The Laughing Monkeys of Gravity
First Voices

We have a few of their voices, Enrico Caruso's
most important of all, but there were others:
Luisa Tetrazzini's, for example, as Gilda,
recorded in 1911. Why do they move us more
than any present sense of who's in the room
with us tonight, or will be, soon enough,
for the usual pleasant talk, for an hour or so?
Is it because theirs are voices never heard before,
coins never counted, paintings never seen,
stone ships on the waves of a watery world,
and we are the last to have known them, the last
to recall the first of the speaking dead?
At least we think there were visits during
which we drank tea, sliced bread on enameled
tabletops; we listened to stories, too, on sofas
with cushions in needlepoint before fading
away into other registers. Not much else
that hasn't slipped away from the easy
hearing of the present, where our children's
children play among their own unfelt sounds.
In the empty houses of the immediate, we try
to entertain them with our natural voices,
small relics of attention, ghosts of bread
and butter, tidbits, we hope, of useful talk.

Say it's snowing on 57th Street on a particular
morning in February, 1904. In a studio
in Carnegie Hall, Caruso is singing an aria
of Donizetti's; he draws out several passages,
and a decision is made to cut two discs
rather than one. Meanwhile, outside, someone
we once knew, or think we did, boards a trolley
going downtown on Seventh Avenue. Thinking
of nothing at the moment, he watches the curb,
while, at the same time, across the street,
the engineer from Victor Gramophone notes the place
where the second disc starts. Un solo istante,
Caruso sings, an event in wax, an entry
in the sum of all sounds otherwise made but lost.
Tonight we listen to that mezzo voce as if it were
the last of our flat and scratchy connections
on the turning surface of an old and brittle planet.