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The Cracked Piano--A Study in the Difficulty of Living

As the Dresser entered Margo Taft Stever's Cracked Piano, she became immediately aware in the first poem "Idiot's Guide to Counting" of obstacles to living well. This is the problem of marrying matter and energy, the problem of becoming one with a horse as rider and horse hurtle over fences.

How do you become one
with the horse, riding and becoming
the act of riding,
and the horse becoming the self
and the other at exactly
the same second, counting strides,
counting muscle movement,
counting fences, hurting over
them with the horse, counting
the everything of one?
However, the poem is much more complicated than finding perfect execution of an equestrian jump. By stanza 2, one moves from the horse to the nightmare of pulled muscles occurring merely by turning over in bed. In the final, third stanza, the poet invokes what's known in the horse world as a flying change, a seamless switching of the lead foot such that the narrator of the poem no longer aims to become one with the horse but "one with/ the branches of a tree, a grandfather/ tree in an apple orchard/ that no longer exists." What has happened is that the poet has moved from the present and from the self to the past and to the ancestry. It's the kind of hocus pocus where the one is both one and many, and what is achieved by the poem stands in sardonic contrast to the title "Idiot's Guide to Counting."

The Dresser will continue a detailed tour through Section One of this beautifully crafted and remarkably disturbing volume of poetry to show how well thought out the arrangement of poems are.

"For Sale," the second poem of the collection, reinforces the importance of the grandfather trees. It's the final organism watching over a family house that is being invaded by wealthy buyers. Before the grandfather trees come into view are the living or moving things as lizards on the basement stairs, worms dappling the pears in the orchard, rabbit hutch doors connected with rusty hinges.

Death can empty a house of shoes
worn and new, of children

who climbed the grandfather
trees, impressing outlines like fossils
littering the banks of the creek.

The next four poems: "Animal Crackers," "The Worst Mother," "Glimpse of an Infant Eating," and "Stepmother" form a set on the topics of eating/food and love/hate. "Animal Crackers" revisits the quest for perfection. The child narrator says the elephants taste the best and admires their elegant shapes--"the curvature of tails,// tusks, ears,/ their lumbering symmetry" but she hides "in the closet where it's dark" because she is overeating.

When one more bite

could burst me, I stop.
Once again, I want to be perfect
like the elephant.
I want to be thin.

"The Worst Mother" and "Stepmother" play off each other where the child/children complain that these women are starving them. In "The Worst Mother" and "Glimpse of an Infant Eating," the children are adorable winged creatures, cherubs "gumm[ing]/ the apple/ down/ to the core" and then wanting to eat "the pit,/ the stem,/ the entirety" as if to say the child is a savage.

"Wind Innuendo" and "Foghorn" provide contrast between silence and noise. The former presents a child "So small/ she cannot talk" whereas the latter features a disturbing, old woman who might:

... rise up to yell
for your dead husband or crack

a plate on your grandson's
head. Whether you will wander

the streets in your nightgown
or bang pots in the kitchen.

In the final poem of Section One "My Mother Is Dying," it's hard to tell if the narrator is just grieving or succumbing to chaos. Consider these lines:

... My mother is busy dying;
she no longer knows my name.
This is the wind of Eden,
      the wind of change, the last slave
      of silence, the knave of rain, so quiet
      the roving of each vacant quest. ...

      Wandering once again, now I
      return to the center, searching
      the level earth, calling her name
      remembering that I am lost.


Cry because everything goes haywire,
because this is Apollo's siren lyre, the field-worn
answer, the childless response, children waiting
for some god to bring them home.

The narrator, child of the dying woman, notes that her mother no longer knows the narrator's name, but the narrator calls out the mother's name and yet knows that she is lost to her mother or possibly to herself because things are going "haywire." The invocation of Apollo, the most complicated Greek god, speaks to the creative impulse that suggest children, but maybe not because Apollo is a god of contradiction.

Five sections comprise this collection and further explore themes introduced in Section One. Section Two presents the over-the-top story of Stever's great-grandfather Peter R. Taft (his half-brother was William Howard Taft, who became president of the United states in 1909). "The Lunatic Ball," the lyrically adept opening poem of Section Two, introduces Peter who after contracting typhoid and being dosed with a medicine containing mercury is shut away in an insane asylum. It's a place where the wealthy sit behind a glass wall to watch those confined there. Using Peter's well written letters as found poems, Stever makes the case that her great-grandfather was tragically ill-treated. Here was a man, first in his class at Yale, completely isolated from his wife, their young child, and other family members.

Sections Three, Four, and Five explore nightmare scenes of the exterior world with shadows of what has come before. Body parts are scattered through these pages. "Drought" (Section Three) begins as a metapoem talking about writer's block as it begins: "A dry spell/ wavers on the page/ ...Useless articles/ pile up like trash./ I plow them into hills." However words like bones and meadows morph until a woman with infant appears, only to starve in a holocaust event which then appears possibly to be a scene from a book the narrator is reading. Horrifying is "The True Story of Eugene" (Section Four), where two brothers--probably children--embalm a dead black man and set him on display for other children to see. Section Five concludes in "Bottomland," a place where:

Even the known becomes unknowable.
Their small eyes look at me like chicks
gathered against rain, staved.

Thin rivulets of fear, running-away-
with-itself fear, fearful fear.

Here is where "a mother can change from angel/ to sour mudqueen of all decay/ by those who feel the sting..." But yet the narrator of this final poem implores:

Don't forget me, don't forget
that hill the horses cantered
you down to the bottomland.

And who is it that wants to be remembered--"your mother,/ a mother who loved her children." Yes, Margo Stever gives us a cracked piano, which has the potential to play "harmonious discords." The question is can we tune in to this frequency and appreciate such rarefied music.


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 28, 2019 5:26 PM.

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