2013 Porter Prize Winner: John A. Scott

Four Sonnets

The Drowning of Charles Kruger, Fireman
(St Valentine’s Day, 1908)

Comes a fire into Canal Street:
its rows of clapboard tenements rotting back
to marsh. He knows it too well, the ‘furniture
district’. This time, a fire built on picture frames.
Charles Kruger drops onto what he thought
a cellar floor, finding instead his New World to be
eight feet of seepage bound by stone. He kicks
back to smoky air. From above come voices.
Lanterns play upon the shifting surface, sending
wobblings of light across the walls (ectoplasm
of his own trembling device) – the ghost of him
seeking release. He gives it up. Warbles out
his love. He takes the eager water: a brief
consummation made of thrashing arms.

Gustav Mahler in New York (1908)

It is the bass drum which has summoned him.
The dull collisions of felted wool against calf­
skin. The end of everything, he knows, these
muted thuds.
The Mahlers have taken an
eleventh-floor suite (there are two grand pianos),
at the Hotel Majesticon Central Park West.
He joins Alma at the window. Directly below,
is the halted cortège of Charles Kruger.
Once more, the tufted mallet meets the drum­
head. He sees the tight-packed waves speed
upwards, rattle through the window and collide
with his chest. He recoils. Curves his body at
the waist. A bow (conductor to his audience),
only contorted thus, gasping for air.

Mahler at Toblach (1910)

Madness, seize me and destroy me,
he scrawls across the staves. To the movement
(purgatorio)he adds a final, isolated note. Marks
it thus – ‘completely muffled drum’. At which
the four-paned windows of the häuschen burst
apart and the room fills with grey feathers.
He rises, choking. A storm of plumaged air
beating at his face. Then gone. He gathers up
the sketches from the floor. The young architect
has declared his love – (misaddressing it, he
claims, to Herr Direktor Mahler). My Almschili
he scrawls, You are not ashamed, it is I who am.
Alas, I still love you.Who finds his mouth
crammed full with soaked grey feathers.

Epilogue (1911)

Back in New York the throat infection re-
occurs. He conducts Busoni’s Berceuse
Élégiaque and returns to Europe.
Bacteria now gather at the lesioned heart.
‘My Almachi’, he cries again (again). At some
point the kidneys fail. Black water seeps into
his lungs. He drowns by tiny increments –
the death mask imparts a serenity
not on display during his final hours.

He has entrusted his sketches of the
Tenth to Alma. In the salon she tears
the most damning scrawl from the manuscript.
Carries it to the fire. Sets it to flame.

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