The Rest Is Silence

— or, Stroking Her Feet to Opus 131. A new poem.

Text
The rough and the smooth: Beethoven’s hands, cast in plaster, photographed c.1850 (© Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

                                    I
 
Rehearsing this quartet, Beethoven heard
Nothing at all. He checked the players by
Watching their bows. He barked the odd harsh word
But couldn’t hear that either, and yet I
Am blissed out once again by what he found
When searching in his world without a sound
There, near the end. The Ninth was done. To die
 
Was really all the man had left to do,
And yet he did this. In our time apart,
Grand opera was what most appealed to you,
But now I hope that you may take to heart
This music without voices, which in fact
Is singing in its essence, the contact
Of Earth with Heaven in a surf of art
 
Whose forms diversify and fractionate
Past all our expectations except one:
What happens next will be well worth the wait
And prove a burst of beauty was begun
Far back, the way the upsurge of the sun
Is written in the stars.
 
                                    II
 
I love this bit, this bit I love. Bit this,
Bit that. Fragments advance. Collect. Go back.
These pizzicato figures you can fit
Short words of Shakespeare to. Alas, alack,
To smooth. That rough. Touch with. A tender kiss.
Enough of that. This is the end of it.
Too smooth. Examine that word “soothe”:
It’s so, oh, the. The flexing female foot,
Touched underneath by a male fingernail,
Signals approval of a cruel finesse.
Suave harshness. Harshly suave. Again. Stop go.
Of that which is desired, too much.
Of that which is desired too much, no end.
But soft, she stirs. Be not at fault. Go slow.
A cliff of dissonance grinds to a halt
And turns to snowflakes on a windless night
That fall past the streetlight.
 

                                   III
 
The end was coming in his quiet kingdom.
A tyrant with his conversation books
Which really meant that he did all the talking,
He set old friends against each other. He
Was never a nice man as Haydn was.
I know you think I cite the bastardry
Of artists to excuse myself because
My conscience would ache otherwise. It’s true,
But let me say — I’ll whisper it — this much:
It might have taken inner turmoil to
Bring him at last to this sublimity,
A fist of rage unfolding to a touch
As light as fingertips on curling toes,
And if he did not smile, watching the bows,
It meant a blessing when he did not frown.
Still air, still air, and still the flakes come down.

                                    IV
 
The women he loved best were out of reach —
The Countess Kegelwicz, Countess Guiccardi,
Countess Erdödy, Countess This or That —
Because of his low birth. Pity him, then:
His “van” did not mean “von”. He was not noble,
Except for ranking above any man
Alive, and she, the one he called Immortal,
The Immortal Beloved,
Knew that, and gave him what she had to give:
They kissed each other, at the very least.
“My angel, my everything, my very self”
He wrote, and wrote it always in his music.
His Josephine was like Napoleon’s: there always
Even under other names. Jeanette,
Eleanore, Magdelena and Babette:
They all were her, and when he reached for her
They all were in his arms. Born for each other.
Sie waren für einander geboren
Wrote her sister Therese. Unless Therese
Was the Immortal Beloved. Speculation
Continues. But for sure, though short and ugly,
The famously great flirt was not all talk:
He knew exactly what a woman felt like,
Although, perhaps, it only almost happened.
The Distant Beloved was someone else again,
And no one has an inkling who Elise was –
We just know he wrote her a bagatelle
Which, played on YouTube by Pogorelich,
Must stir the depths of his immobile hairstyle –
But it’s fair to guess Beethoven felt the heat
A woman gives off even from her insteps,
Before he reached the cool room of these structures
Separately drifting in transparent air,
Connected only by the space between them.

                                V
 
For just a few bars you can hear the fury
With which he crossed the Emperor’s name
Off the Eroica. If you first have that,
Then later Florestan and Leonore
Can come back to each other’s arms.
It’s said of him he wrote only one opera
And yet he wrote the only opera,
But here, too, we are listening to voices:
It’s just that they’ve been turned to wood and catgut
Like metamorphoses from Ovid.
Out of the tumult drifts serenity
All the more calm from being so hard-won:
Sweetness from bitterness, a prisoner
Released into the sunlight.
 
                               VI
 
As from the white break of the vault there slides
The surf rider
Trailing his seaside fingertips
Like a stylus through the wave’s green face,
Out of the conflict a new concord comes
With an extra grace,
A bride’s glide,
Like the peaceful grief on the Madonna’s lips
Of the St Peter’s Pietà.
It’s sixty years since I first heard the Seventh
And knew I would write poetry for life,
And we, for all that time, have known each other,
And for most of it been man and wife,
And, now it has been proved not even I
Could quite destroy all that,
We are still here, together for as long
As life permits. Next stop, eternity:
Which could be what he’s trying to say now.
 
                               VII
 
Did he know his death was close? No one can tell.
He might have thought it had already come
When deafness did. This loveliness might sound
Like a summation, but we should beware
Of teleology. He left a sketch
For a Tenth symphony. Art masters have
Rarely packed up to leave the studio:
They live in it, and always would do more.
Though they might turn their faces to the wall,
They sing in silence. After this last note
Silence returns, but is not the same void
We heard before the start. In silence squared
We rise up from the couch and live again,
As if on the first day we ever touched.