Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Poem I Can't Write

There is a poem I’d like to write. I’ve worked on it for over a year, an eternity for the lazy writer I am. What happened feels like a poem—eternal, lyric, pointed—but it never comes out right. Too sentimental, then too distant, too “poetical,” not poetic enough. Maybe it’s destined for prose; beyond my capabilities as a poet to render. So here it is:

Once upon a time, I went to my little sister’s voice lesson. She is a soprano and had been studying for over a year with her new teacher, a handsome Costa Rican tenor called Luis. I had not heard her sing during the same year. My mother told me that I would not recognize her voice, that it had matured significantly from 14 to 15. I went, of course. When I was younger and it was just my brother and me, my parents insisted that we attend each other’s activities. I spent a lot of time at Denny Storm’s Memorial Baseball Park during sweltering summers, and shagging balls in the high August grass, from which I emerged, covered in welts from chiggers and mosquitoes. My brother spent more time than he would have liked at my high school theater and wherever my piano recitals happened. He wiggled, but he went.

My sister sang “The Vilja Song” from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow. It is sung by the female lead and tells the story of a hunter who falls in love with a vilja (veel-ya), an Hungarian wood nymph or witch.

[Here’s a clip of Mrs. Zeani, the teacher of my sister’s current teacher, singing it. Start around 3:20’. Her version is a little slower than usual.]

Just in case you didn’t listen: the first line of the song climbs up pleasant intervals, reaching its highest point on the “wal” (“vahl”) syllable of “Vilja, o Vilja, Du Waldmägdelein,” after which it descends in the same pleasant intervals. It’s not a particularly high note for an operatic soprano (not a “money note,” as Luis called them) but it soars after the closed sound of “du.”

So I am sitting on a comfortable couch in Luis’s living room. My mom is sitting in Luis’s comfortable chair. Luis is at the grand piano and my sister is standing to the side, in front of a music stand holding her music. As soon as she begins, I see what my mom meant. Her voice is older, bigger, rounder, cleaner, focused. She hits the center of each note with deadly accuracy. Her breath is controlled; she sings softly at first and then opens into that peak syllable mezzo-forte (medium loud). I think I see the glass figurine of a shepherdess on Luis’s knickknack shelf tremble.

So I am sitting on a comfortable couch and my sister has a new voice. So I laugh. I mean I throw back my head and laugh, loud and long. Luis stops playing the piano; my mother smiles at me.

It’s important to find the right words for things. I’ve noticed that people—writers in particular—love to complain about language and its inadequacies. They assert that the world would be a better place if we could communicate without it, or go back to an Edenic past where it was not necessary. I cannot understand the impulse to annihilate something as magnificent and generative as language because one lacks skill in using it.

Delight, pride, awe, surprise, love, a great opening of the chest—yes, and not just for my sister, but for everything in that room and in the world at that exact moment. The power of music, the mystery of “pleasant” intervals, the fraction of a thing we call time in which existence is shifted. And my little sister who was at once as familiar as my own face and a complete, beautiful stranger. Like the vilja and the hunter, she enchanted me with her song.

Also pain and grief. I looked at her and she looked far away, across some chasm. I’ve known her since she was born and since I was 14 years old. Now she’s 15, possessed of a huge voice that transforms her once-familiar small body into something I can’t know.

And after a beat, she smiled back at me and the chasm snapped shut. We were remade. Her smile was complicated. She wondered if I were laughing at her because she was so bad. She was embarrassed that I interrupted her lesson. She understood why I was laughing. I looked at her hands, which are small. They were still small, although she was changed. I recognized her again; I had no idea who she was; I wanted to know this new/not-new person.

Later, we played the piano and sang at home. We got the giggles when I asked if she would please sing from the next room so as not to deafen me. The giggles are good. They bind, but loosely.

So, if anyone could put this into a poem, I’d appreciate it.


  1. I'm not the one to put it into a poem, unless an amateurish, high-school-sounding poem is what you're going for. But as prose, this is already pretty good. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I have to agree with castlerook. I can understand the urge to put it into poetry, but I'm more than happy with the prose. Beautifully told, Ruby.

  3. Oh, I don't know. You may have just done it.