I take down the sun from the lover’s dawn, just to find meaning in the night, the blackness and obscurity? Finding meaning in art, in suffering, in myself, in Queerness, in poetry, was something futile, but perhaps not in the way the word was designed to signify. In short, feeling, emotion, and the reaction of the gut and lungs to life, was where meaning in art truly lay - not in parsing and tearing apart yourself and what the self creates to find the pip of truth.
We act as if the truth of art was intentionally buried away by an artist, and discovering it through complex procedural performances, opinion pieces, and Twitter threads, and academic papers, is the only way to find it again. Could it simply be, that the way Mozart or Beethoven or Puccini makes me feel, the weight the arpeggios lift of off my feet as I walk, or the way Lispector or Regan’s words glide over my skin like the beams of the sun at full height, is the true value of its composition? To make me alive to my skin, my intrinsic ephemerality, the realisation that I’ll only have these words and music once, fleetingly, to lie with, before departing? And wasn’t life too feeble, too fleeting to catch with my hands, to split myself into anxieties about my naturally incomprehensible identity? Was the truth of my Queerness not how I acted upon it, but it itself, the primary feelings and emotions that made me alive to it in the first place? Isn’t finding meaning in things, after all, not simply art in itself?
I shut the book and left it to perch on my bookshelf, shaking its feathers in the late afternoon sun. Now, do you doubt that your bird was true?