Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to revisit the 1984 film, Amadeus. I’d been anxious to rewatch it for a while and was relieved when it became available for streaming. The award-winning story (both on Broadway and in Hollywood) was about Mozart as experienced by his resentful contemporary composer-rival, Salieri.
There is a sequence in the film when a bedridden Mozart has engaged Salieri’s help in transcribing the music Mozart hears in his head. Despite the film being deliciously beautiful for its entire three-hour runtime, I didn’t realize this scene was the entire reason I wanted to rewatch the film.
Mozart sits in bed, red and sweaty. Salieri sits at his feet with stacks of music sheets. Mozart appears to dream-listen, often shutting his eyes to the room and zeroing in on the music he hears in his mind while Salieri frantically takes dictation. At times Salieri doesn’t understand what Mozart is doing and keeps a doubtful pace. All while Mozart listens to an enriched silence –taking his developing composition apart and listening to each phantom instrument and voice individually.
This scene exploring the communication between the two men, encompassed for me the entirety of what writing is like. Not just writing music, but creatively writing anything. Its a listening to voices, the chatter arising from nowhere. The fevered concentration where nothing except accuracy to what’s being received can be heard or experienced. Mozart appeared to be listening in physical agony. Listening before the sound moves too far away. To others, while I’m thinking– pre-writing– I must looked crazed, involved in some manic episode. Unlike the rest of the film, during this process Mozart appears focused and deadly serious. A new personality emerges, tempering his fun-loving attitude, his joyful thirst for women and good times. For me too, a different temperature arises when I’m working. Different than when I’m just alone, or in the office, or with friends. Its a different kind of listening and being. Once having arrived at a certain point, Mozart snatches the sheet music from Salieri’s hand to check and review before continuing. I do the same, checking the language and flow of words to verify I’m heading in the right direction.
Salieri, sweating at the foot of Mozart’s bed, struggles to keep up with his voice. He gets lost, he doesn’t fully understand, yet continues to transcribe. For me too there’s a trust that the vein of idea that’s been tapped is worth following despite how strange it feels. Despite not having a clear ending. One must learn to trust and follow strange voices. The voices seem to speak once, perfectly, only to never speak again. One must remain diligent in catching them or they’ll be silent for good.
A similar scene occurs in the novel, Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. In one chapter, Jesus and his disciples have found rest overnight in a barn and while they sleep, Matthew awakens and decides to write down everything he knows regarding Jesus’ life. He says a prayer and begins writing, only to be halted by a voice above him. The voice is of an angel who angrily insists: “Stop! You must write: Jesus was born of a virgin, his mother Mary…” and so on and so forth, reciting Jesus’ biblical story.
But Matthew grows angry, and begins arguing with the angel, insisting “That’s not what I know. That’s not true. I won’t write it.”
And while they argue, every word the angel speaks Matthew furiously writes. He is resistant, spitting, arguing, and compulsively obedient.
Until the fuss awakens a nearby Jesus who says, “Matthew– what’s happening. Who is above you?”
But Matthew signals to Jesus that everything is alright, while the man transcribes every word from the angel’s mouth, disagreeing the whole time.
The last line in that chapter is: “Jesus returned to sleep so that he would not disturb the holy possession.”
That’s what writing is, too. A holy possession. That’s exactly how to describe it. How I nearly dropped the book over the truth in that line. I felt seen.
This is a long block to walk around just to cross the street and tell you how watching Amadeus helped me rewrite a poem.
I wrote two poems about my experiences with ghosts. They were stories I’ve liked and told, but never in poetry until now.
One of the poems finished nicely. It had a solid ending and I’ve enjoyed the response and feeling after reading it publically three times.
The other poem never felt as good. I missed it, whatever it was. It told the story best as I remembered, but it didn’t have much an ending. It felt uneventful, lacking flavor. For several weeks, I left it alone. It’s called Smiling At The Void.
My great-aunt’s house in Texas
always felt uneasy, fevered
hers was a house with something on its mind
walls the color of a coagulated wound; crystalized cherry and maroon
even her lenticular portrait of Jesus worried me
because his eyes watched as you crossed the living room
Despite being so far from home, I don’t remember sleeping in there
Maybe I refused, preferring our familiar camper despite it being
crowded with cousins and I had to sleep next to my mother on the floor
One night, I opened my eyes
to chart a path for the bathroom
and saw a woman standing Right There
cardboard cut-out of a shadow
richer black than the darkness itself
and silent; missing the susurrus of fabric and breath
I watched as she placed her hands on her hips
In wonder of us all
I slammed my eyes closed and double bolted them
And kept my mouth shut until well after daybreak
By then, my mother and my aunt rosemary
were turning bacon at the stove
speaking of their aunt long past my time
I sat up ready to jump out of my own skin and said:
I saw her too!
And as the bacon cheered and spat hot thorns.
Aunt Rosemary: so nonchalant, so casual
said: Oh, she wouldn’t do nothing to you
And sounded happy to’ve seen her again
her comforting silhouette
her devoted night patrols
Aunt Rosemary: whom I knew and loved
looked into the same void I saw
and smiled, calling it by name.
She taught me something that day:
The flipside of fear is ignorance
The poem is like a mildly spoiled pastry to me, filling and sweet but mildewy. It resembles a poem, but is it really? I never liked the ending, first of all. It doesn’t have an ending– it just comes to a stop. Let’s ignore the lack of periods, punctuation. What’s a period in a poem anyway? Mostly, the poem lacks… something. It’s there and not there simultaneously. There’s a ‘place’ but you can’t see it clearly. The poem is populated with characters– but are you really clear regarding the aunts? (1) The aunt’s house being visited (2) Aunt Rosemary, my mother’s sister (3) The ghost aunt.
I wanted to fix the ending and for several days kept thinking of how dissatisfied I was and wondered what could I do to fix it?
Over two weeks, I rewrote the poem above three times. I retyped a new version at work but wasn’t happy with it. I wrote a new version by hand and wasn’t thrilled with it, either.
But after Amadeus, I decided to try again. I read some poetry online, consulting first and last lines. I committed to pushing into more informative lines. I incorporated elements from all rewrites. The version below I finished today, a couple of months after that first draft above. My brain immediately liked this version and I decided to share it here. I prefer letting a poem marinate a few days before going in for another edit, so this is due for another pass soon. But it feels 1000x’s better than the original.
Which do you prefer– or are they both trash? Is there something I missed? It’ll probably take a few days before I find it.
SMILING INTO THE VOID
I hated the hysterical silences of my great aunt’s house
In Stamford, Texas. The one on West Oliver
We’d visit every summer
She lived alone for years
but the house was fidgety
and stingy with love
its mahogany walls trembled like an oily wound struggling to heal
Even her lenticular painting of Jesus worried me
Because his eyes watched you cross the living room
Despite being 1500 miles from home, I don’t remember sleeping in there.
Maybe I refused
preferring our familiar RV despite it being crowded with cousins
and I had to sleep on the floor next to my mother
One night, I opened my eyes to chart a path for the bathroom
And saw a woman standing Right There!
An articulated shadow having lost its body
Richer black than darkness itself
And silent missing the susurrus of fabric and breath
The figure appeared to place hands on its hips
And shake its head in wonder at us all
I slammed my eyes closed and double bolted them
Even keeping my mouth shut until well after daybreak
By then the RV was mostly empty
Except for my mom and her sister,
My favorite aunt Rosemary
They stood turning bacon at the stove
Chatting about their aunt,
A name years before my time
After listening to them for a minute, I sat up
Ready to jump out of my skin
And said: I saw her too!
As the bacon cheered and spat hot thorns
Aunt Rosemary: So casual, so nonchalant
Said: “Oh, she wouldn’t do nothing to you”
And sounded happy to’ve seen her again.
Her comforting silhouette
Her devoted night patrols
Aunt Rosemary looked into the same void
I saw, this rogue constellation
smiled and called its name.
My father once stood on the shore of a river
And preached that we share the same ingredients as stars—
The grains of sugar spilled towards us
We too keep shining
And at night anyone seeing us from across a great distance
Cannot tell whether we’re living or dead