When I was five years old I discovered a Victrola in my grandmother’s attic. It was August and the neighborhood kids were playing ball and there I was with a wind up gramophone. Blind child alone at the top of a Victorian house with an ancient record player.
I fell wildly in love with that machine. It worked perfectly and there were dozens of records featuring the great Enrico Caruso. You have to picture me—so small and stunned to hear such a voice under a sloping roof. Even today, sixty years later hearing Caruso pulls me back to that provincial first opera house.
As a boy 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 what matters are the engines beneath the skull, those marvels unseen in the outer world. For me it was the Victrola—it 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 eaten through, dusty books, a sewing machine, oddments of all kinds and tools I couldn’t identify. I explored with my hands while the great tenor sang of vengeance or a broken heart.
In my case poetry has always been about forsakenness. The solitude glitters. Rain runs down the window and you press your forehead there. You discover you need nothing.
I still hear the needle hitting the record. That sound of hay scratching hay.
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.”
Ah the voice of a tenor singing in the dark in Laconia, New Hampshire, 1960
The times were plain. Some children knew the names of birds. My favorite was the White Throated Sparrow who we called the Peabody Bird. His song could break your heart. The Wood Thrush was also a heart breaker and lying face down in the woods he’d get inside you. He’d get inside us because we were playing dead. This was in the final days before television. We played dead and listened to bird songs.
So a blind kid with a victrola falls in love with a great Italian tenor. I see now it makes sense: a disabled child was transported by a dusty machine that brought back alive a dead man’s voice.
And wasn’t Laconia, New Hampshire the perfect town?
A ruined place.
The disused railway station where they stored dead Coke machines.
New York Times, 8 December 1906:
“The real sensation at the Metropolitan Opera House last night was the appearance as a spectator of Signor Caruso, sans moustache. When the tenor entered the foyer after the first act, accompanied by Signor Scotti, he was not recognized, but when the story spread the foyer quickly filled, with persons eager to see him. Seemingly unmindful of the commotion he had created, he continued to walk up and down the corridor.
“It’s on account of Puccini’s opera, Manon Lescaut,” he explained. “The chevalier is a youth and a mustache would not be congruous.”
The comments in the boxes and foyer were animated.
“Have you seen Caruso?”
“Do you think he looks better than he did?”
“What did he do it for?”
“Can he sing without it?”
The public will be in suspense about the last question until next Wednesday night, when the tenor makes his next appearance.”
Upton Sinclair publishes “The Jungle.”
The great San Francisco earthquake which Caruso survives.
Theodore Roosevelt creates national parks.
Harry K. Thaw shoots Stanford White high above Madison Square Garden.
Lon Chaney Jr. is born.
The brand name “Victrola” is introduced by the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, NJ.
Enrico Caruso issued approximately 240 records, 78 rpm disks, each recorded while the tenor sang into a paper horn. His recordings became the gold standard for a new, sophisticated popular culture in the years before radio. Until the mid twenties the Victrola was the best selling and most sought after entertainment device around the world.
My grandfather was dead about eight years when I found his record machine. He’d been among the earliest manufacturers of motor cars and motorcycles in the US. So yes the man loved contraptions. I’ve no evidence that he particularly loved opera. But that’s the thing: in 1906 Caruso was “The Beatles.” Everyone had to own his records. One could hear Puccini emanating from the lowliest farmhouse.
And 1960 was the year I thought there was a man inside the window. He was frosted like the glass and more than once I knew he was the one doing the talking.
Then I’d climb to the attic.
The Victrola sang from its great, crackling heart.
And my own heart raced, both running and returning.