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Dirge for a Dying Diva

Who’s alive now who ever heard the voice
That once adorned La Scala and The Met,
A native of this land where we forget
Artists quicker than books or melted ice?
The wonder of her lovely lyric highs
Survives in one rich memory as yet,
And while I’m still around I’ll never let
The rest of you quite lose what never dies.
Music achieves an end that sounds complete.
Music remains the Heaven of the Mind.
Music holds gifts you seem inclined to miss,
And she whose cadences once rang so sweet
Devoted all her skill to help you find
That benison of ear, that world of bliss.

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To Nevermore

Immortal raven who can never go
Into that grey immensity where I,
Like any poet, even your maker, Poe
Must slip, sooner or later – Not to die:
That would be easy. – But slowly to fade
Out of all reputation and effect,
To become one with all the thrills that jade,
One with the sermons none can recollect;
Unending negative, uniquely deep,
Full stop, unanswered in the mourner’s heart,
Your sable wings unfurl in the long sleep
Beyond reach of civility and art.
Truly more than a word, you mean the lot:
When other words have lost all sense, you’ll not.

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Deathbed

He’s grown  so very old that he forgets
How short his lifelong memory now seems
As cataracting down through his numbed dreams,
It raises mist that, when he wakes, still wets
His pillow, flashes where the sun now sets
Behind the trees, branches into thin streams
And in that maze of ever fainter gleams,
Dies in obscurity with no regrets.
As blessed as wise, he lovingly perceives
How each small present thing, his medicine
Tint in a glass, a mint dropped by the nurse,
Three sparrows bickering under darkened eaves,
Speeds toward its rightful station in
The scene that will complete his universe.

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Lionel Willis was born in Toronto in 1932. He has been a mosaic designer, portrait painter, watercolorist, biological illustrator, field entomologist and professor of English Literature as well as a poet. His verse has appeared in A Miscellany of Prints and Poems, The Canadian Forum,  Candelabrum Poetry Magazine, Descant, Dream International Quarterly, Harp Strings Poetry Journal, Hrafnhoh, Iambs & Trochees, Light, Romantics Quarterly, The Classical Outlook, The Society of Classical Poets, The Deronda Review,  The Eclectic Muse, The Fiddlehead, The Formalist, The Lyric, The Road Not Taken, Troubadour and White Wall Review, and in two books, The Dreamstone and Other Rhymes (The Plowman, 2003) and Heartscape, a Book of Bucolic Verse (EIDOLON, 2019).  


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12 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    These are three very beautiful sonnets, though deeply tinged with the thought of mortality. I remember Lionel Willis as a contributor to the magazine Iambs and Trochees, when Bill Carlson and I ran it.

    Reply
    • lionel willis

      Joeseph and Susan: Thank you for your very kind praise, which I know you could very easily have tempered. You are both expert critics.

      I remember vividly how well things went for me at Iambs and Trochees, thanks to your wise counsel, Joe!

      Reply
  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    This triumphant trio of superlative sonnets is a masterclass in magnificent poetry and I am reveling in the beauty and craftmanship of your fine work! Thank you, Mr. Willis.

    Reply
  3. Margaret Coats

    You speak in a most intriguing way of memory, Mr. Willis. First, your rich and belligerent memory eternizing Maria Callas in “Dirge for a Dying Diva,” and then in “Deathbed,” a memory growing fainter but at the same time growing toward completion. There “each small present thing” accelerates noticeably in that shorter, next-to-last line, to reach its place in the individual memory’s completed universe. What a reminder how full of sensory impressions we are!

    Reply
    • lionel willis

      Thank you, Margaret, for making certain connections explicit. You have given my three essays the consideration I am arrogant enough to believe they deserve. I think you ought to know that the subject, unnamed in the poems, is partly a Canadian coloratura soprano who was active in my youth (I was born in 1932.) Her name is Collette Boki. My wife and I met her at a balance and hearing clinic at a Toronto hospital in 2016, where we were all struggling with the same problems of old age. While I waited for my wife to complete her tests, Collette and I chatted (shouting, of course) about the value of Art. I believe she may be still alive too, though the Pandemic frays the fabric of discourse. We share the need for music even if we can barely hear it. And canes.

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        I should have remarked that, without the name in the poem, it could suit any great singer whose reputation is diminishing. You did say, “A native of this land,” and I should have checked what land you come from! Thought your subject might be Maria Callas because she was Greek but born in New York. I am glad to hear of Collette Boki, and to know that she may be with us yet. I am a singer who has been frustrated that the pandemic took music from us for so long, even though solo and schola singing could have been done from a perfectly safe distance. Eventually, I led outdoor singing for a number of persons who were longing to hear or sing any music. Hope you are now able to enjoy some live performances!

  4. Julian D. Woodruff

    Mr. Willis,
    Thank you so much for these skilled and discerning tributes, and also for your explanatory note on “Diva.”
    About declining powers: 1) if these 3 were composed recently, then you rival Verdi (Pezzi sacri at ca. 86) and surpass Stravinsky (Requiem canticles at ca. 83); 2) one can find on the web performances of Franck’s Panis angelicus by a soprano aged 96 and a Debussy prelude by a pianist aged 107. Let the spirit remain williing!

    Reply
    • lionel willis

      Thank you. Mr. Woodruff. I’m 89. But anything is possible in imagination. The Dark One has started at the bottom instead of the top. My knees are terrible, but my mind seems as clear as ever, though my memory may be shoving the last relics to the front to hide the widening gaps.

      Reply
      • Cheryl Corey

        89? Mr. Willis, you’re an inspiration for us all. There’s no expiration date on creativity, and your mind is definitely young! Thank you for sharing your excellent work.

  5. Cynthia Erlandson

    All three of these are just mesmerizing! The statements in the first about the power of music are profound; your address to the raven is a brilliant idea beautifully executed; if I read it right, he represents the enduring nature of art. And “Deathbed” is exquisite, particularly in its striking imagery of a cataract, which you’ve carried through strongly for several lines — and its last line draws out so much emotion, but without the crutch of sentimentalism.

    Reply
  6. James Sale

    Some very powerful work and I am encouraged to learn that Lionel is 89 years old. This reminds me of W.B. Yeats – in my view the greatest poet of the C20th – who carried on writing astonishing work even days before his death (e.g. The Black Tower – a mini-masterpiece) and this is true glory: that the Muse does not desert those who love her, and the full power of the Spirit is there. Well done Lionel, live for another 89 years.

    Reply

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