THE PANTOGRAPH PUNCH

Literature11.12.23
#PIJF#CARVINGSPACE

Scenes from a Night at the Opera: A Poem Cycle

A series of small intimate vignettes between young lovers over the course of one night. Cadence Chung poses the question: How much of ourselves do we give away in love, and how much do we keep?

Alternate title: Seliger Augenblick

Overture

On the path to the bus stop there’s
the outline of a bug-wing in the concrete —
maybe dragonfly, maybe cicada. I
think of what a cellophane delight it
must have been, a wax-paper treasure
fallen from the sky. When I came home
that night after the opera, the house
suddenly seemed so neatly compacted, with
its humming fridge-song and glistering tiles.
The mirror showed a piece of dry skin
on my lips and I wasn’t sure if it was mine
or if it was hers, transferred. All night, she
looked at me with a want in her eyes
that scared me. It was only afterwards that
I realised I must have done the same.

Arrival

Your hair was wet: I smelled, as always, of
dress-stored-in-the attic, too strong for even
perfume to cover. The refurbished theatre
glowed nauseously red, the foyer swelled with
footsteps, I avoided your kiss, etc. The strangely
angled subtitles made us all flick our heads, and
each time I saw the corner of your chin I knew,
instantly, what all those old men meant about
Beauty, and why all those old statues were posed
at such an angle.

Debit

We forgave each other for our purchases:
your new trousers, my blue satin dress. At
half-time, we discussed the opera in such
modern terms — misogyny, fetish, stereotype.
What was that little tagline from Act 2?
All women are our debtors, but we must
forgive them anyway
, or something close
to it. I didn’t like that — reminded me of
debit, like debit card, like the new perfume
I bought last week because it was named
after Duchamp. Or maybe debit like the
Requiem Mass: cum sedebit, agnus dei.
On principle, I liked the big show of guilt, the
rhapsodising in Latin, the church choirs, the
camp of it all. But in practice, it was boring.

Question

In fact, it was all so boring —
the white foyer, the
old white people —
that the question of drinks,
of afters, seemed like it fell from Heaven.

Even in the plastic-lipped light
of my near-empty checking account
and my embarrassing over-18 card,
that question was holy.
It killed me
and resurrected me just so I could say
yes again and again.

Drinks

As the waiter gave us our menus, I rambled
ineffectually about the opera — some

tired analysis of the final quintet that I’d
vaguely heard in theory class. You wanted

to know what I liked to drink, interrogating
me on all the cocktails I’d only really heard

about from more popular friends. I lied about
liking negronis, hoping the allure of bitter orange

would make up for it all. You stated all your likes
and dislikes with such earnestness that my dishonesty

seemed like some sort of crime. But still,
the drinks arrived, we found things to say

to each other. What was that about the soprano?
you asked, politely. I didn’t answer. I was

thinking about pink gin.

O, the night

O, the night that stretched before us!
The cool lamp-light of it, glistering
like cicada-wing.

The way you bit into the orange
slice that came with your drink —
that was what changed my mind
about it all. It was the most natural
thing in the world. I would have waited.
I would have let it melt into candied
dust before I’d even show my teeth.

Around us — Monday evening’s silence,
the schoolboyed streets,
defaced with chip packets. Ghosts of
Capital hid themselves everywhere: the
alleys that smelled of magazines,
the purple-corporate smile of Farmers,
still aglow with light. The Whitcoulls-

And you paid for my drinks and my fries
and everything.

First sighting


I noticed him when you were onto martinis and I was onto that gross cherry thing. Through the dim light and fake balustrades, he appeared — the man who looked like Mozart. He had no powdered wig or Rococo costume but something in the oil-paint glow of his cheeks was undeniably classical. I couldn't help myself from glancing at him between egg-white-whipped sips, wanting to congratulate him on the opera we'd just watched. You asked me what I was looking at, perhaps thinking I was daring enough to be checking out another woman. I'm thinking about how you didn't bring a bag tonight, I told you, surprising even myself. But it was true — all you had was the outline of a phone and a wallet in your corduroys. I liked that you were willing to give yourself into the night with so few possessions. You could even call it transcendental. But anyway, it seemed like the right thing to say, because you smiled with that slight head tilt towards your right shoulder. I didn't know you well enough to decide if this was a habit or not, but it charmed me. It was like a little flourish at the end of the cadence. Across the tables, Mozart looked back at me. I could see the flicker of Time in his eyes.

Mozart

When you left to order another
round, I couldn’t help myself — I
went up to Mozart, wishing I had worn
a slightly less low-cut dress. Forgive me
for intruding,
I said, but how did you
know you were destined for greatness?
He turned and replied, It was when they
played my Requiem for the thousandth
time
that was when I knew I wasn’t.
What an answer! Before, I had a million
questions about art burning holes in my
satin breast, but suddenly they all seemed
so stupid. For instance, how do you make
a sonata sound like it could last a million
years,
or, how do you make a baritone
actually sound good,
or even, how do you
make art that matters?
But his eyes were
paua shells — filigree buttons against
his silk-white face. Their glittering
made me uneasy. Well, what can I do? I burst
out — not the question I wanted to ask at all.
He gestured to where you sat, scrolling through
Instagram on your phone. Go to her, he said.
Compelled, I sat back down with you,
your olive skewer already empty. The
question simply came out: So, what’s your
favourite spot in town?
You grinned at me
like you thought I’d never ask.

Balcony

You took me to a dive, because
of course you did.

That’s alright — I kind of liked it —
half unbothered, half out of my
depth, the corner of my eye fixated
on you leaning over, wristwatch
on forearm on table.

I was surprised at such a crowd
on a Monday, surrounded
by sweaty pits and heavy eyeshadow
in a cheap-Clinique-Diet-Coke
cacophony.

This is my scene, anyway, you said, and
in all the mess I only noticed your smile.
Your smile after you
came out from the bathroom and saw me
again — it was a Turner painting. Your
teeth were a perfect harmony.

After a while we went out onto
the coughing balcony, cigaretted
with noise, and we didn’t talk
about music. We talked only
of idle things —
friends, jobs, family, public
transportation.

The orchestra was gone. I needed
to get it out of my head. No more
violins. No more timpani.

Just girl, in front of me, waiting.

Why I am not a painter

It had come to some bitter
hour all burnished-silver.
Under the wet rubbish-bag
of sky, we walked to my
stop, shielded from stardust,
avoiding each other’s eyes.

That’s why I could never be
a poet, you said, though

I hadn’t heard what
you’d said before then.
I’d just remembered that all
night, I hadn’t even asked you

to show me one of your paintings.
You’d shown me Notes app
drafts, little sketches. I should
have asked you all about it —
how your coat-buttons were
readymade sculptures of

beauty, or how effortless
the night seemed in your
rhythm: the head-nodding at
the dive, the polite giggles
at the show. O’Hara wrote
something about painters,

didn’t he? I asked, not
expecting you to know,
not being a poet or a loser.
Something about how terrible
life is, and orange. Lots
of orange in that poem.

Thankfully you didn’t
even pay attention, or
maybe you were polite
enough to ignore me.
Do you even think about
how moral it is? you asked.

You put it all into a poem and
expect it to just stay there?
I felt accused somehow, but
your tone was gentle, quiet.
It, like many other things you’d
said that night, was a question.

I could have said, I put it into
a poem so it stays — but I

held my tongue instead
and leaned against you. It’s cold,
I said. I know, you replied. Down the road
a car backfired like a drum.

We stopped walking for a moment.
I adjusted my heels, my ankles
rubbed red-raw. With a stray
napkin pressing its white body
against ours, we kissed like an orchestra.
We drew apart like applause.

Finale

Mozart’s dad, you said suddenly, reading my mind. Leopold Mozart, right? Wasn’t he the one that went crazy? I wanted to laugh but some part of me didn’t find it funny at all. I was thinking of the poem I’d write when I’d get home, and struggling to figure out how to describe your hair. They all went crazy, I replied eventually, fingering the city-stained edge of the bus stop bench, always unsure of what to do with my hands. What from, your gaze seemed to question, so I said, Art — such an uninspired answer that I grimaced right there. But then again, what else could I have said? Love, life, time, poetry? As you left, I watched the city stumble back into place, tripping over its greasy paper bags. The buses glowed like neon angels. They were quiet saviours, their Requiem humming me into the morning.

Author's note:

This poem cycle is a pseudo-autobiographical account of a night out at the opera. The alternate title to this cycle is ‘Seliger Augenblick’. This translates roughly to ‘blessed moment’, comes from Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier. It is sung when the two young lovers meet and proclaim that “all of eternity rests in this blessed moment”. I wanted to take this idea as the model for a cycle of poetry, which follows a narrator and her lover as they traverse desire and young love, rendered in small, intimate vignettes — “blessed moments”, as it were — that span the course of one night. Both interior and exterior spaces are examined (an opera house, a dive bar); both real and imagined people fill them (a lover, an apparition of Mozart). But perhaps the space that is most at question throughout the cycle is psychological: How much of ourselves do we give away in love, and how much do we keep? In the process of asking these questions, the narrator becomes confronted with the choice between idealising art and experiencing life.

Header photography: Kazuo Ota sourced from Unsplash

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