The poem was first published on June 24, 1991. Nemerov died on July 5, 1991. Given these circumstances, his contemplation on the relationship between opera and life, art and life, takes on an added poignance.
The End of the Opera
Knowing that what he witnessed was only art,
He never wept while the show was going on.
But the curtain call could always make him cry.
When the cast came forward hand in hand
Bowing and smiling to the clatter of applause,
Tired, disheveled, sweating through the paint,
Radiant with our happiness and theirs,
Illuminati of the spot and flood,
Yet much the same as ordinary us.
The diva, the soubrette, the raisonneur,
The inadequate hero, the villain, his buffoon,
All equalled in the great reality
And living proof that life would follow life . . .
Though back of that display there'd always be,
He knew, money and envy, the career,
Tomorrow and tomorrow -- it didn't seem
At that moment as if it mattered much
Compared with their happiness and ours
As we wept about the role, about the real,
And how their dissonances harmonized
As we applauded us: ite, missa est.
Howard Nemerov, Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 (University of Chicago Press 1991).
The ellipses at the end of line 13 appear in the original. "Ite, missa est" is the phrase that is spoken to conclude the Mass of the Roman Rite. Opinions differ as to how the words should be translated. In particular, "missa" is the source of some linguistic and liturgical contention. In any event, "Go, the dismissal is made" or "Go forth, the Mass is ended" appear to be serviceable translations.