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Stephen Altman - The Blog
All about Life, John Keats and Blues for the Muse

  • Stephen Altman

Love is blind Or maybe not. Maybe love is the lens through which we see people truly. My own opinion, as in most things, is, "It depends." I had to consider the question a bit more rigorously when writing Blues for the Muse, a novel. Was there room in the story for "it depends"?

Friday is scrapbook day around here so I pulled out a lovely sonnet by the late Hayden Carruth. It's simply called "Sonnet #10." You'll know in a minute why I found it pertinent.

You rose from our embrace and the small light spread

like an aureole around you. The long parabola

of neck and shoulder, flank and thigh I saw

permute itself through unfolding and unlimited

minuteness in the movement of your tall tread,

the spine-root swaying, the Picasso-like éclat

of scissoring slender legs. I knew some law

of Being was at work. At one time I had said

that love bestows such values, and so it does,

but the old man in his canto was right and wise:

ubi amor ibi ocullus est.

Always I wanted to give and in wanting was

the poet. A man now, aging, I know the best

of love is not to bestow, but to recognize.


The Latin phrase in line 11 means "Where love is, there is insight."

The painting is Chez le Père Lathuille (1879) by Édouard Manet, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tournai, Belgium.

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BFTM is a story made of 202 sonnets. It begins in the Non-Catholic Cemetery (which used to be known as the Protestant Cemetery) in the Roman neighborhood called Testaccio. When Keats was buried there in February 1821, sheep and goats still grazed among the graves. But this is today . . .


The cemetery in Testaccio!

No sweeter place to lie when you are dead,

Though not to merely lie and rot; instead,

To live eternally where pomegranates grow,

And flowers in profusion—sun aglow

On lemon trees, cypress spires overhead.

Here Beauty’s Truth, as the poet said,

And all the marble nymphs carved long ago

Are watching still, like figures on an urn,

The graves arrayed like truffles in a box.

They sing the spirit in your bones’ debris.

Attend, and you who fear your end will learn

That it’s impossible to mourn the clock’s

Advance: It’s chiming immortality.


Immortality! Gracious! thought Tom Jerome,

That’s kinda highfalutin’ for a kid from Queens.

He wore a leather jacket and designer jeans,

And Ray-Bans for that famous Roman sun. His home

These days was Hollywood; he wore

Those Ray-Bans on the Sunset Strip at night,

A tad too old, it could be argued, for

Some comely starlet. Still, Jerome just might

Run into one who liked the whole gestalt:

The movie patter, poetry, the old-guy charm.

And if it worked for him, well, who could fault

Him his success? It surely did no harm

To her or him—or any girl and boy—

To share an evening’s fantasy, some scrap of joy.


Of course, that’s “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu”: a scrap of sorrow from John Keats,

Who walked a winter on the Roman streets

Before the life fell from his fingertips.

Not only Joy, but Youth, Love, Life: each slips

Away. (The roll of my ex-wives completes

The list, Jerome would say.) A notion beats

The dark despair: If time, that chiseler, chips

Away our joys—indeed, leaves none intact—

Still, time makes precious, time gives savor, so

We revel in the rising ocean wave

Because it’s breaking, not despite the fact.

For this consoling thought, thought Tom Jerome, I owe

The kid, and went to tell him at his grave.


A helpful sign inside the gate advised:

Go left for Keats. But now, though near the boy,

Jerome turned right. His toiling heart apprised

Him of the burden of his strenuous joy.

He took his time, and climbed the terraced slope,

And found himself a bench on which he sat

And brooded sweetly on, but did not mope

About, his death. You wouldn’t have expected that:

He had a cemetery temperament,

The melancholy muse inside his head

That made of every moment some huge event

In this, The Life of Tom Jerome. He had no dread

Of anything but ordinariness.

And then he saw the woman in the azure dress.


Intrigued but not quite sold? I wouldn't usually plug Amazon, but if you follow this link and then click on the "Look inside" tag atop the photo of the cover, Amazon will show you the first 16 sonnets! That ought to be enough to earn us a verdict.

The snapshot is one I took of the cemetery. For a look at the older part--il parte antica--where Keats is buried, check out this past Monday's post.

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  • Stephen Altman

First, hello and welcome!

Now, then. The difference between Blues for the Muse and just about every other novel you've read is this: Blues for the Muse is written in verse. It's composed of 202 sonnets. Each has 14 lines, and they rhyme. The sonnet form goes back seven or eight hundred years (Shakespeare wrote 154 of them, a mere 4+ centuries ago). But mine are modern sonnets, written in a breezy style so that after you've read a few, to follow the action in verse will seem a very natural--and, let's hope, a pleasurable--thing to do. Here's a sample. We're at the start of the book, when we're first meeting Tom Jerome, who's visiting the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome. The poet John Keats is buried here. Jerome is feeling rather solemn and solitary:

He had a cemetery temperament, The melancholy muse inside his head That made of every moment some huge event In this, The Life of Tom Jerome. He had no dread Of anything but ordinariness. And then he saw the woman in the azure dress. I told this story in verse because I thought that if I did it right, readers would feel as if something not ordinary is happening, that a spell is being cast. So here's Jerome--who by the way is an older dude in Ray-Bans and this awful pompadour--deciding to approach the woman in the azure dress. She's here for a funeral: It was as if an ibis—something rare And unexpected—had alighted in Their midst. The regal neck, the lifted chin, The elegant indifference. Her arms were bare And slim, and Tom Jerome, imagining Them wrapped around him, smiled at his desire, Then promptly threw all prudence in the fire And joined the mourners gathered in a ring. Buon giorno,” said Jerome. She turned her head And saw the Ray-Bans and the smile . . . and fled! I'm hoping you'll want to know more about these two. He's a bit down at the heels but he's still got that Hollywood thing going for him, and she's the mysterious and alluring wife of an Italian mobster. Viña Fumento is her name. She tells him she's running away from her scary husband. Jerome senses certain romantic possibilities. When he catches up with her, she's smoking a cigarette on the bench at Keats's grave (which by the way is against the rules there--but our Viña's a rule breaker): . . . She had a knack For smoking operatically. He said, “Could you Spare me a cigarette? I need to buy a pack.” She found one in her bag. And now at last He gazed on Viña’s eyes. Renaissance Eyes. Florentine hair. All Italy’s past Glories in her face. No use in faking nonchalance: “Would you come dine with me? Who’d ever guess That we’d have met like this, and here? Say yes.”

So one thing, as they say, leads to another. Later that night, in their hotel room in the Aventine, Viña will all but tell him straight that she's bad news. Here's the sonnet in which she talks about herself, just so you'll get a sense of how long it'll take you to read 14 lines, and just how much those 14 lines can tell you about a character: “When I was fifteen, I was like a peach That all the local fellows have to squeeze— A peach that’s dangling on the tree, and each Competes to be the first to pluck it. Please, oh please, My mama begged me—Viña, don’t be weak! But I knew sometimes weak is strong. And was I wrong? A girl can have the world for just a song. I told her so; she dragged me off to speak With her physician. Such a kindly gentleman, A gray and proper Swiss, so full of sound advice. He reassured my mama, wished us luck, and then At midnight called me on the phone. He’d sacrifice His life for me—his work, his wife, and all he had. So I ran off with him. I’m very bad.” The next morning, two of her husband's thugs show up at the hotel room to retrieve her and dole out some consequences to Jerome. But he tells them he's a Hollywood director here in Rome to make a gangster flick. They'd be perfect for it, he says. And they buy it! As for Viña's reaction, she seems to treat all this as not much more than a day at the office. Then off she goes, with barely a word for Jerome. Like any good film noir heroine, she'll surprise our hero more than once. It'll surprise him even more that her husband, the notorious mobster Cesare Fumento, is a movie buff. And the reason his thugs let Jerome off the hook is they're aware of that. Cesare would like Jerome to make a movie for him--starring, of course, Viña herself. And Jerome? He's got the notion he can take Cesare's money and make off with his wife. As he'll tell her before too long: “Viña, this thing that we’ve been working on Is not some ordinary movie deal. I hope you understand, it’s just a con. We’re in it for your husband’s cash; it isn’t real.” That's how Blues for the Muse begins.


[The photo is a view of Keats's grave from the rear. The tombstone to the left is his friend Joseph Serern's. Keats's is to the right. The bench facing them, with the little brass plate on it, is the bench where Tom Jerome and Viña Fumento have their first conversation.]

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