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The Piano Player Explains Himself

July 2, 2014

Do you think “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends/rough-hew them how we will“? Sometimes it’s hard to resist that kind of thinking; I’m thinking about a person dear to me who had a mild stroke, and then broke a hip, and then got a kind of leukemia, and then broke another hip and had another mild stroke. At what point do we start to think he’s fighting a losing battle?

And just how rude is it to ask that question, anyway?

There’s a lot of explaining to be done, as in Allen Grossman’s poem “The Piano Player Explains Himself.”

When the corpse revived at the funeral,
The outraged mourners killed it; and the soul
Of the revenant passed into the body
Of the poet because it had more to say.
He sat down at the piano no one could play
Called Messiah, or The Regulator of the World,
Which had stood for fifty years, to my knowledge,
Beneath a painting of a red-haired woman
In a loose gown with one bared breast, and played
A posthumous work of the composer S—
About the impotence of God (I believe)
Who has no power not to create everything.
It was the Autumn of the year and wet,
When the music started. The musician was
Skilful but the Messiah was out of tune
And bent the time and the tone. For a long hour
The poet played The Regulator of the World
As the spirit prompted, and entered upon
The pathways of His power – while the mourners
Stood with slow blood on their hands
Astonished by the weird processional
And the undertaker figured his bill.
– We have in mind an unplayed instrument
Which stands apart in a memorial air
Where the room darkens toward its inmost wall
And a lady hangs in her autumnal hair
At evening of the November rains; and winds
Sublime out of the North, and North by West,
Are sowing from the death-sack of the seed
The burden of her cloudy hip. Behold,
I send the demon I know to relieve your need,
An imperfect player at the perfect instrument
Who takes in hand The Regulator of the World
To keep the splendor from destroying us.
Lady! The last virtuoso of the composer S—
Darkens your parlor with the music of the Law.
When I was green and blossomed in the Spring
I was mute wood. Now I am dead I sing.

The poem came to my attention because the poet (father of The Magicians author Lev Grossman) died recently, which gives the last line even more resonance.

What about those first two lines, though? What kind of person would have mourners who would rise up in outrage, or is the poem saying that any mourners would, because what’s dead should stay dead?

Still, though, I think we all have some impulse to necromancy, to want to hear what the poet will say and see what kind of feelings the piano music will arouse. What we have in mind is so often not what happens.

Is what happens to us what always had to happen? It certainly is what will inevitably happen, no matter how long we struggle—we’re mortal. But we don’t want to have to confront that about ourselves.

Don’t shoot the piano player…. Don’t blame the messenger…. All sorts of comic sayings are implicit in the oddly concrete images of this poem. Do we each do what we were created to do, by one who “has no power not to create everything”?

In the poem, what “we have in mind” is a somber and appropriate response, a gravity about the grave. What we get, however, is a “demon,” an “imperfect player” who plays “the music of the Law”–which might be some kind of blues-infested honky tonk piano–underneath what could be either an old whorehouse wall decoration or some priceless work of art by one of the Old Masters.

It’s the not knowing that gets us. So many of the questions sound rude when you say them out loud.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2014 11:47 am

    Love the poem and your analysis. The questions do sound rude, don’t they? We are so squeamish when it comes to talking about life and death. I think older cultures did so much better, the ancient Greeks were masters.

    • July 6, 2014 9:19 pm

      We encounter death less in its raw form these days. People die in hospitals or nursing homes. Most of my relatives, aside from the Roman Catholics, have been cremated and had a memorial service (vs having a body on display and a funeral following the death immediately).

  2. lemming permalink
    July 9, 2014 10:29 am

    Just saw “Don’t Play With dead Things” yesterday, which reminds us about being careful what we wish for because we might get it, but also about the power of mourning, and teh different ways in which it can be done.

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