Jehanne Dubrow

The Poet at Intermission

La Bohème, 1983

A tiny grownup in her fancy-best--
proud of her suit in miniature, her red
and white lapels, the woolen skirt pressed

with pleats like an accordion, her chest
still flat, knees scuffed as though with pencil lead.
Just eight-years-old, and yet how self-possessed

she seems, holding the program with one hand,
and leaning with the other on a column.
Earlier, she bent toward the orchestra and

saw trumpets emptied of their spit, the grand
piano opened, the hushed and solemn
turning of sheet music on each stand.

Look at her looking down the line of sight
to where the tenor stood. How she follows
act by act, the gilded fictions of this night.

Already she is wondering how to write
the cotton scrim, the seats in velvet rows,
the ushers with their clicking pens of light.

Opera Buffa; Or, Her Parents Sleeping

Call them a semi-serious work
                    with comic elements--
behind a door, the child lurks
          and listens to their snores like instruments

off-key but complementary.
                    After a day of slips
of the tongue, the pair wants only
          --it seems--to be unmasked. Her father grips

the blanket like a lover's note.
                    Her mother's naked feet
protrude from underneath a housecoat.
          The child wonders who they are--what sweet

and natural characters are these?
                    The bedroom world is plain
as opera stripped of its marquise
          or duke. Only the common folk remain.

The drapes aren't velvet, not the stuff
                    of tragedy--but thin
and untheatrical, sheer enough
          to let the yellow morning bumble in.

Stories of the Great Operas

That was the year when every act was bound
between blue covers. My father bought me
Stories of the Great Operas, which taught me
Parsifal and Lohengrin, a drowned
Rusalka reaching for her prince, a ring found
golden in a fire, tales that caught me
like a witch's house. Bored? Not me.
I loved the dagger scenes, the sound
of names like Gershwin, Offenbach, Bizet.
Each summary was a lesson of the stage--
that even grief could be compressed (the rage
of gods, a queen shut up in stone, the roué
in his mask), all sadness small from far away,
made alphabetical and tiny on the page.

Magic Opera; Or, Her Parents Squabbling

A pantomime--this flight of words
          between his mouth and hers,
the air a-wing with livid birds
          and squawking. Something blurs

the room as though with fog or burning.
          There's lightning, thunderclaps,
the spectacle of platforms turning.
          At times--a hush. Perhaps

the pair is burdened with a rock.
          Or witches cast
a spell--a silver padlock
          on the couple's lips. At last

a mountain crumbles to reveal,
          after the shards and dust
and kettledrums, that this ordeal--
          like darkness in a forest

--will pass. The snake is killed. A curse
          annihilates the queen.
What haze remains will soon disperse--
          it's just the smoke machine.

Gastroenteritis at the Met

Because my father loved the heave and roil
          of those songs, the singers always opening
their mouths as though to swallow pills or hurl
          their souls from bodies, he drank something
to stop the sweats, stoppered himself like a bottle,
          and went to the opera. He was freezing
then hot. The overture a strain of hell,
          each run of notes feverish with longing.
He longed for bed, for the washcloth chill
          and damp against his face. Someone was dying
on stage. Someone dead. He pitied them all--
          the orchestra pit, the pit of his gut gurgling,
the lovers pitted against the world. A bell
          clanged in his belly. Surely this was the meaning
of passion: this thing vertiginous and viral
          like a man perched on the chair-edge of puking,
this air of bile, this green, uneasy thrill.

Opera Seria; Or, Her Parents Preparing for a Banquet

Call them instructive in their dress--
          that this is how a man should wear
his cuffs, a wife her hair--a god and goddess
                    on their way to somewhere

fancy. In them, the child sees
          the noble struggle between love
and duty, between elegance and ease--
                    a hand squished in a glove,

a waist inside a cummerbund.
          Discomfort, yes. But what's the use
of kings or queens if they aren't burdened?
                    Worn out? What else is Zeus

to do but sigh, as he laces on
          each lacquered shoe? Hera frowns
at the exhausted mirror--an aeon
                    since she slept. Her gowns

sag with the weight of trimmings, bows.
          The light in here does nothing for
the story of her face. Tonight they're heroes
                    and heroines--what more

can they offer the audience
          of their daughter than this ornate age,
this gilded score, and later silence
                    when they have left the stage?

Glitter and Be Gay

A wife is torturing her mute husband.
          She's singing to the radio, a shriek
like stone on mirrored glass. If there's technique
          in this, it's how she makes a diamond
of the trills, 21 high Cs sharpened
          to brilliant-cut, each pitch unique
in its awfulness. So this is marriage: this squeak
          staccato, this aria without an end.
He could end it all. But what delight
          she takes in strings of notes like lavalieres.
And how long can the song go on: 60 years?
          And don't--occasionally--we each rejoice
in hurting what we love, with the bright
          and beveled edges of our voice?


Jehanne Dubrow is the author of four poetry collections, including most recently Red Army Red and Stateside (Northwestern UP, 2012 and 2010). Her work has appeared in Southern Review, The Hudson Review, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. She is the Director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House and an assistant professor of creative writing at Washington College, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

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