Well I don’t know about you but I love the Great Caruso. Today is his birthday. The greatest Italian tenor of all would today be one hundred and forty eight years old were he still among us. And he is of course since he was the first operatic star to make gramophone records. He sang into a cardboard horn and the force of his breath pushed a stylus which carved his voice into acetate grooves. How lucky we are to have him with us still.
I was a kid when I fell in love with a Victrola in my grandmother’s attic. It was summer. Kids were playing ball. And there I was with a wind up gramophone with a metal horn. Blind kid alone with an old fashioned record player at the top of a Victorian house. I fell under the spell of that machine. It worked perfectly and there were dozens of records featuring the great Enrico Caruso. You have to picture me, five years old, more than a little lonely, and then stunned to hear such a voice under the eaves. I’ve loved Caruso all my life and yet, even now, sixty years later, hearing him pulls me back to my provincial first opera house.
As a child the poet W. H. Auden loved machines, especially mining equipment, so much so his parents thought he’d grow up to be an engineer. With poets it’s the engines beneath the skullcap, those marvels those devices which are unseen in the outer world. And so for me it was the Victrola that signaled a recursive, shadowy, inner life.
There were lots of artifacts in that attic. A raccoon coat, a sea captain’s chest, a cracked boudoir mirror, cane chairs that were eaten through, dusty books, a sewing machine, oddments of all kinds, tools I couldn’t identify. I explored with my hands while the great tenor sang of vengeance or a broken heart.
Think about your private opera. I was lonesome as a cricket. I was in love with a strange singer.. Best of all I’d no one to tell.
I still hear the needle hitting the record. The sound of hay scratching hay.
In my case poetry has always been a kind of forsakenness. The solitude glitters. Do you know this feeling? Rain runs down the window and you press your forehead there. You see you need nothing.
D. H. Lawrence wrote: “It’s no good trying to get rid of your own aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your own aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.”
Yes there are moments when the fire warms and the inn is open. Family and lovers; neighbors, strangers well met—a trusty dog. Behind this scrim is the solitude. It was me. It was the voice of a tenor singing in the dark.