The local public-radio station has a Choral Showcase every Sunday night, and tonight’s feature is Robert Shaw’s English translation of Brahms’ German Requiem, and I am sitting with my dead.
The second movement is the one that stays with me. With apologies to Robert Shaw, no one gets it right.
Denn alles Fleisch ist wie die Gras
Und all den Herrlichkeit des menschen wie die Grases Blumen…
Not “all the glory of mankind,” but “all the lordliness.” All the fleeting belief that human will can control anything, rule anything, direct anything. Or is there a boomerang clause in there? The flower of grass, die Grases Blumen, dries up and falls. And comes again. It was an interesting verse for Brahms to choose.
I am sitting with my dead.
Her name was Linda, and she had the perfectly black wiry hair and waxy complexion of the beautiful Jewess in folksongs (Brahms set one of those, too), fingers a joint too long, too much familiarity with the crass ways that human beings sell their hearts for fairy gold. We were finger and thumb from the year I was eight till the year I was eighteen. I believed in enchanted castles, she read William Burroughs. I don’t know what pulled out the rug: too much expectation (go to pre-med at Brown and get all A’s or else)? too much private misery (I heard later her thuggish older sister beat her black and blue)? too much everything (weeks before she died, she said to me in the tones of someone snapping an iron bar in two: “I’m tired of talking to people who think they know me”)? She drove the family car — she emphasized once to me, oh so particularly, that it was a “sport coupe” — into the garage, shut the door, and left it running. They found her on the garage floor, half way to the door that led into the house, with the keys in her hand. I was away at college, and not one of my sorry excuses for family or friends had the guts to tell me for a solid month. I missed the funeral.
Her name was Nancy and she had red hair and, in the end, breast cancer, and I always was sorry I wasn’t related to her. When she got very ill, I used to drive a few miles to her house with a portable table and give her a massage while her small, obnoxious dog cavorted around the room, to include jumping up on my back while I broke the table down. Any other dog that ever tried that with me would have ended up as a radio satellite. She was sketching out a book about Calamity Jane when her chemo stopped working. I really wanted to read it.
Her name was Nancy and she had red hair and, in the end, breast cancer. Second in a series. She ran a little body-care salon type place and we swapped clients and services, and she was wonderfully gutsy and pragmatic except that she and her husband believed in one of those modern “applied religious philosophies” that tell you enough dedication to the Church will keep you from ever needing a doctor or, naturally, medical insurance. She went in for a kind of herbal therapy that works quite nicely (I have tried it on the dog, meaning me) for extirpating a wart or the like, but for a breast neoplasm it was pretty gruesome, let me tell you, the entire fucking primary tumor lifted out one day looking big and sly and hideous as a tree fungus, though of course it was all over her by then.
And there was my onetime husband. We went together, once, to a performance by the choir of the Unitarian church up the street, not shabby for a neighborhood ensemble, doing an English version of the Requiem predating Robert Shaw’s, though it still used that unprepossessing “flow’r of graa-ass” in place of the squarely sturdy German “Grases Blumen.” “The horn section was good,” he said.
I still look over at the chair where he used to sit, expecting him to say something.
You read that Brahms was an atheist, or close to it, that he selected the Bible verses used in the Requiem for the way they spoke to the living, rather than of the dead. Living, I try not to cry crudely like a doofus, thinking instead of what he might have been saying to me when he chose his texts.
The farmer waits
for the precious crop from the earth
being patient with it
until it receives
the early and the late rains.