Duparc: A Programme Note

Jim Maguire

[Winner of the Strokestown International Poetry Award 2012]

Spare a thought for Henri Duparc, re-inventor of the French mélodie
who left just seventeen songs. The world can only imagine
what might have happened if
he’d started younger and not gone for the law;
if the first clutch of songs hadn’t come in such a rush
or been so surely made, so hazed with longing — the sense of exquisite things
laid to waste — they were spoken of in the same breath as Schubert’s.
What if he’d had Schubert’s bohemian streak, or if someone had spied
the wisp of unearthed wire hiding behind the curtains
of his grand bourgeoisie childhood; if his bones hadn’t grown
so tired or his ears so alive to the latticed, God-hungry silences
in the attic that, still in his thirties,
the music died.

If he hadn’t lived till he was eighty-five.

Spare a thought for his composer friends,
fellow students of the humble outcast, César Franck –
excitable, nature loving Ernest Chausson,
stately Vincent d’Indy, unbohemian coterie
who’d come to depend on his warmth and light,
the quickness of his ear in setting to rights
their muddled inner parts

the shock of their strapping man crocked
by the slow creep of a vague disease,
his discrete self-removal from the scene.

No farewells or photographs, just the salon air turning cold
and ashamed — how one person leaving the room
can deprive the rest of a tenderness
they’d imagined as their own —
as if they’d glimpsed themselves in the buff
of his empty chair, the picture they cut,
lush-whiskered, old-before-their-time respectables
reckoning up their lives,
each to be ambushed in his grief by the clear strain of a relief
never to be spoken of but woven into the folding screen
of austere, other-world harmonies
that was their unshowy, always unruffled riposte
to the gilded ceilings of the Opéra.
Spare a thought for the mouldering oak
of aristocratic pudeur
which said a brother-in-arms must be left to come through
unaided, unpitied… Where had they moved him now,
Monte-Marsin, Tarbes, Lourdes?

Years of seeing him everywhere, the sleeve of a writing arm
transformed in lamplight to the travel rug across his knees.
How still he seemed on the shore of the frozen lake
perusing the pages of their latest news — Saint-Saëns
making a show of himself in the journals again,
Chausson falling victim to the bicycle craze…

If only they’d been spared the hankering between the lines
of his gracious replies — For a week now, a crimson bird
has come tapping at the window where I work…
How the quietest of his words could flare in their dreams
like sheets of a burning manuscript…

Hardened by pain, he found softness in paint,
an easy flair for braiding
the light into stooks and fennel plumes,
all along catching glimpses
of the blue manor of Rosamunde
in his children and in the sweet and humble poverty
of Francis Jammes and his heavenbound donkeys…
As if the whole enterprise were a gearing-up for his last
quarter-century – blind, paralysed,
sinking deeper into the arms of Christ, a wife
who outlasted him but left no trace beyond the footnotes:
Ellie MacSwiney, amateur soprano,
translator of his Élégie (after Thomas Moore),
dedicatee of a song by Fauré,
who’d sailed from Cork to France at seventeen
the summer her father died.

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