Book Excerpt: “The Monster I Am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life In Verse” | by Kevin Simmonds | Jul, 2021
“What struck me most was her fleeting comment about ‘the monster that I am today.’”
I first saw her in a 1984 United Negro College Fund commercial. Instead of Black educational promise portrayed through the familiar visuals of a young Black actor and his respectable, hard-working parents―reliably fortified by the voiceovers of James Earl Jones, Adolph Caesar or Ossie Davis―there she was
her face & chest / low-lit / black gown /
square-necked & sequined / sleeves / of beaded fringe
I just about burst when her 60-second apparition materialized on our kitchen TV and she sang
We’re not asking for a handout, just a hand(high C!)
Over dinner or drinks after a performance, people discuss the high. They’d all cheered and applauded. Some post their rapture from their phones. Others tarry over what just happened — to them — in the audience.
Soon as Ella
the pearl-perfect tune
white woman knew for sure
what she could do
Soon as Ella spun
her slender-waisted tone
white woman knew why
she’d sought the voice
Her powdered face
her lonely table
A battered wife returned home
to the husband she’d kill
While witnessing Ella Fitzgerald perform, the subject in my poem knew not only why / she’d sought the voice but what she could do: go home and murder her abusive husband.
For a long time I thought my first-ever piece about Fitzgerald was the praise poem and this one something else altogether. But now I see them twinned in praise.
Ella always gave a little leg, hiked up the notes like a dress she couldn’t help playing with. But she was a lady. Didn’t matter what striptease was going on in the piano or the garter easing down the sax, she stuck with scripture: Open your bibles to St. Gershwin, Chapter Five. Our reading begins at the chorus.
In a poem about Rachelle Ferrell, I accept that my attempt to write a praise poem was inadequate, verbose.
Nothing composed except the song
Never afraid to rummage
the plain thing
until it surfaces ascends is called out
I need three stanzas
you a note
That the voices of these exceptional Black women singers exceed the singers themselves only intensifies my need to register praise. Incapable of restraining it, yet raised Catholic and clenched, this former altar boy isn’t churched to shout or fall out, but he is reactive.
There are ample logical reasons, foremost that I encountered her voice and her physical bearing — indivisible — when I was highly impressionable, a 12-year-old gay boy desperate for someone to praise and sing back to. And there she was: a Black woman who publicly vocalized self-possession, flaunted it, commanded us to hear. A Negress god whose succor I was convinced could feed me enough [ ] to bring forth my own [ ].
Decades later, as homage, I planned on the poem as form to create an abbreviated biography —
her upbringing in a small Mississippi town the euphemistic other side of the tracks the survivable indignities when she crossed those tracks the Black church that tended her faith of rule-following, subtlety and pageantry the Black college that promoted the burgeoning immensity of her gift the patronage of her Aunt Everlina’s white employers to study in New York and then to sing for the world.
I expected the poem would do the same for the voice — the wing that lifted her from a lethally quaint life and landed her on the world stage. After all, it’d given me access to the voices of other singers whose lives and artistry I wanted to encounter and engage with beyond mere personal adoration.
I never suspected the swarm of prose inside — restlessly caged, decades of flight denied because my compulsion had always been a dreamy waywardness, the conditioned non-Black archetype of the nomadic poet wanderer and wonderer. I should’ve laid to rest those parts of me walking unburied for years.
I’d worked so hard at appearing vertical when I what I needed most was to lay myself down and look up, like the true griots (the still-living and those gone), the ones whose work feed me: Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Essex Hemphill, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Wanda Coleman, Sonia Sanchez.
Just shy of 90 years old in the 2018 documentary The Opera House, Price reminisced about what it took to pull off the momentous 1966 premiere of Anthony and Cleopatra which opened the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. The year of living “like a nun” leading up to it; sitting next to composer Samuel Barber at her home piano as he taught her the part of Cleopatra; getting stuck inside Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent electronic pyramid during dress rehearsal. Yet what struck me most was her fleeting comment about “the monster that I am today.” What did that mean? The creature formed, deformed as she took her place as the first Black singer to have such a lauded and undeniable impact on the world of opera? Thinking about her as a monstre sacré was kindling, this woman who has always burned
Seldom do people ask how it feels
to be on fire and feed it
Stand there a valve
a filter a veil
and contain what should bust me
as I swim the depths