This poem was inspired by a very special book I’ve been re-reading this week, written in exile by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, entitled Letter to a Hostage, in which the famed pilot and children’s book author wrote about his worry for his friends living in Nazi-occupied France. Although he is most famous for writing the children’s classic The Little Prince, it is his WWII writings that seem most relevant today.
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Tonight we shall sing and give thanks, to salute the strength of our realm. Lift your spirits and move with the drum, the tambour and pipe call the tune. Bring forth the trumpets – the moon is new, and our fortunes can only grow. For it is the custom in Denmark, to toast royal alliances well. The manners are sensible here, and this is no novel fashion, none can remember another. “A son need not mourn forever, nor shroud himself in strange despair. Your grief calls out – I would set you free. I speak with a king’s magnanimity. I admit, there is a test in this. My court is your audience, prince. I would have you soften your grief. For how can a king command mourning, when the queen’s new consort reigns? I am the head of your royal house, who names you the throne’s only heir. Show me your needs and I’ll meet them. Now you say not one word to us, and ask no blessing, discontent. I would give my wife’s son good leave to take his own counsel, dear prince. If our people are well moved to settle on me a king’s cares, with what alacrity I’d strike to show our rivals our full strength! Our enemies would be dismayed, and back to hell their ghosts would slink. Acknowledge, prince, my regency, stay here, drink up the honeyed wine.”
Though I’m not normally one for musicals, I thoroughly enjoyed Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera, starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. I cringe at Gerard Butler’s signature move in shoot-em-up’s of shooting his adversaries dead when they’re already down, but this role won me over to his fandom. Emmy’s turn as Christine is angelic, and I would definitely go to see another musical adaptation if she were in it – fans should check out her YouTube channel for original music videos, including Christmas music!
This poem, inspired by the 75th Psalm, is in Madame Giry’s voice, an almost omniscient narrator of the story of the cursed Parisian opera house and its melodramatic demise.
We sing for you, the Phantom – we take heed, and know your voice, who summoned us, comes near. The people are enthralled, and doubt you not. “The point of no return is now at hand, and I shall cast the lots – who lives, who dies. This Opera house would fade from memory, if I had not raised up its brightest star. I warned the circus dancers, brutes and clowns, and their inflated diva, not to sing. Seek not to rob my prottégé of rank. Your blithe disdain for art does not daunt me. For nowhere else will you obtain the means to move the soul – my music is the key. The Phantom you abhor will have his due, for only he can make or mar on cue. At his fingertips the music sheaves, mute with possibility – his dreams. He will break his silence, and in song, unwind his fell designs for the pompous throng, and all will come to ruin at one blow.” And I, though I keep faith, will always know whose music moved the firmament that night. “And all the fools who hunted me recoiled. Christine alone held fast, and met my eyes.”
Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven has been warmly received by critics as an epic that trades in positive masculinity and features a powerhouse performance from Eva Green as the princess Sibylla and an all-star cast of knights in shining armor. As with Gladiator, the soundtrack steals many a scene, this time scored by Harry Gregson-Williams.
The story asks the question whether personal integrity is an adequate stand against corrupt leadership in the realm of statecraft – whether upholding the rights of criminals is fair to those under their power. Although the film suggests that Balian is content to live with his choices to the end, the price paid by others whom the film allows us to care about is awfully high.
This poem, based on the 73rd Psalm, is in Balian’s voice addressed to Sybilla, after he has announced his decision not to usurp power from her cynical and foolhardy husband, Guy de Lusignan (played by Marton Csokas). Later, he will retrace his steps and confront Guy ineffectually about a tactical blunder – but his cinematically convenient decision to confront the king bluntly in front of his knights naturally dooms his advice to failure, as Guy must defend his own authority by dismissing Balian’s unsolicited advice wholesale. Balian (Orlando Bloom) comes off as a bit of a blunderer himself, in that regard. But at least his self-respect is intact…
Only the good is cherished by a true knight, for what more is Christendom to the pilgrim? Truly, for my part, I might have strayed, for in this labyrinth, love gave me pause. Do you doubt that I envy your husband, when I see you secure in his palm? Glibly the man fears nothing of the grave, feeling only his fullness in power. The cross has no place in his religion, for the man abhors all self-denial. Arrogance defines his every gesture, disdainful of his duties under law. Grease from his table smears his bloodshot eyes, as he plies the mob by idolizing war. Of binding oaths he speaks with arch derision, and no one doubts that he will be a tyrant. When he swears by the name of our Lord, his rabble-rousing sweeps through crowds like wildfire. Not because they credit him with faith, no – and yet they drink his poison eagerly. They suppose Christ does not see them sin, and question how one God could know all hearts. Do you think I am blind to their success? Men who stint no evil gain in power. For what reward do you think I keep my vows, and by my labors do such penitence? The Templars spit on me, and will do worse, and all my doings here may be for nought. Do you doubt I contemplated killing him? The thought of my wife, and your son, held me back. The act of apprehending how things stand has been a wrenching sorrow in my heart. Until, in contemplation on the mount, I came to sense what heaven can withhold. Truly, these warriors rule over an anthill, a simple act can cast all to the winds. Do you not marvel at how sudden death can be, on the heels of great good fortune? Ephemeral as incense, their illusions dissipate like mist above the sea at daybreak. When I resented keenly all I’d lost, and fear of hypocrites transfixed my soul, I stumbled like a brute led on God’s way, comprehending none of what I saw. Yet even then, love’s light burned from within, the spirit of Jerusalem sustained me. Your brother took me in his confidence, and in defending you, I won acclaim. Why else do you believe I take up arms, who else do you imagine I desire? Exact from me all that the world demands, and still a knight and Christian, I endure. I see what ends corrupted men are for, how low they grovel, obdurate and damned. For me, nearness to scripture is enough, I pitch my tent where God wills and move on, consoled by the fair sweat upon my brow.
In the opening scenes of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, we meet the elder Zosima, a gentle old monk ensconced in a rural monastery and attended to in his illness by the novel’s hero, Alyosha. The context in which we first meet the elder is one that would try anyone’s faith, but Zosima handles the confrontation with a sagacity and charm that would warm (almost) any atheist’s heart. There is almost a Buddhist turn to his witticisms, when he gently parries the claims of nonbelievers on his time.
This fan poem is inspired by the elder’s remarks to a penitent peasant woman, on the topic of shame – perhaps the central virtue of Russian orthodoxy, at least in the hands of devoted Schiller fans like Dostoevsky.
Where is the shame in the liquid notes the passer-by plucks on the lyre? Where is the shame when their fragrance floats from the lilies downstream to the weir?
The music of saints is no less a song, their pageantry no less a dance. But the saints are ashamed to pine and long for their love when the world looks askance.
Young lovers with bells on their feet take flight when a footfall presses a stair; the very swans guarding the lake take flight when a huntress pauses to stare.
But where is the shame in the rose’s blush when the sun warms the jasmine nearby? Where is the shame in the eager flush of a pilot first learning to fly?
Moonlight goes softly, but not so the sun, for gentleness longs not for day. The shadows of twilight cannot be outrun, nor the noon be compelled to stay.
Gather your secrets all into one pile, consign the lot to a flame. Relinquish your heartache, relearn to smile, and burn brighter for love of your shame.
The True History of the Kelly Gang presents Harry Power, memorably portrayed by Russell Crowe, as something of an enigma. Does he really need Ned’s help, or is he just tired of drinking alone? As Ned narrates over our last scene with Harry in the movie, one can hardly trust anything Harry says about himself. His most paradoxical moments are perhaps his only honest moves. This poem, in Harry’s voice addressed to young Ned, is based on the 71st Psalm.
That’s you, sunshine – my little helper. Never let them trammel on my name. Your apprenticeship frees me from loathing. You’ll lend me your ear, spare me snow’s silence. Here in the bushranger’s bullet-proof shed we will always be safe and snug – alone. Sold into servitude at my side, your hand will steady mine, too, in time. My boy, we’ll range far from the grip of the laws, far from the scabrous constables’ reach. For the vastness of bush is our only hope, a man’s surety is his remoteness – you’ll see. I was whelped in the rough with the unimpressed. From my mother’s belly loathing brought me out. The curses of lawmen are our highest praise, and we rake out our infamy under their sun. If you go, do not leave me alive, boy, for aging has stripped me of pleasure in breathing. These constables whisper about me already, lose on my scent and with heads bent together – they whisper that strength has forsaken me, they’ll rush me alone, if you leave me here. Boy, do not turn your head – face me! Be my helper in this, if only this – quick! By your nerve, my pursuers will be disgraced – with their hangdog faces lowered, they’ll sulk, these men who could not stop my kind and yours. Look at me, and see how I hold out hope of making a true immortal of you. All I’ve written of us will lay the scene, and the pale sun that rises and sets on their soil will flush at your wrath like a startled bride. I will harry the sleep of their judges for you, in my skull I will carry your blazon alone. Long has the bush been a succour to me, long have I sung of the bushranger’s triumphs. And grim though the vice of old age is to me, for our kind, for our ways, you will not betray me. When you ride, songs I’ve written will mark out your fame, and the young ones will relish your infamy, they will eat from your table, praise you to the skies, for the fell deeds begun at a bushranger’s side – now my boy, can you taste the flint of your name? Now, with the blast of your wrath in my face, you will carry the stamp of my life for your fate and the bowels of the worms cannot hold me. Your exploits will outnumber mine by far – the curses you’ll raise are a sop to my pride. Just so, I wrote verses with you at my knee.
Our true claim to glory is testimony. You and I sang of showing those constables up, and though both of us hang, still our words can cut. My lips will peel back on a bone-chilling smile, bought back from disuse at the price of a child. My tongue will swell, black as the seed of a grave, fat with the tales men will tell of your name. Those lecherous constables fear us, my boy, fruitlessly scouring, dog-kneed and vile.
This film takes me back to the beginnings of this blog, when I didn’t have any Russell Crowe fan poetry to show for myself and was reduced to posting leftover poetry from other fandoms… Of course, eventually I decided to make this fansite officially more inclusive, sort of a smorgasbord of poetry for different fandoms with a special preference for Russell Crowe movies (and music).
My longest-running experiment in fan poetry was a series of 100 stanzas about the star-crossed lovers in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, written as letters from Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) to Mandras (Christian Bale), about the gradually ebbing love she felt for him when he left her for the Albanian front and never wrote back. (This happens before Captain Corelli, played with distinction by Nicholas Cage, arrives on the scene to complete the triangle.) You can see bits and pieces of it here.
This poem picks up where that one left off, with Captain Corelli’s arrival, leading the Italian invasion of the island of Ithaca, all of whose young men have either died fighting or straggled back to their homes in secret to live in hiding under the Axis occupation. Inspired by the 68th Psalm, best known for its breathtaking imagery (“The wings of the dove are inlaid with silver / and her pinions with precious gold”) but actually a rather sprawling Psalm that shifts in tone and perspective many times, much like the film.
Let the victors be named, throw open your gates, and may all our detractors scatter! As smoke clears off when there is no flame, as candlesticks yield to a lighted wick, may the ragtag rebels and holdouts relent. And let our heroes parade and exult before the town, and take pride in their work. Sing an aria – learn a libretto with us! If our entrance is not paved with roses, Verdi will triumph where Wagner fell flat.
Opera, the music of exiles abroad, sustains us like players in strange concert halls. Don Giovanni will lead the way home, where Rossini will greet us, free men, with a shout. Those who appeal to Das Rheingold, be damned! For us, sing Bellini, and sing of love, here in the heat, in half-conquered resorts. We are ready for earthquakes, explosions, storms – pour out your wrath, we tell the Greek gods, Ithaca, too, is subdued by guitars.
A generous sunset, the bells at dusk, this half-deserted village stirs to life. The tango is known here, the mandolin, who knew our poor soldiers could make ladies flush? The officers beat out the time, make quips – these women could make our whole army a match! With long looks they reprove us, yet they smile, saying our captain would flee from a skirt. Those who lie with the Germans are warned, shunned. The caress of my mistress shimmers like starlight, her breast, like a songbird’s, thrills to the sun.
When at last we broke through the defenders’ ranks, a chill obscured the zenith of the sun. This island’s bluffs, like mountains of the gods, overlook our ships disdainfully and slouch. What titans are shaking their chains when they stir, upending great temples of stone with brute haste? The island remains and makes quarries of graves.
Our army outnumbers this country’s by far, we came ashore like the breakers of storms. Though only a captain, I lead these men, and music is all that defines us here. Your guerrillas recaptured the island, you claimed your own hostages, took revenge, the women who strayed, you hanged like dogs – all for a certain idea of life. I pray for our brave quartermaster. Enough.
Music to us was salvation, not hope. Opera, immortal, helped us accept death. True, in this war men are butchered like sheep, or like wolves in sheep’s clothing, skulking and sly. Our army sought power and patrimony, to salvage a myth of our destiny. Why? So our boots could sink knee-deep in blood, while the dogs roll in offal from misfired bombs?
The villagers saw our parades in style, my countrymen marching in fresh from the front. Our singers were followed by brass and drums filing through throngs of young girls and old men. Our choruses gave thanks to Rossini first, then Verdi, the greatest of opera gods. For a few bars Bellini held sway as well, Italy’s nobility know their own – Padua, Naple and Rome sent royal guards.
Conduct our hearts, our wayward dreams – the strength our music gave us in the breach, the love this island showed us when our cause was lost. To you, my muse, I owe not words but gifts. The war that beat upon your shores is lost, artillery will scour here no more, for Germany makes reparations now. The dogs of war are scattered and subdued. The next time officers come from abroad to shelter here, they’ll sue on bended knee.
Ithaca, sing of the loves you have known, strum the guitar or draw notes with the bow. Sing of the castaway heroes of yore. Sound not one bell, let the voice alone ring. Honor the courage your women have shown, for strangers, for fellowship, some for pride, their love as magnanimous as blue skies. Fierce in the sanctity of their own homes. Music embraces the woman alone. Perfect as morning and fine as sea foam.
The adventurers in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World aren’t an overly churchy lot, so this version of the 66th Psalm is admittedly a stretch, but the Psalm had some nautical features that seemed to make it amenable to adaptation. I finally bought the books this movie is based on, but I can’t stand to read them – they’re too good! Reading one makes me feel as guilty as if I just wolfed down a pint of double chocolate ice cream….
Shout out huzzah, to all the world! Sing out the glory of England’s pride. Praise be to God for victory. Say at prayers, “How fierce in battle. Ships scatter before the Lord’s might.” Though we sail the far side of the world, with God’s help all we meet is subdued. Witness the acts of our Lord, awesome in catalogued wonders. Out of the sea he raised fresh water, and finches on bare cindercones. He alone can crown England’s might. For the Lord’s tests probe all nations. Pity those who rise against him. May all our people bless our God, and all aloud give him praise, who has kept us from harm at sea, and permitted no fool to stumble. Our duty to England tried us, our baser needs were swept aside. Like swimmers trawled in a net, ship’s discipline bound us, group and heel. The officer class rode over us. And we strove through dead calms and storms – but our captain brought us through with ease. We gave him our all, unflinching, and made good our oaths to the crown, oaths renewed in the teeth of disaster, when all one could say was, “Hold fast.” Our bodies consigned to the surgeon, we sweat out the pain without cries. The butcher’s bill takes without leave. Come close lads, we’ll tell you a tale, one all God-fearing seamen should hear, of miracles and of reprieves. Three cheers for the captain of the Surprise, huzzah from the bows and the rigging, boys! When we languished in horse latitudes, the captain looked calmly ahead to the prize. God must have kept us in mind, I say, for someone has answered our reckless prayers. God bless our captain, our ship and the crown, for God has looked kindly on you and me.
P.S. Most of the lesser-known chamber music referenced in the books is on YouTube, and it’s amazing…
But this short poem for Yeats and Einaudi quickly became just another poem about ocean plastic. I can’t think of anything but plastic when I picture the beach. Even listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful album Waves, all I can smell is trash from the dumpsters where the seabirds feed, now that the oceans contain more plastic than fish.
Plunge again in the water, dive deep in the foam – count the lost inland seabirds who called these waves home. Tangled in netting from hungers long spent, the seashore rewrites all – the white birds have left. The lily-like creatures of reef and abyss turn empty glass faces toward ours, and we miss the companionship wild geese and gulls mocked in us, when we nodded to see them and bribed them to fuss over all of our comings and goings – they’ve gone up the rivers to forage from dumpsters that spawn around cities we once fled to come to the sea. Their detritus now covers all we can see.
Sorry to be so grim today. But here are some beautiful deep sea creatures to take your mind off the ugliness of it all.