I waited on the tarmac. It was Spring, 1972 in Memphis, Tennessee and I was awaiting the arrival of my girlfriend at the airport. She was coming in from New York City; I had driven from the St. Louis area and we were to meet for an enjoyable weekend of performances by the Metropolitan Opera on its then-annual Spring Tour. This was during my Hippy days, and I looked the part. As I waited, I was surprised to see a man emerge, a man not yet nationally famous, but instantly recognizable to me. As our eyes met, I said in Italian, “Mr. Pavarotti, welcome to Memphis.”
The tenor descended laughing, then said “You are my welcoming committee?” We chatted amiably for a few minutes. Suddenly, a large group of people approached Pavarotti, apologizing for being late to welcome him. He summoned enough English to say “Here is my welcoming committee”, or words to that effect, indicating me. It should be noted that in later years his English improved considerably. The well-dressed opera patrons eyed the disgraceful Hippy with amazement, then swept their star away. My girlfriend came out and everything began to proceed according to plan. Such was my first meeting with the man who would become one of the three most famous opera singers of the 20th Century, along with Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas, both of whom lacked the mass media advantages that Pavarotti enjoyed. Future meetings proved equally unexpected.
The second one was several years later at the Kennedy Center. By then the Hippy appearance had been discarded and I was working my way up the ladder there; I was in the Box Office for the Opera House. Pavarotti’s name had by then become a household word and he was to appear in four performances at the Opera House during the Met’s still-active tour. One day, during a very slow part of the day, those of us at the windows were astonished to see Pavarotti approaching us with a big, friendly smile. As if it were necessary, he introduced himself. He then told us he was singing the four performances and encouraged us to come to see him. He proceeded to go all around the entrance level of the building and did the same with the people at the souvenir stands, the ushers, with anyone he saw who worked there. In all my years at Kennedy Center, he was the only star to do such a thing and it made quite an impression. Several employees who had never seen an opera went to see him as a result of his efforts as goodwill ambassador. I of course needed no encouragement, having previously gotten tickets for his Un Ballo In Maschera and L’Elisir D’Amore performances. It was becoming clear that I was never to have what might be described as a normal meeting with this man. Little did I know how odd the next, and last one would be.
The vocal pinnacle of Pavarotti’s voice was from the late ’60’s through the mid-70’s. Nearing the end of the ’70’s, the easy lyrical brilliance of his tone had begun to harden slightly as he entered his ’40’s and took on heavier roles. In any case, Pavarotti’s voice type is often at its best in a tenor’s younger years. While the tenor continued to sing very well, those of us who had heard him at his absolute best noticed the difference. I was somewhat alarmed to hear that Pavarotti had decided to take on the role of Manrico in Il Trovatore, hardly a role he was born to sing. However, when he began to perform Manrico at the Met, I went to hear the result, not without trepidation. As far as Pavarotti was concerned, I got what I expected: a still fine tenor voice singing music not really appropriate to it. The rest of the experience could hardly have been predicted.
I found myself next to an elderly gentleman who, from the sound of his “Bravo!”, was Italian. During the first intermission, I spoke to him in Italian, asking him if he were from Italy. He responded as predicted and then asked me what I thought of the tenor. When I simply responded that Pavarotti was one of the best tenors in the world, he said “One of the best? He’s the best. He’s my son.” Such was the passion of his response that I felt it best to simply agree with him. I learned that he was from Modena, a town I had once spent a considerable amount of time in and we discussed that. He revealed that he had come from Modena particularly to hear his son’s Manrico and was staying for several performances. In those days, the Met had 3 intermissions for a 4-act opera and we spent each one in conversation. By chance I was on the list for admittance backstage after the performance, as was, of course, the elder Pavarotti.
At the end of the performance, we duly went backstage to the area near the star dressing rooms. The tenor saluted his father affectionately and Pavarotti, Sr. introduced me as “Gregorio”. I told Pavarotti of our first meeting and he told me he recalled it, though I was doubtful. I excused myself and said hello to a couple of singers and staff members I knew, then bade farewell to both Pavarotti’s, as it seemed best not to intrude. As I walked away, I reflected on the unusual nature of all three meetings with Pavarotti. Though I was to hear him sing many more times, our paths did not cross again. Through those years, I often thought of Caruso and Callas, wondering what level of fame they would have achieved in the media age. Had they been contemporaries, would Pavarotti’s fame have matched or even exceeded theirs? A provocative question to be forever unanswered. For his 21st Century fans, Pavarotti’s preeminence will likely remain undisputed.
Darkness and Light
This reflection began with the death of a friend, Kerry Davis, with whom I used to play basketball. First this happened:
My dear friend Charlie, who told me about the funeral, had everything wrong. He was there waiting for me at the station in Lugano …We take the small train to Caslano where he says we can view the body at 14h30…Charlie has recently had a knee operation and can barely walk…We limp the mile from Caslano station to the church…No Kerry Davis in sight…Another funeral has ended…Charlie shows some casket chauffeurs in front of the church the info on his iPhone where he has a picture of the death announcement…(they actually remember Charlie, Kerry, and I from our playing and coaching days)…Kerry is not in Caslano, but in Lugano where he can be viewed at 16h30, but the funeral is the next day at 9h…We walk the mile back and take the train and bus to where Kerry is supposed to be in Lugano (the viewing spot is 100 meters from “La Gerra” where the Lugano basketball team used to play)…I leave Charlie in a café and go see if Kerry is there. There are 5 doors with names on them. I put on my glasses. Kerry is there…I look around…It’s 16h…No one looks at me…I try the door…It opens. I enter heaven. Kerry and I have a moment together just like old times though he is resting in peace (the expression seems appropriate). However his 1m98 body barely fits in the box. His shiny coffee-black skin makes him look very healthy and I keep thinking he will open an eye, wink, say something, wiggle, etc. – you know, share a moment with me about a couple of our great memories together, maybe even tell me how he died. I say without thinking, “Kerry, I love you to death.” He doesn’t wake up… I go fetch Charlie at the café. It’s 16h30 and he is charging his phone and having coffee. I have a quick Irish beer and then take him over to see Kerry. An old basketball person who speaks only Italian is there. For fifteen minutes he talks with Charlie (he coached in Lugano for three years and speaks decent Italian) about his own bout with cancer. I ask if he knows how Kerry died. He doesn’t know – just says it was “subito”. At least I think that’s what he says. I walk around the casket a few times. I can’t see the scar on Kerry’s forehead where he had hit his head on the basket forty years before. Oh could he jump with those thighs of elastic steel. I touch his hand and we go back outside. Both are cold…As we walk to the bus to the station, Charlie says he doesn’t like that kind of stuff.
We get on the same train at 17h42. He gets off in Lucerne…I come in the house at 22h30. Both other occupants are up, one in front of the tv and the other in front of her iPhone. I ask them how their day was. Answers are brief and neither questions me about anything. I go to bed…
I send this to friend Chris in California. She answers saying: those are very powerful moments alone with the dead. did you feel something missing? spirit? life force? a hollowing out? when i was alone with pam’s dead son, i couldn’t stop touching his hair…, but something indefinable wasn’t there.”
I answer: i’m tempted to say something is always missing…but the dead seem to be missing all but the flesh that will soon rot away…o life
Her reply: all animals the same…a hollowing out when the time comes…where does that energy go? where does the light go when i turn off the switch?
My answer: imagine all the suns – stars – out there in space and yet still most of space is black, bleak, lightless. there is definitely much much more of the universe in the dark than in the light, probably 99.9 %…can the same be said for mankind? if so, where are the human lights, the ones that really glow on their own, not from the lights of cameras, stages, and spotlights?
And so I began to reflect on darkness and light, life and death, and humans that might be lights unto themselves, humans that actually give off light as opposed to humans that walk in the light of cameras, stages, and spotlights, i.e. humans who are suns themselves as opposed to humans that bask in the light of the stars and suns.
Who creates her or his own light? Who lives in the light created by other sources?
There are suns and stars all over the universe that are attached to nothing and exude light of unimaginable proportions. Our sun can reach temperatures of 15 million degrees Celsius. We are 93,000,000 miles away, but the sun keeps us warm. It is that strong, that hot, that much of a force. What are we, we who grovel for a few decades on the earth? Are there any sources of light among us?
Our sun is not even one of the bigger suns in the universe. Just in our own Milky Way galaxy (wouldn’t “Milky Way” be a wonderful name for a shopping mall?) there are stars that are thought to be 1,500 times bigger than our sun.
But we should not compare ourselves to things so far away. What good does it do? Oh yes, it can help to give us a perspective on things…But what things should we really have a perspective about? Ourselves? Others? Our nations? Our values?…Our thoughts?…Our beliefs?…Our truths?…Our time alive and dead?
What is the goal of “having a perspective”? Might it be that only one who can step back can shine out? Only one separate from the block of humanity can one shine on humanity?
Ask yourself, “Am I a source of light?”… “Do I simply live off the light of the sun and others?”… “Do I absorb light or do I give it off?”
Now let us ask, “What is truly enlightening?” Other than suns, fire, and electric lights, what gives off light? When you are in a dark place with other human beings or animals, which creatures will make the place feel darker and which ones will make it feel lighter?
When I stood next to my friend Kerry’s coffin, it did feel as though he was giving off light. He had always been a source of pleasure when we played together and when I coached him. We never argued or fought. If we won, we had a few pleasant beers together. If we lost we had a few pleasant beers together. He never bitched or complained about life. It is true that he stuttered and because of this was not a man who said much, except after a few of those pleasant beers.
When we were in Rome together in 1978 celebrating the end of a season, we invited a couple of women to our hotel. We had had a few grandpas during the day and we bought a bottle of whiskey for when the “girls” came. They finally showed up around 21h. It became evident that we were not two matches made in heaven when one of the girls said she was a couple months pregnant and another said she had some female problem with her reproductive apparatus. After they left around 23h, Kerry and I drank most of the bottle of whiskey. We laughed and joked to where he fell headfirst between the two beds and couldn’t get up. I remember standing on a bed and pulling his massive body up by his skinny ankles.
But O my God those thighs weren’t skinny. Oh no! They were made of elastic steel.
Even dead, Kerry was light.
Yesterday we celebrated a niece’s birthday. Today our celebration is of the more somber bookend. I wanted to share three thoughts and a few lines of verse—all of which I dedicate to our elder sister:
SUZANNE ELIZABETH GARDNER
We live our lives between the past and the future. Our thought is usually of the one or the other—such thought, along with everything else, takes place in the present. When the past and the future collide, there is nothing to ponder between them—the present has dissolved into what I call a God-moment—the place between birth and death where a life has been gathered in the mind of God.
The second thought is more pedestrian. From an early age we are made and become well aware of the calendar day that marks our birth—our birthday. Significantly Less thought is given to another calendar day, no less significant but rarely conjured in wakeful consciousness. Suzann Elizabeth—the lovely daughter of our memory discovered that fateful day three weeks ago, today. As her birthday will forever remain April 10, 1942–her death-day will forever remain March 3, 2014. So I submit that when we appraise the days of the year—when we note anyone of its familiar 365—that we remember that anyone one of them might be that day the when our past and futures collide—and if we find that any particular day is not that given day then it is given to us to rejoice in the day that it is and rejoice in the day that it’s not. Whitman is instructive:
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave let him know he has enough.
The third thought concerns the immortality of the written word. In finitude, immortality is, of course, an illusion—words and the books that they contain will one day perish along with all and any of the other products of time. But for the interim they give the impression of longevity—like the God-moment they are sandwiched between two covers—a present moment flowing down a page gathered between a beginning and an end. At the end of a book I finished writing yesterday—I had a melancholy moment. I realized this was a book that Suzanne would never read—and I further reflected that until yesterday that I been too busy living my own life to think very often of hers— so I found myself adding something simple, something suggestive of that melancholy, to the book’s final page–so now that she is gone and the book to press– I think I am destined to contemplate her life more often than I would have otherwise supposed. But before the finitude of that conclusion—the promised lines of verse. The lines are, again, as you might imagine (in this place of endless lawns) from Walt Whitman—They are taken from the beginning and the end of Song of Myself—they bookend his take on life and death as he contemplates a single spear of summer grass:
I celebrate and sing myself
And what I shall assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
A child said what is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it must be the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt.
Bearing the owner’s name in the corner that we may see and remark, and say whose?
And now it seems the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
The scud of (this) day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds
I coaxes me to the vapor and dust.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift (away) in lacy jags,
I bequeath myself to the grass I love,
If you want me look for me under your boot-soles,
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you never the less,
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Suzanne awaits me and any others at the end of the book I finished writing yesterday. It quotes Whitman yet once again:
I that was visible am now invisible.
And concludes opposite his line with the collision of a beginning and an end gathering a past and future forever fixed in the mind of God:
Susanne Elizabeth Gardner
“I Accept full responsibility, without exception, without excuse… ” Tony Blair (regarding the Chilcot Inquiry).
Neither Mr. Blair nor Mr. Bush can apologize for the mayhem and death of the modern Levant dropping through the neocon-rabbit hole of a supposed rapid dominance that neither shocked, awed or dominated . The pair is joined at the hip as malevolent Tweedle Dees and Tweedle Dums of an abject moral failure. Afghanistan and Iraq are our longest running theaters of war.
Redemption is only possible if the unforgiveable concludes–if the descent descends no more–if the full measure of the debacle is accessed and bitterly acknowledged.
Harold Pinter’s War was a response to the inaugural Iraqi Wars of the 21st century:
It is the dead of night.
The long dead look out towards
The new dead
Walking towards them
There is a soft heartbeat
As the dead embrace
Those who are long dead
Walking towards them
They cry and they kiss
As they meet again
For the first and last time
Harold Pinter’s Meeting opens a slim volume comprising twelve of his poems. The collection is called War. With the exception of one piece, the poems were published in a variety of periodicals, chronologically from August 2002 to March 2003. They are produced, along with a speech given at the University of Turin , by the publishing house of Faber and Faber.
War is a scream in the night that echoes down corridors of silence. Pinter rages with the futility of a latter day prophet who knows that God is not only dead, but more frightfully, that he is an American who is deaf, as well:
And all the dead air is alive
With the smell of America ‘s God.
Several of the poems are obscene, as befits their subject:
The big pricks are out
They’ll fuck everything in sight.
Perhaps only Bertrand Russell, an English pacifist from early in the 20th century, has fulminated as furiously as the English Pinter does here, early in the 21st.
“… the U.S. administration is a bloodthirsty wild animal.”
One feels in the next breath that Pinter might apologize to bloodthirsty wild animals for making the unseemly comparison.
In the Meeting, half of the poem’s twelve lines contain the word “dead.” There are the long dead and the new dead. The “long dead” is history. We are the “new dead” or, in the least, shall shortly be. Pinter’s anger is directed at a world that has no patience for that inevitability.
His recent brush with mortality has eroded his patience further. He won’t let the horror of 9/11 excuse a doctrine that exploits that tragedy to further its own ends. From his speech at the University of Turin :
“The hypocrisy behind its public declarations and its own actions is almost a joke. America believes that the 3,000 deaths in New York are the only deaths that count, the only deaths that matter. They are American deaths. Other deaths are unreal, abstract, of no consequence… The atrocity in New York was predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of America over many years, in all parts of the world. “
Camus famously said, “At any street corner the feeling of the absurd can strike any man in the face.” Pinter asserts such feeling is not restricted to America ‘s latest belligerence or the 9/11 disasters, which preceded it. T.S. Eliot would agree:
Jerusalem , Athens , Alexandria ,
Vienna , London
Playwright, Donald Freed extends the poet’s list:
“From his earliest writings until his latest plays and poetry, the theme — explicit or implied, verbal or suggested in silences — has never swerved: human beings are so utterly vulnerable, so contingent on powers without pity, so scandalously naked to the techno-chemical fury of the Twentieth Century, that those who have a voice and a language must use it to create the record — by word in combination with unspeakable silence — of Buchenwald, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Chile, and Nicaragua.”
The record of word, and the substance of silence is profoundly at work in his plays and so also here. Of silence Pinter once wrote:
“There are two silences — one when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear… When true silence falls we are still left with the echo but are near nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”
Out of his anger flows a torrent of jeremiads. America is the new Babylon . Invasions are word games disguised by the appellations Freedom and Shield.
From the end of American Football:
We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew their balls into shards of dust.
Into shards of fucking dust.
We did it.
Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.
The reader will note that the date of the poem corresponds with the end of the first Gulf War. It could just as easily be read to signify the end of the second. In either it is clear the wining is a dubious endeavor. As William Faulkner observed, “… victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
The war goes on whether under the oppression of a dictator or under the pale of the American occupation. In either instance Americans and Iraqis die during the passage of each succeeding week. If a bomb blows off your arms it matters little to which side the ordinance belonged. The liberators are now subject to the same depleted uranium they used in their own weaponry. The weapons of mass destruction are our own. How many of the thousands of remaining troops will add their names to the thousands whose blood we left pooling in the desert?
There is a poignant loneliness to death in Pinter’s poems. Faulkner was right “…Christ was not crucified, he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels.” George Bernard Shaw was right. Death is not cumulative. There is only one death and it is our own.
The final poem of the collection is the only one not dated. In it he shows us our future — a bureaucratic voice makes formal inquiries of a deceased’s remains. From the first and last stanzas of Death —
Where was the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?
Did you wash the dead body?
Did you close both its eyes?
Did you bury the body?
Did you leave it abandoned?
Did you kiss the dead body?
The final silence of “Did you kiss the dead body?” is the heartbreaking obverse of the angered irony of the earlier “kiss,” quoted above. When we remember that the first poem of the collection, Meeting, closes with, “They cry and they kiss / As they meet again / For the first and last time,” we hear the faint echo of Rilke. We remember Elegies that sought language where languages end. We sense that Pinter’s rage is book-ended by his humanity.
Those who do not condemn the atrocities wrought in their name are condemned in turn. Pinter’s outrage was the most humane voice to arise from the Iraqi Wars. These poems are an unsettling commentary on the American and British enterprise. Jeremiah knew that Babylon was at the gate. He knew Jerusalem would fall and his people would call him traitor. Victory, defeat, and a prophet’s silence — Pinter wrote Weather Forecast as the first bombs fell:
The day will get off to a cloudy start
It will be quite chilly
But as the day progresses
The sun will come out.
And the Afternoon will be dry and warm.
In the evening the moon will shine
And be quite bright.
There will be, it has to be said,
A brisk wind
But it will die out by midnight .
Nothing further will happen.
This is the last forecast.
19th March 2003
Echoes fall through time as well as space. Jon Ferguson wrote a collection of aphorisms he entitled: So Like Flowers…
This petal was called The History of Knowledge:
“How old are you?” a little girl asked the world. “I don’t know,” the world answered. Her older brother heard the conservation and butted in. “What do you mean you don’t know how old you are! You’re 13,000,000,000 years old!” “What makes you so sure?” the world said. “My science teacher told me.” “And do you believe him?” the world asked. “Of course I do. He’s my teacher.” “Before your teacher, other teachers had very different answers,” the world said calmly. “They were all wrong,” the boy said. “How can you be sure your teacher is right?” The boy became red in the face and angry. His little sister laughed. The boy hit her. She cried. The father came into the room and wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
It is perhaps an echo that falls upon our ears from a 19th century poem by Walt Whitman:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns, before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams , to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astromomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars,