Smitten with Britten part 5: poetry

For one of the final projects of a documentary poetry class I took, I decided to do a poetic-biography of Britten. The poems are meant to give some idea of his life as well as the feelings he could have had, and they are meant to be companions to the Violin Concerto as I had a particular part of the piece in mind while writing each poem. I mentioned in my earliest Smitten with Britten that Britten was a very complicated man…in trying to write poems from his perspective, I was trying to do what he did for Peter Grimes…grapple with some of his more unsavory qualities and allow a chance for artistic redemption. It can be hard to separate a man and his music (like with Wagner and his anti-semitism,) and with Britten’s alleged pedophilia as well as an allegedly disturbingly close relationship with his mother, I wanted to find a way to view him in full complexity and to maintain the love and respect I have for him as a composer. In preparing for this project, I read 9 different books about Britten and his music including letters and different biographies to get a fuller picture of the man. What I like about a poetic-biography is that it doesn’t presume to understand or know anything about a person…and it doesn’t pretend to be a complete representation. Because it asks more questions, and allows for more possibility, I almost see it as a truer sense of biography- one in which the mystery of a man can still live without being pinned down by facts, opinions, etc.

Opus 1, Beni

Everything trembles, hushed.
Again, it comes.
I crash through the froth
as the current crests,
legs yawning as the rush gives way.
I ease my way to opulence.
It always starts with a sudden leap in the darkness.
I see auric lines and pale blue fire.
I feel something culminate in me.
At the moment I think it will break,
it rounds, extends, and exits.
This is breathing.
The sudden leaping has continued all this time.
This is my heart beating.
The blue blurs to indistinct shades.
The beating is discordant, apart
from my breath, my song.
There is a strain upon me
to be right,
There is a strain within me,
diverging, alarming
in nature.
The tea kettle left too long
smoke uncoiling.
And I drown in heaviness.

Beni plays with his siblings, exterior

I wonder why
we always play bad men
prompted by bad things.
Cowboys and Indians,
we gallop and shriek
in the bland sea breezes.
From the conch shells
harpies whine disharmonies;
cries cut up by the wind
Ashen water whips in a frenzy
like my voice,
when it teeters on highs and lows.
Sand grit nicks at my
salting my calves.
I’m made to cuff and slap you.
Another day at the beach,
under an indifferent sky.
Another day as a young boy,
savage and savaged.

Beni plays with his siblings, interior

I want to prove myself–
to be a boy like other boys.
I want to be concerned only
with sinew, tendon, and heft.
But there are aches
within me, because I have
or could have–
a capacity for song.
I have inclinations.
Ardor, and rapture.
Other things too.
There is delicacy here.
And quiet feeling, unshakably earnest.
Stretched and pushed by the
waves, its puppet strings.
What is boy, what is man,
and what is woman?
My bones whistling, muscles singing,
the harpies urge me

Beni, left alone, dreams of his mother Barbara

The stain spreading,
white secretions murmur against each other.
The thrush outside is cooing circles, 5am
A young blonde actress wrings her hands
on the pale green glo-worm screen.
My stomach is lurching,
porridge nausea hits my tongue.
There are faded flowers on your bathrobe.
You turn to me!
And my heart clamors in its coop.
Agitation becomes the only honest thing about me.
Desire is flaming out lick after lick of triumph.
Tenuous, I paw at your lap,
my heart a tight wound.
Weak branches clawing
at a window.
I have inclinations.
However imprecise, askew,
“Such a girl as even I
could lose my heart to”
Only the first blush of morning
makes tired my weakness.

*By four separate accounts, Benjamin’s relationship with his mother Barbara was seen as odd. She was very controlling and they were intimate in ways that made many friends, family members, and outside observers uncomfortable.

Benjamin grapples

From the window,
unseeing orioles twitch ecstatic
while little girls,
little boys,
sharpen pencils,
take the bus.
So effortful not to see,
want, seduce,
The sirens start again,
their full-throated song.
Making shapes in blood-
colored silks.
I want,
to sing along,
seduce, produce.
In schools,
war and peace co-exist
on book covers,
but synthesis is misshapen.
War and peace cannot co-exist.
Where one loses
beauty, the other loses strength.
Just like God and my devil
cannot co-exist.
It is wrong to love other boys,
especially little ones.

Benjamin decides

I want to create a single and singular thing of beauty.
To show you who I am when I am my best.
This is my contribution.
This is my contribution to the Spanish Civil War.
Maybe not the blood, the entrails of my body,
but my equally spilt and fractured conscience.
I know the ways morality can augment and rub out
Histories, families, people.
How virtuous, how clean.
I do not need to fight this Spanish Civil War
in the way you think.
Already inside me,
Ignorant armies clash in the night.
I wrestle with the graying slight stoop.
I wrestle with the choice between
baby soft cottons and a simple starched shirt.
…To have clarity like his unmarred skin
in these times of war…
I know I am disgusting because you have told me I am.
I have disdain too.
The love, how much and what kind…
Stars emit their faint pulsing sadness
at tens of thousands dead.
I just know I want to make you,
my concerto,
a single and singular thing of beauty.
Incompetent rubbings, accidental ruptures, waste.
But I keep trying.
If I can’t make you, at least
I would like to touch you.

Grand Rapids

“I shall never forget a certain night in Grand Rapids. Ich liebe dich, io t’amo, jeg elske dyg, je t’aime, in fact, my little white-thighed beauty, I’m terribly in love with you.”

I’m beginning
To be sure of my footing now.
To know where I stand
and how.
I’m taking shape,
becoming evident.
The horses are charging with their steel
flanked muscles.
The trumpeters expel air
from their rounded,
now hollowed cheeks.
I cast a net for those voices
which will not be drowned.
And yet, I’m flooded with
grief with
uncertainty with
love for
you who are my mother or my son or
my Peter
The steeple,
so clean…so virtuous.
Leaden steps in the water,
I steep in this metal,
I gasp I gasp, I grasp

*Peter Pears on the night they consummated their union.


*Peter Pears was the life partner of Benjamin Britten. Both were gay in a time it was illegal and now, their love, partnership, and works are among the things England most prides itself on.

You lift your face to me.
I see you suspended,
and lean.
I make lowing sounds–
water appears on my face.
Seized, I whimper,
teeth chatter and plead.
I feel something culminate in me…
I round, extend, and enter.
we swim on our sheets.
Lichen bloom
around us as our tongues whorl
Pain exquisitely distilled,
I see you deeply,
unshakably earnest.
In the blue half-light,
as we arch, clinch, and calcify…
I can see all the sweet boys and girls
mumbling in their pillowcases.
Just waking, beginning to take shape,
be sure.
As the dark unobscures,
as the prejudice unobscures,
I see them having inclinations and knowing,
the love, how much, and what kind.
Muscles hum and spark.
At last,
I gasp, I gasp.
And yet, cold dawn leaves
I am just a man
unloved by other men.
I keep asking, uncertain.
Each time the answer,
resounding yes.
The long fingers of war and light
make me unsure.
I’m left–
I lapse, I lapse

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