Two Poems

Mother Died Today

Mother died today. That’s how it began. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. I gave the book to my mother in the hospital. She read the first sentence. Mother died today. She laughed and said you sure know how to cheer me up. The telegram came. It said, Mother dead Stop Funeral tomorrow Stop. Mother read it in the hospital and laughed at her college boy son. Or  maybe yesterday, I don’t remember. Mama died yesterday. The telegram arrived a day too late. I had already left. Europe is going down, the Euro is finished, and what does it matter? My mother served plum cake and I read the page aloud. Mother died today or yesterday and I can’t be sure and it doesn’t matter. Germany can lose two world wars and still rule all of Europe, and does it matter whether you die at 30 or 70? Mother died today. It was Mother’s Day, the day she died, the year she died. In 1940 it was the day the Germans invaded Belgium and France and Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The telegram came from the asylum, the home, the hospital, the “assisted living” facility, the hospice, the clinic. Your mother passed away. Heartfelt condolences. The price of rice is going up, and what does it matter? I’ll tell you what I told the nurse and anyone that asks. Mother died today.

(May 10, 2012)


My dear friend Nietzsche, not one to mince words, came over and held forth on the subject of opera. “Keep your Verdi and your Wagner,” he said. “Give me Carmen. Bizet’s Carmen. Io mi sento diventar migliore quando questo Bizet mi parla. I become a better man when Bizet speaks to me.” “Do you speak often?” I said. “Not literally,” he said. “Bizet died soon after the Paris premiere in March 1875. He never knew that he had composed a popular masterpiece. I have seen it 20 times.”

“Twenty times,” I exclaimed, striking a match to light his cigar.

“Twenty times in the last seven years,” he said. It was the 15th of October 1888, my friend’s 44th birthday. “Bizet makes me fertile,” he said. “Whatever is good makes me fertile.”

I asked him what he most loved about the opera. “Carmencita,” he said, smacking his lips unselfconsciously. “Carmen is fertile. She is a celebration of all that is healthy in life. In her you behold the triumph of the wholly immoral sexual instinct that devours the weak and inspires the animal man who needs no other purpose in life. In her domination of Don Jose, primitive sensuality prevails over the ascetic ideal. Lust, mightier than even a mother’s love, leads to degradation, humiliation, despair. She is authentic, innocent, cruel— and therefore precisely in line with the natural order.”

“The music is great,” I said. Disregarding the interruption, he said, “Carmen depicts love that is war and at bottom the deadly hatred between the sexes!”

Nietzsche paused as my wife entered with a tray of champagne flutes. Prost, I said. Hoch, he replied. We sipped. “The greatness of Carmen,” he said, turning courteously to include my wife in the circle of discourse, “is not only in its parable of jealousy to the point of homicide—a theme worthy of Shakespeare—but in the parade of vices, great and small, that it serves in its choruses and arias: smoking and drinking, gypsy fortune-telling and blood oaths, blood sport in a bull ring, knife fighting, smuggling, desertion, murder. Carmen deserts Don Jose as he has deserted his regiment. Hers is the greater will. She will not be a wife, a slave; he is the one enslaved, and because he is, she no longer wants him. She is willing to die sooner than yield her freedom.” He paused and let me relight his cigar. “And,” he sighed between puffs, “the little boys and girls march along with the soldiers wanting to play war.”

In less than three months my friend would suffer a nervous breakdown. On the streets  of Turin he witnessed the flogging of a horse, and he ran to the horse and shrieked like a madman until the police came and carted him away. But at the time all we could talk about was Bizet’s Carmen, and as if by a prearranged signal, the three of us looked at the Steinway in the grand salon. A grin appeared on my friend’s ordinarily dour face as my wife sat on the piano bench and played, leading us in a spirited rendition of the Habanera first and then the Toreador song.

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David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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