Author: Robert Reeves

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.

my hair whirled high about my cup ears,

head back, i called beyond the night

and wind in whispers fell as my answer

on the grass, around and about.


to the child’s sparkle-white hand

i strode quiet in the trees above the town,

sleepy-soft in the late winter twilight.

snow like a blanket, ’neath my dancing feet.


yours is the darkness, dalua!

to you belong the souls and craven fear of men,

the bridge of your hidden pleasures besought—

i have come with a leaf in my fingers, o fool.


all is the world, all to the gray seas of a moon,

all to fall, all to bliss and in thy magic

with my own.  the honey-folk amidst the april dawn havens,

now framed by snow, cluster and clasp.


ours is this silence, dalua!

the embroidery of our embrace you cannot steal.

sad wandering fool, i call, do you hear me?

above the sigh of breeze i beckon thee, witch.


to the lakes i speak silence, and the mountains will not hear me,

they are too proud.  is the dusk my illusion?

is your hand a shadow played by the fool’s mischief,

or is my sleep your solace, my rose your still vow?


I’m pretty sure this is all of this one:  I recall stanza 4 escaped me for a long time when I started trying to recover this about ten years ago, but I got it eventually.  For all its hideousness, the thing that strikes me about this gushy love poem, written in 1966, is how clearly a Bob Reeves poem it is.  This is still my voice, though I’d never say anything like this in it now (“sparkle-white,” for god’s sake!).  I have no idea whether Dalua the Fairy-Fool was an actual Irish deity.  Fiona McLeod, the Celtic Twilight writer, insisted he was:  but then, Fiona McLeod never existed, she was the creation of an antiquarian called William Sharp.  As you see, at the time I affected cummings-esque lower case.