Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The skull at the feast

Apart from his music, I know very little about Brahms:
a handsome youth, with unfulfilled love for
Clara Schumann, and perfect pitch.
There is a story that he was visiting a house;
he remembered the street name
and that the metal door scraper
sounded E flat but had forgotten
the number. A quick foray
up and down the street
settled the problem.
But this story is surely apocryphal:
why was he not arrested
for loitering with intent?
And do all metal door scrapers
play their own individual notes?

Anyway, the final story is true.
Brahms liked to compose
with the skull of Josef Haydn
beside him.
The skull had undergone adventures.
Filched from its grave
by an eager phrenologist,
but scrupulously returned
to Vienna when the phrenologist died,
it had traveled far.
The story may not be apocryphal
but it still leaves questions hanging.
Was Brahms seeking inspiration
or a reminder of his own mortality?
Inspiration – a breathing in;
conspirators need to breathe together
in a small room; they would not shout
their messages of subversion
across a windy moor
where the words might be blown away
and blazoned across the sky.
Inspiration – of the air
but a skull is earthbound,
of the grave. Was Brahms hoping to gain
inspiration from Haydn
to compose a work that would rattle
his reluctant audience
into acknowledging
their own mortality?
Nor does the story tell
what ultimately happened to the skull.
Did it join the body at Esterhazy?
But there had been a fraudulent skull
of an old man placed with Haydn’s body
which would then need to be removed
into the darkness of its own
anonymous grave.

Thank God, I need no skull on my desk.
The best of my poems seem to come from the air,
as if they are writing themselves;
and my illness offers its own
momento mori.


  1. That is such a witty piece, Diana. What is it about skulls on desks in those old days? Was it Holbein who painted a skull which you could only see on the oblique, as it were. Skulls and death were in some ways all too present then, but treated more naturally as a result. Whoever would think of touching a skull these days, let alone working alongside one. Some music journal should publish this piece.
    With love

  2. Diana,
    Loved it! In March Jeanette and I were attending a watercolor course in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and one of the endearing, wonderful things I love about that culture is the Day of the Dead. I brought back a fabulous skeletal Katrina doll; dressed to the nines in long red dress, splendid hat and boa! She makes me smile every time I look at her. Difficult to forget one's own mortality when skeletons leer at you from every shop! Maybe that's why there is music everywhere; especially in the central square every night. Not a moment must be wasted, celebrate while there is still time!
    love, diane

  3. Dear Diana
    I love your poem. I don't know about doorscrapers and their various notes, but I do know that our metal chimney reverberates extremely well to only some sung notes and not at all to others.

    I love your query about Brahms seeeking inspiration or reminding himself of his own mortality.I noted that I though ti was 'both' 'and', rather than 'either', 'or',. It seems to me that the latter informs the former as you concluded in your last verse.

    Much love