Author: Robert Reeves

Pushkin starts his play with two boyars (Russian nobles) impatiently wishing Boris will accept the crown & quit turning it down—they suspect he’s only doing this for show.  In Mussorgsky’s prologue (a scene that offended the royal family when they saw the opera) guards are threatening commoners with the whip if they don’t loudly pray for Boris to take the crown.  He does, of course, after several days, & we first see him greeted with hymns of praise (“As the sun is the glory of heaven, Tsar Boris is Russia’s glory!”) & announcing a celebratory feast to which everyone will be invited, from lowest to highest.  The Kremlin bells are ringing throughout the scene, not unambiguously happily.

Act One begins in a monastic cell where an aged monk is almost done writing a chronicle of Russia in his lifetime.  His name is Pimen, & the one part of his history he has yet to complete is the tale of how Boris Godunov had the heir to the throne, the boy Dmitri, murdered.  His slow rich voice blends with the wee-hours chanting of the choir.  A younger monk sits up suddenly, scared awake from a dream of falling.  This is Grigori, who Pimen remarks is about the age the dead Tsarevich would be had he lived.  After Pimen leaves to join the communal prayer, Grigori curses Boris & predicts the approach of vengeance on his crimes.

Shift to an inn on the Lithuanian frontier.  The hostess admits two itinerant priests, Varlaam & Misail, who we gather wander from inn to inn bumming drinks & staying sloshed.  Grigori accompanies them.  Varlaam tells a war story (new to the opera) about Ivan the Terrible’s victory over the Mongols at Kazan.  Before long police show up looking for Grigori, whom they call an escaped heretic.  They have a warrant none of them can read.  Grigori reads it aloud & changes the description to fit Varlaam, who snatches it away & laboriously sounds out the actual description.  Everyone realizes who Grigori is too late to stop him leaping out the window & rushing by backroads for the border.

Act Two:  the Kremlin, but not a fancy throne room, the Tsar’s private apartments, where his son & daughter, Fyodor & Xenya, chat with their nurse.  Xenya grieves for her dead fiancee & the worldly-wise nurse makes fun of her & forecasts oblivion & new love.  Fyodor & the nurse sing silly songs to cheer her up.  Boris enters & finds Fyodor studying a huge map of Russia—“One day it will all be yours!”  A boyar brings word of a secret meeting between Prince Shuisky (a character treated in more depth in the play) & an envoy from Lithuania, Russia’s ancient enemy.  Boris suspects treason, but Shuisky himself soon arrives & transmits the envoy’s news:  that a pretender to the throne has arisen, supplied with arms & soldiers by Poland, calling himself Dmitri.  Boris is shaken & asks Shuisky if he’s sure the young Tsarevich really died.  Shuisky convinces him … but on his departure, Boris is haunted by a vision of the bloody child:  “Go away, child! Go! It wasn’t me!” as urgent bells chime through the castle.  He tries to pray, but like Claudius in Hamlet, can’t find anything to say.

Act Three is the most boring for me, though I like Grigori/False Dmitri.  It features his political & psychological sparrings with his Polish/Lithuanian hosts, especially the princess Marina, whom he loves.  Marina has been instructed to give herself to Dmitri by her Jesuit confessor, who hopes through this union to convert Russia to Catholic allegiance.  She rebels of course, wanting to love whom she wishes, but the Jesuit cows her with threats of hellfire.  Dmitri wants Marina to love him as a man (in the play he even confesses his identity to her) but she tells him she can only be bride to the Tsar of Moscow.  He imperiously threatens to reject her when he takes the throne, & she surrenders her heart.  Both scenes show her as a defeated woman whose willfulness is useless.  Though Mussorgsky beefed up her role after reviewers complained about the lack of strong females, she isn’t strong at all, just proud & cranky.

(The historical False Dmitri—the First:  there was a second—seems to have been much more selfish, hedonistic, & under the sway of his foreign backers than Mussorgsky’s character, who genuinely cares about the welfare of Russia.)

The two scenes of Act Four were switched by Rimsky-Korsakov.  The first scene is the final scene in Mussorgsky’s original libretto.  It’s another showcase for the common people the opera opened with, forced to plead that Boris become Tsar.  Now the country is in chaos (really, this is only explained by Boris’ death, which in this version hasn’t happened yet;  the opera moves forward a famine which had ended well before the death of Boris, & implies that there was general suffering in Russia during his reign, which is false).  The people are rioting, starving, lost without their “Little Father” the Tsar.  They find one of Boris’ boyars & install him on an improvised throne with improvised crown & sceptre—oddly reminiscent of the mockery of Christ by the Roman soldiers—& sing him an angry hymn of praise that echoes the more sincere one in the Prologue.  This is all prelude to lynching the boyar.  Varlaam & Missail from the inn sequence show up & egg them on, but everyone’s distracted suddenly by the appearance of two Catholic priests chanting Latin, which sounds like horrid animal screeching to the peasants.  They collar the priests & prepare to string them up too … when Dmitri arrives at the head of his army.

The music that plays here is my favorite in the whole opera.  Horns & woodwinds take the melody (I vastly prefer brass to strings), a fresh, hopeful brisk trot.  I took four semesters of Russian history as a History major, & to anyone who knows the ghastly misery about to descend on the country for the next decade, the joyous prancing march is darkly ironic.  Dmitri pauses to give a brief “On to Moscow!” speech, receives the obeisance of the boyar (meet the new boss, same as the old boss), & rides off again followed by the crowd of people, the spared priests singing Latin hosannas.

The act is framed by two verses of a lament sung by perhaps the most poignant character, a pious simpleton.  He sees, in his blessed innocence, what’s coming down the road for Russia.  Because this used to be the last scene, the closing music has the length & force of a coda.

But in Rimsky’s order the opera returns to Boris’ palace & the council of boyars, crazy as a beehive poked with a stick.  Shuisky (probably hedging his own bets:  he was briefly Tsar) tells how he witnessed one of Boris’ murdered-child nightmares … at which Boris enters, right in the midst of one.  Everyone knows the jig is up now.  Thinking it’ll help Boris recover his senses, Shuisky brings in Pimen to confirm Dmitri’s death.  (On my record Christoff impressively distinguishes between the voices of Boris & Pimen.)  Pimen sings about a man blind from childhood who recovered his sight by praying at the Tsarevich’s tomb, in some of the loveliest poetry in the opera (Pushkin’s):  “even my dreams contained only sounds, not things or people.”  (In the play, the Patriarch of Moscow tells this story.  Here, the reintroduction of Pimen reminds us that he’s writing a chronicle that’ll indict Boris.)  Contrary to Shuisky’s intention (?), the tale pushes Boris over the edge & he has some kind of apoplexy, screaming for air & light.  I always thought the news that people were being healed by the Tsarevich finally confirmed his feeling that even heaven was against him.  Anyway, he knows he’s dying & summons his son (who also held the throne for a tiny while).  “Goodbye my son, I die” is the most familiar aria from the opera.  It’s unaccompanied, so the melody is Mussorgsky’s.  The speech is full of submission, surrender & tenderness … but suddenly Boris stands up from his throne & shouts out “I am still Tsar!  Tsar!” … before finally collapsing.  A death chant rises in the background & the opera ends with the boyars almost inaudibly whispering “He’s dead.”

(For a long time I wondered whether Camus was referencing this scene when he had Caligula scream “I’m still alive!” while he’s being stabbed.  Now I think it may be the other way around, since those actually were Caligula’s last words.)

Dmitri’s march, from Act IV, Scene 1:

I’m a total lowbrow.  For decades I’ve only been able to listen to an extremely short list of classical pieces.  (My highschool music teacher insisted that “classical” only applies to post-Baroque, pre-Romantic compositions, & one should always say “concert music” instead.  I persist in the lowbrow way of speaking.)  I can’t even listen to jazz for very long, before I start hungering for the comparative structure even rock music retains, the limits (& depth!) of song.  Instrumental music is unbounded in a way that … doesn’t displease me … just doesn’t interest me.  The extreme examples of this, such as Mahler’s symphonies where the tonic is never recovered, I can appreciate only if they’ve been tacked to stories—in Mahler’s case, Death in Venice.  I’ve heard the unedited version of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres,” the piece used for the “light show” in 2001, & thought it ridiculous.  The film version is mesmerizing.  My list of classical favorites includes a lot of what music people rather contemptuously call “program music,” music written in support of a literary theme or plot:  “Sheherazade,” “Pines of Rome,” “The Rite of Spring,” “Pictures at an Exhibition,” “Appalachian Spring.”  You see, I think, the implication of these plebeian preferences:  I like instrumental music that exists in service to the word, whether it be the linear word of taletelling or the lyric word of poetry.  (Aargh—this isn’t always true.  But it mostly is.)


Opera, as originally conceived in the late Renascence, blends the arts into a single performance, most noticeably poetry & music.  Kierkegaard (actually one of his most flippant pseudonyms) wrote an essay where he argued that opera should be considered the highest art form because it carries out this combination of music, which embodies the sensual, & poetry, which expresses the spirit.  He goes on to prove, via a devastatingly funny chain of Hegelian dialectic, that only Mozart’s Don Giovanni can be considered the greatest opera (the greatest possible opera!), because its hero is an equally perfect mix of spirit & sense.


You’d think I’d like opera then, given its “programmatic” nature & reliance on words.  But no.  I think it’s the women’s voices that ruin it for me.  I consider a trained voice unnatural & pathetic.  I don’t mind so much in the case of men, but women’s voices are so beautiful—listen to any nuns’ choir—that forcing them into the shriekiness of the soprano range (& I include mezzosoprano) seems to me vile torture.  Interesting that the only opera I like is 85% bass & tenor, & was originally disqualified for performance because it contained too few female parts.  I mean Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.


Mussorgsky’s, although the only version I’m familiar with—& most listeners were familiar with till late in the 20th century—is the one heavily edited by Rimsky-Korsakov.  Other composers often meddled with Mussorgsky’s compositions, which they considered rough & ungainly.  Rimsky tinkered with the score of Boris Godunov twice, changing the orchestration & adding segué music (some of which is still among the most loved from the opera, like the threatening bells in the coronation scene).  He also switched the order of some scenes, the most drastic switch being the two scenes of the final act.  In the Pushkin play the libretto’s based on, the entrance into Russia of the “false Dmitri” & Russia’s descent into its “Time of Troubles” is the conclusion.  In Rimsky’s order, it precedes Boris’ death.  This decision alone makes me prefer the tampered version, shocking as it is to us with our notions of copyright & authorial ownership.  The opera is named after Tsar Boris, & has to finish with him.  Several productions of Mussorgsky’s original (actually his second version, with extra women) were staged in the last few decades, & shifted operagoers’ tastes away from the lusher Rimsky drama:  but not mine.  A warning to fans of the old one.


Since the 1980s I’ve had a recording (on vinyl & then c.d.) with Boris Christoff doing almost all the bass roles—Boris, Pimen, Varlaam & a few others.  I listened to it every couple years, I guess, till I got an iPod:  now I hear tracks from it all the time.  The first production I heard, however, was an English version with George London.  My stepfather Joe had it in the living room of our house in Medford, Massachusetts.  This was our sixth address since my mom’s remarriage, but I don’t recall it till Medford—must’ve been in a box before that.  The living room was to the left of the front hall as you came in.  The doorbell activated hanging chimes like a little Glockenspiel, which played the Big Ben sequence.  Every time someone rang the bell.  We disconnected it on Halloween.


Joe was a jazz cornetist.  His manic-depression didn’t allow him to hold down jobs for long, but he’d been in a couple bands—swing/Big Band stuff, even Dixieland:  from his records, he didn’t care for Bop or anything since.  But he owned classical albums too, among them this one opera.


When Ivan the Terrible died in 1584, his son Fyodor, a pious halfwit, succeeded to the throne & ruled for fourteen years.  Boris Godunov was his adviser & regent.  His brother Dmitri, thought by most to be heir to the throne, died as a young boy, probably of an accident with a knife during an epileptic fit.  The premise of Pushkin’s play & Mussorgsky’s libretto, that Boris had the little tsarevich murdered, completely ignores his loyal service to Fyodor & apparent contentment to be regent, & when after Fyodor’s death it takes the nobility a long time to persuade him to take the throne, the poets regard this as pompous dissembling.  Russia seems to have flourished during his seven-year reign:  he was an enlightened & tolerant tsar, not the poets’ guilt-harrowed tyrant.  He seems to have gotten just as bad a rap, & perhaps as undeserved, as Richard III of England.  Be that as it may, the Boris of the play & opera is a fascinating character in his own right.


To be continued.

Every now & then I’ll write a poem that appears to be saying something very simple & clear, which I can’t figure out for the life of me.  I think this one is about my not being a political poet, & not trusting political writing in general.




The land I live in came out to meet me

from where it had been crouching

full of dessert and rude manners,

lacking even a qualm of the art

that caused some builder decades back

to fix the faint butterfly hinges on this door.

One way I could go would be

to see my hand against the old white paint:

another, to have done with being no one:

to hate aloud:  gorge hate with action:

quit letting the fact I might need something

shut me up about what’s sick.

My land didn’t wait for me to choose.

We were together.  We were the only butterflies.

At the moment I really like this … which usually means I can’t say anything about it, & indeed I can’t.


Ninth Anniversary


Slowly the tastes grow on the tastebuds.

Eyes call shadows.

You said you were calibrating

how much pain your heart could take to work?

Clean false term for it.

I jump and grab, and miss,

and jump and grab.

Clouds and light debate the value of rain.

Skin drinks wind



The clouds win, stuffing themselves down my city’s throat,

but no wet so far,

darkened dry.

Assent.  Folded arms

are a way of brutalizing assent.  Let them hang.

We don’t cling to our beginning,

only treat it as decoration,

curled and figured molding

on wellstone we draw up from sometimes,

sometimes fall straight down

and it never matters.

One thing we can’t and don’t need to do is plan.

Night’s never safe from day

any more than day from it.

This has its mysteries, but mainly stays close to communication.  It’s a tad more formal than I like, which may be because it has a metric line.  (When I use meter, I stop at trimeter or tetrameter & hardly ever go on to pentameter, which tends to sound singsongy in lesser hands—i.e. mine—than those of a Wordsworth or Frost.)




At least the new fall can’t be hateful.

I hope not to hate it either,

for all its spooks and drudging.  Summer’s

a bleeder, slick from the ends of mouths,

though you got a bit of help, a bit of fending

out of it.  Now for work with a dry brow,

a plod not surrendered to sunbeam

—and your new sunglasses came in the mail

for the different bright, for the loss only

of those things that know how to return.

My book The Burning contains a section called “Three Prayers,” comprising “February Prayer” & “October Prayer” from 2002 & “June Prayer” from 2010.  They aren’t prayers to anyone in particular, mainly expressions of (not always decipherable!) wishes.  When I titled this “August Prayer,” I guess I meant to add it to the group.  The language strives to be music without forfeiting sense:  true of most of my poems, but some more than others.



August Prayer


Time heart,

time heart blent in red junction

with the eating ants of recall,

stipple me

in your pure drown,


throb fought and billowing.

I just made two revisions to this poem, so it may not be finished, but that’s a hard thing to determine with these John Ashbery-esque pieces.  I know it verges on language poetry (which I thoroughly dislike), but each thought/image was actually rooted in experience, though I’m not sure I could tell you what the experience was in every case.  “Comes a shaved music / lapped with everyday orange / and humbling for the hands” refers, for instance, to some Chinese hand-exercise balls.


Sports Drink


It’s later than it wants to be.

The purple worlds are staring,

all on their feathered bush.

Unconvinced by a rearrangement of tiles,

this is the nearest choking-moment.

The camera is burdened.

Only the lifesize floors go in one direction.

Comes a shaved music

lapped with everyday orange

and humbling for the hands.

Understanding won’t listen,

less essential than a kind of animal softness

with searching eyes.

Stolen from the little fathoms.

Stripes were the favored decoration

and no further windings.

Don’t know, will the thing gnaw life,

will it straddle its fray?

A rip in the paint where something was.

So tough to put silence in harness.

Like barefoot walking on cool stars.

No looking around for clues,

no spending new money.

Nothing gives Something, is the order of the day.

Apart from the hair always sitting there

yawning and pursing with the sea,

nothing fends off the furies

disappointingly innocent

that burst across the living week.

I became a Catholic because I was surrounded by Catholics, my freshman year at a Catholic university that no longer exists;  but I’d also had an experience of God.  This poem makes fun of any attempt to understand my conversion (or by extension, anyone’s) without that fact:  but I was also attempting to recover a flavor of that time & that school.  “Dead and active,” however, describes every university bookstore, I think, not just that one.  I’m no longer addicted to the Kerouac dash-instead-of-a-period, but it is appropriate on occasion, as here.


Conversion, 1970


For me, not a refuge from passion,

not sleep or stimulant:

the still of cloisters—not even that,

still that came from handling a cheap theology textbook

bound in white and faded blue

in the dead and active university bookstore:

not like I wanted to stop my life and hide in white marble,

or be surrounded by people I could only

picture as firm beams of light,

or abandon every different color

blood creates in flesh,

but all those nos were part of the yes of it


and not without God squatting on my chest

like a mean friend in gym class—

I was about to embark on a study of the opera Boris Godunov (which will eventually have something to do with poetry, I promise), but it’s only right that I should atone for the seven icky unpublished poems I inflicted on you last week by showing you seven new unpublished poems—not necessarily less icky, but poems I’m prepared to stand by for now, till I make a new cut at least.  This is how I work of recent years:  write a batch of poems, look them over every few weeks, throw out the ones that don’t do anything for me, keep some as they are, tinker with others:  not what you’d call revision, I think, in the sense many of my colleagues swear by (I mostly only revise while writing), but dropping or changing a word here & there.  Sometimes poems make it through nine cuts to perish on the tenth.  This one’s only survived two.


“Beads” might mean a string of separate thoughts.  It seems to be a love poem of sorts, although some of it is to a living person & some to a photograph of her.  It remains in actual life till the end, when it goes to a fantasy place (reminiscent of Taos).  It seems to be moving further away from itself & me the longer it lasts.




Before I come to play with the night,

I understand the round facets of your face (their sinkings and risings)

physically, with polite and impolite greed.


You prefer hiding between your skin and the hairs on it.


I’m not a necrophiliac, even in my thoughts,

but what if I saw you on the bed and sex leapt in me,

and then I checked to make sure you were breathing,

and you weren’t.  Would I be one then?


I’m not at all loyal to my past, whatever people think,

in the way of wanting anything to be what it was,

but I do want songs I hear now

still to mean what they did when I heard them first.


I’ve been chasing the cat very slowly, so I didn’t get to mention

the little plastic Taj Mahal near the main door of the Taj Mahal restaurant

which has electric lights inside that can be switched on and off.

Who is home?


The college kid has a pretty face,

not the kind that’d type him as gay to anyone who knew better,

not even the kind gays are drawn to,

but the kind that got him called gay and got his ass kicked all the way thru lower school,

with the result that now he’s an extra mean fag-basher.


I’m giving up, there won’t be any more worship of people I don’t like,

there won’t be any evasion of the fat terrains of me or the shriveled.


You shut your eyes—foundation’s being applied to the lids—

and your head becomes a cameo I faint in front of.


So I faint.  This is some country road,

the grass where sidewalks would be looks intolerant,

a gray-green of smallest effort.

Is it honeysuckle I breathe, is that all?  My mouth waters.

My eyes want more in the way.

To end this week of forgotten & unpublished work, a little song from 1999.  These are song lyrics, not a poem:  different standards apply, I hope.  I’ll include a recording of the song itself.  Be warned, I can hear in my voice how horribly depressed I was:  that kinda thing can be contagious.

longing song

with the freeway out your window

and the scratches on your back

you could get away tomorrow

if you really felt the lack

you could get away tomorrow

and you’d have nowhere to go

’cept the freeway out your window

or the river when it’s slow

but the freeway out your window

makes a hungry little sound

like a wind across the meadow

some confusion in the ground

some confusion in the shadow

where there’s people without fire

and a night comes on the meadow

and a night comes on desire

and the river runs in circles

like the scratches on your back

you could take me and my worlds

if you really felt the lack

we could get away tomorrow

when the freeway falls asleep

thru the doorway of your window

if the scratches aren’t too deep

if the scratches aren’t too deep

I debated whether to share this poem:  it’s really pretty rotten.  But a few years ago when the Alibi had its villanelle contest & several of my friends, as well as my wife, were submitting, they had to listen to my spuming about how form was dead & especially things like the villanelle … so here’s one I wrote in 2002, long before I made all that noise.  I’ve actually been writing them ever since reading Stephen Dedalus’ wonderful example in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  This is a rather lousy one, as I say, but it’s all I still possess of my many attempts.  “Drunken Master” was the nickname of the addressee, not mine, though it would’ve fit me quite well.


Drunken Master’s Villanelle


Neither your glitter nor your glee

Will drowse for long in that pious den.

Come back into your heart with me.


The waters wasting out of your sea

Are tidal, and draw back in you again.

You can be loved on top of free.


Neither your crying nor cruelty

Can save you cold in the flames of men.

Come back into your heart with me.


Straw for your hair, straw for your fee:

You earn now only what you spent then.

You can be loved on top of free.


Never the pollen, often the bee,

Acrid the inks in your honeyed pen,

Come back into your heart with me.


Give up none of your dignity;

Give up none of your fiercest yen.

You can be loved on top of free.

Come back into your heart with me.