Longing (3): Butterfly

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

*

Late morning. I’ve just polished off what I hope are the last re-writes to “Longing (2)” when the intercom buzzes: a phone call. When I go up to my parents’ house, the place is rockin’. Mom’s playing that darn loud music on her kitchen stereo again! I take the call upstairs in her study. It’s my friend Jo, wondering if I’ll be able to attend the Yusuf Komunyakaa reading at Penn State next Friday night. The whole time we’re on the phone, I can hear my mom’s rich mezzo-soprano, singing along with Madama Butterfly – the old RCA Victor recording with Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker.

When I come downstairs, I poke my head in the kitchen. It’s well into Act III. I think they’re at the part where Butterfly is desperately clinging to her last shred of hope.

È qui, è qui . . . . dove è nascosto? (He’s here, he’s here . . . where is he hiding?)

Mom’s mincing onions; her eyes are wet but she’s grinning. “I just love this, it’s so beautiful!” she enthuses. “I keep thinking, ‘You poor girl, why you don’t realize what a bastard he is?'”

*

George R. Farek, in an essay included in the liner notes, “The Failure and Success of Butterfly”:

These frail, fragile creatures, these unheroic heroines who, loving wholly, are wholly broken by love, these are the ones who fired Puccini’s mind. . . .

Puccini did not seek to storm the heavens. His music lives not on a mountain top but in a small house, in the case of Butterfly a very small house with sliding walls, rented for nine hundred and ninety-nine years with the privilege of cancellation at any time. Here the composer was at home, here he could express, in a language of incomparable sensitiveness, the romantic pulse of his heart. . . . To be inspired, he had to, as he himself said, fall in love with his Mimìs and Liùs, and we may take him at his word when he tells us he loved Cio-Cio-San more than any other of his women.

The literary possibilities of the mysterious East were being discovered at the turn of the century and Puccini was aware of it. To the romancers Japan was a country exclusively inhabited by people of refinement where every man’s thoughts were subtle and every woman bowed low in sweet submission. Novels and stories with a Japanese locale abounded and its art was influencing European art, particularly the work of the French impressionists and Whistler. The public, to quote Bunthorne in Patience, longed for all one sees that’s Japanese.

*

Have you ever gone to an opera performance and wondered about the musicians, playing this heart-rending music night after night in darkness down in the pit? When at last they stand and turn, bowing, you applaud as if for fellow audience members who have done an especially fine job of cheering, driving the performers to new, impossible heights of emotion.

Kate Light is the award-winning author of two books of highly urbane poems in the neo-formalist mode, The Laws of Falling Bodies and Open Slowly. She works as a violinist for the New York City Opera. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting her and attending a reading she gave at Penn State. Given the formidable learning on display in her poems, I was surprised by how unpretentious she was – basically still an ebullient, down-to-earth Midwesterner despite her years of residence in New York. In physical appearance, she rather resembles that Puccini-esque ideal – small, delicate-featured – but the voice in her poems, most of which deal with love in some form, is very wise and anything but fragile.

One of the poems she read that night, a villanelle called “After the Season,” deals directly with her feelings for the characters onstage at the opera. By way of introduction, Light said something like, “Can you imagine what it is like to witness the same tragic errors night after night and feel powerless to stop them?” Yes, of course we can: it is at the root of every opera lover’s longing, the thing, more than anything else, that inspires that lovely throb in the throat.

. . . I am making madness sane, setting prisoners free,
cooling the consumptive cheek, the fevered glow.
Do not talk to me just now; let me be.

Pinkerton and Butterfly make such a happy
couple; Violetta has five gardens now to show …
I am reuniting all the lovers, fishing the drowned from the sea . . .

Please read the complete poem, which appears in her second book, Open Slowly.

*

I remember reading, years ago, about the initial reaction to Western opera among Japanese. It was sometime in the early Meiji era, not long after Japan’s forced opening by Admiral Perry’s black ships. Someone – let’s say the American ambassador – had invited a number of dignitaries to his residence to hear a recital by a well-regarded Italian soprano. The Japanese listened politely as long as they could, but finally they couldn’t take it any more and burst out laughing. The distance between this aesthetic and those governing Japan’s own operatic traditions, Kabuki and Noh, was simply too great.

For years, as a one-time student of Noh dance, I was unable to appreciate Western opera myself. It’s odd, isn’t it, that the same basic emotions – longing and pathos – can give rise to such starkly contrasting aesthetic ideals. Or are they the same emotions? To suppose that they are assumes that such refined feelings can exist independently of the cultures that shape their expression . . .

At any rate, according the liner notes, something similar – and far more disastrous – happened at the world premiere of Butterfly, at La Scala in Milan, on February 17, 1904.

As the gentle chirping of birds was heard, the audience answered: they barked like dogs, burst into cock-a-doodle-doos of roosters, brayed like asses, and mooed like cows as if – [the lead soprano, Rosina] Storchio said – dawn in Japan was taking place in Noah’s Ark. Nothing after that failed to strike the audience as funny. The final scene, the preparation for the suicide and the suicide itself, was heard in comparative quiet, but when the curtain fell, Butterfly ended amidst laughter and derogatory shouts. There were no curtain calls, not a single one.

For a native Italian audience, such a reaction seems inexplicable. Although I confess I’m not a huge fan of Puccini’s music, as I read about this fiasco last night, I found my eyes tearing up with sympathy. And one can’t help but admire his decisiveness and resourcefulness in the face of such humiliation, canceling all scheduled performances, paying off La Scala, withdrawing the score, revising the opera a bit, and finally, on the 28th of May, premiering the revised version in the nearby town of Brescia – an unmitigated triumph. This sensitive and reclusive man, who had little use for heroic male roles in his own works, rose magnificently to the occasion in the service of his fiction, his beloved Butterfly.

*

Why “Butterfly”? The answer seems obvious: butterflies are delicate, ephemeral creatures, easily blown astray by the storms of fate. Then, too, they can symbolize transformative realization, though I’m not sure to what extent Puccini might have been thinking along those lines. Given his penchant for Orientalism, however, he must have read a version of Zhuangzi’s famous parable about dreaming he was a butterfly, then waking to wonder if perhaps instead he himself were merely the dream of a butterfly. Certainly the composer wished to convey a sense of dream-like insubstantiality about the existence of women like Cio-Cio-San, and he had read enough about Japanese aesthetics to understand the value accorded impermanence there.

The literalist in me wonders, though: are butterflies really so helpless? In light of current knowledge, should we perhaps stop thinking of butterflies this way?

As luck would have it, just this morning my mother lent me a copy of the Fall 2004 issue of Hawk Mountain News, which carries her article “Amazing Monarchs.” Yes, of course monarch butterflies are vulnerable to habitat destruction – no less than jaguars or polar bears. But otherwise they seem, collectively, quite resilient, as suggested by their rapid rebound from the massive die-off caused by freezing rain in January 2002. Individually, too, these insects defy human expectations. Individuals weighing just half a gram fly 2,000 miles to a very circumscribed destination they have never seen in central Mexico, over-winter there, and then travel as far north as the southern U.S. the next spring before mating and dying. Just how they manage to navigate is still a hotly contested issue among scientists.

The inter-migrational generations are certainly ephemeral, though being suckled exclusively on milkweed milk makes them nearly invulnerable to predation.

In their summer territory, which includes most of North America, adult monarchs live from two to six weeks. The cycle begins in mid-June, when monarchs can be observed coupling, flying high in the air, abdomen to abdomen. In Pennsylvania, three or four generations are produced each summer.

After mating, the female lays between 630 and 1,260 minute, golden eggs over a 30-day period on the undersides of tender, young milkweed leaves, the exclusive food source for the monarch larvae. Soon after the female lays her eggs, both the adult male and female will die.

A while back I wrote a strange poem about butterflies, based on – yes – a dream I had in which I thought I was a mourning cloak. The mourning cloak and its relative the Compton’s tortoiseshell are the earliest butterflies to emerge in spring, because, unlike the monarchs, they don’t migrate, but over-winter right here. In the dream, I pursued an illicit, inter-species affair with a deeply feminine Compton’s. I awoke feeling an immense sadness and longing, and decided to try and translate that feeling into poetry.

The result was probably, I fear, a bit obscure. I chose the title “Brushfoot,” an allusion to the genus that includes both species, but this is a little misleading since one of the other species mentioned in the poem, the red admiral, is also a brushfoot. Now I’m thinking perhaps I should keep it simple and go with “Butterfly.” It’s currently the opening poem in my manuscript Capturing the Hive – one of three insect poems in that collection – but now I’m wondering if it wasn’t kind of dumb to lead off with such a potentially obscure poem.

Butterfly

I said you, you, until my tongue curled up.
You the delectable pair of antennae,
bright shard
of a tortoise shell
& I in my mourning cloak,
waiting all winter in the form of a dead leaf.
When the warm weather came it didn’t stay,
the new leaves were roused out of their buds
& punished by frost after frost.

The spring ephemerals held
a solid month: bloodroot, mitrewort,
hepatica, Solomon’s seal.
Clouds of pollen filmed our mirrored glasses.
At length the hotter sun conspired
with the encroaching shade
to do away with indeterminacy:
lost spot where we used to meet,
where our tastes coincided,
now & again overlapped.

Our fling appalled
the guardians of natural order, for whom
the world belongs to the young, thrills
to the mastery of monarchs,
the rakish esprit of admirals–all
those that glide from bank
to bank of ranker weeds,
those that soar.
So far from you whose genius it is to flit.

*

Whatever the merit of Puccini’s other guesses about Japan, he wasn’t wrong about the premium placed on childlike fragility in traditional Japanese notions about feminine desirability. I remember how shocked I was back in 1985 when I first arrived in Japan, got on a bus and heard the hyper-feminized voice in the recordings announcing each stop. At the time, this was an ideal that unmarried Japanese women still sought to approximate. After marriage, however, they often underwent a transformation scarcely less astonishing than that of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Especially after the birth of their first child, women’s voices deepened with authority as they assumed full responsibility for the economic management of the household. Their bodies filled out, once-delicate limbs turning into daikon no ashi, as popular wisdom had it: legs like Japanese radishes, sturdy white columns of pungent flesh.

I gather that Japan has undergone something of a feminist revolution in the two decades since. When I was there, the subject of women’s liberation came up frequently when I talked with co-eds at the college I attended. “American women need liberation more than we do,” they would insist, appealing to a widespread stereotype. “They’re so weak! They have to ask their husbands for money!”

*

The anonymous 12th-century manuscript Tsutsumi Chunagon Monogatari has been called the world’s oldest collection of short stories. Its stories display a concern, unusual for the late Heian period, with the bizarrely comic. They parody the affectations and pretensions of Heian literature with an effect rather like laughter at the performance of a tragic opera.

The most famous of these stories, “The Lady Who Loved Insects,” finds comedy in the affairs of a young, would-be naturalist. Here’s how it begins:

Next door to the lady who loved butterflies was the house of a certain Provincial Inspector. He had an only daughter, to whose upbringing he and his wife devoted endless care. She was a strange girl, and used to say: “Why do people make so much fuss about butterflies and never give a thought to the creatures out of which butterflies grow? It is the Natural Form of things that is always the most important.” She collected all kinds of reptiles and insects such as most people are frightened to touch, and watched them day by day to see what they would turn into, keeping them in various sorts of little boxes and cages. Among these creatures her favourite was the common caterpillar. Hour after hour, her hair pushed back from her eyes, she would sit gazing at the furry black form that nestled in the palm of her hand. She found that other girls were frightened of these pets, and her only companions were a number of rather rough little boys, who were not in the least afraid. She got them to carry about the insect-boxes, find out the name of the insects or, if this could not be done, help her give them new names.

She hated anything that was not natural. Consequently she would not pluck a single hair from her eyebrows nor would she blacken her teeth, saying it was a dirty and disagreeable custom. So morning, noon and night she tended her insects, bending over them with a strange, white gleaming-smile. People on the whole were frightened of her and kept away; the few who ventured to approach her came back with the strangest reports. If anyone showed the slightest distaste for her pets, she would ask him indignantly how he could give way to so silly and vulgar a prejudice, and as she said this she would stare at the visitor under her black, bushy eyebrows in a way that made him extremely uncomfortable.

Her parents thought all this very peculiar and would much rather she had been more like other children; but they saw it was no use arguing with her. She for her part took immense trouble in explaining her ideas, but this only resulted in making them feel that she was much cleverer than they. “No doubt,” they would say, “all you tell us is quite true, and so far as we are concerned you may do as you please. But people as a rule only make pets of charming and pretty things. If it gets about that you keep hairy caterpillars you will be thought a disgusting girl and no one will want to know you.” “I do not mind what they think,” she answered. “I want to inquire into everything that exists and find out how it began. Nothing else interests me. And it is very silly of them to dislike caterpillars, all of which will soon turn into lovely butterflies.” Then she again explained to them carefully how the cocoon, which is like the thick winter clothes that human beings wear, wraps up the caterpillar till its wings have grown and it is ready to be a butterfly. Then it suddenly waves its white sleeves and flits away. . . .

(Arthur Waley, tr., in Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation of Arthur Waley, Ivan Morris, ed., Creative Arts Book Company, 1981)

The rest of the story, which purports to be the first scroll from a lost novel, records the archly sarcastic poems and practical jokes sent her way by other young ladies and two pretend suitors. A woman who thinks for herself, ha ha. Scientific curiosity about the natural world – how unfeminine and absurd.

But the portrait itself is so compelling, so realistic and so true to type, for anyone who has ever read about the lives of female naturalists in our own society, it’s hard not to feel that it was based on some real person. I’m reminded of the 18th- and 19th-century pioneering women naturalists portrayed in my mother’s book, Women in the Field. At the thought of this long-ago, misunderstood woman, the butt of jokes, the model for an unflattering literary portrait probably circulated widely among the sophisticated young men and women of Kyoto’s incestuous elite, I feel a familiar catch in my throat. Ah, if only . . .

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