The Last Castrato
He plays a pair of castanets
To keep his hands from shaking, waiting
For the cue to join a choir
Of a cappella boys whose voices
May not last another year.
An audience fills the concert hall and he
Can hear the hard-heel sounds of feet in the aisles.
Backstage, among the pulleys and ropes,
He knows that he will soon perform in posture
Learned a few days after surgery,
When he remembers standing on the terrace,
Looking out across the moonlit city
After bathing, feeling how the night
Moved over him like wind on a broken tooth.
On cue he walks to center stage and feels
The atmosphere of all interior space
Drawn up together by the common gasp
Of many people waiting for the voice
That rose in boyhood to the breaking point
And froze before falsetto called him false.
And then his heart is all that he can hear.
That old accustomed sense of rushing air
Comes over him as he begins to sing.
This time it's his arrangement from The Tempest,
Something of the yellow sand and waves
That whilst around an island caught in a storm.
But all that he can think about tonight
Is when he visited America
Where in New Orleans on the singing tour
He saw a clackety clip of silent film
And heard the bijou organ player stop
To watch a woman on a slab of ice
As she was carried down a stream unconscious.
Moviegoers waited for the hero
Tilting out across the jagged slabs
In time to save her from a waterfall.
And now he's trying to identify
With either hero, heroine, or ice,
But none of them are right.
He only knows
That he was singled out and set apart,
An orphan of himself who testifies
Of sea change into something rich and strange
Like any artist, or the art itself
That says, "Remember me. Remember me."
This particular poem suggests how to approach Mills' poems--his concerns, his arguments--not only in this first book but also in his later work (collected in his Selected Poems). First, the voice of the castrato, being the last of it kind, is lonely, not entirely able to "join a choir," even sharing the same stage with others. Many of Mills' poems explore characters who, for a host of reasons, are never really able to join with others--not family, not community, and especially not society at large. They feel, as this castrato does, orphaned from a world in which their singular gifts are no longer needed or valued. Thus, in Mills' poems we encounter steeplejacks, dowsers, piano-tuners, and basket weavers, all of them artisans, all of them viewing work as "a holy calling"--a view particularly at odds with the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In a way, the only place they truly belong is inside their own voices.
This voice of the castrato suggests a purity of sound we find in Mills' poems. This "first" poem prefigures his attention to meter, rhyme, consonance, and assonance. The poem begins, "He plays a pair of castanets/To keep his hands from shaking..." Note the repetition of p and k sounds as well as both long and short a sounds within the poem's first seven metrical feet. In the poem's second strophe, we encounter fills, hall, hear, hard, heel, and feet, the sound of one word echoing another and another, sometimes a vowel, sometimes a consonant, and sometimes both, as if the poem were being pulled along by a logic of sound, by the joy of its own singing. Mills' poems testify to sound, to the power of the "rich and strange" to turn words into song.
More than anything, though, the voice of a castrato serves as a crucial conceit for Mills, for Mills turns many of his poems toward those who are receding into history. This voice--angelic, ethereal, other-worldly, pure--represents a voice that, in our modern times, we have no way even to imagine. We have a recording--a not so good representation of the genuine thing--but, in truth, we have no access to a holy (and wholly artistic) voice that used to exist. Like the castrato, we have become "orphans" of ourselves and move deeper into a society that values not art but imitation. "The men who built old churches all have died," Mills laments in "Confessions of a Steeplejack" in a now haunting and devastatingly beautiful pentameter line. Sadly, though, in place of old churches, we now have "cinder block and wafer board," the steeple replaced with "an imitation cupola to hold/A speaker for the imitation bells."
Mills spent two decades writing poems, becoming, like this first figure in his work, sometimes a rescuer, sometimes in need of rescue, and sometimes the Art itself--"the ice," as the poem says. Many of his best poems capture that moment when the artist has entered a centered state, the purest voice, and "his heart is all that he can hear." In "This Work Is a Church," a poem published after he died, Mills states, prayerfully, "Oh, let me live in the vacant spaces/Where the music floats./I'll dance in the silent time that graces/Air between the notes." If Mills' "first" poem points us toward the role of art to assemble a whole from the pieces, then in one of his last poems, we see him achieving wholeness and accepting the stage--except that he has turned the castrato's concert hall into a sanctuary. He has taken the "gasp" confronting the castrato and has fully stepped into it, "danc[ing] in the silent time," and then showing us what we had forgotten, or possibly never knew in the first place--namely that voice is always "drifting deeper into prayer" and that words are "chapels." How fortunate that Wil Mills sang for us.