How to Like D.H. Lawrence’s Piano

Piano DH Lawrence

A poem can sing to you, even if you don’t totally “get” it or enjoy every line.

“Piano,” by D.H. Lawrence, is not one of my overall favorite poems. It’s not a bad poem, of course, and I can’t pretend to even approach Lawrence’s levels of literary influence in my lifetime. However, references to “weeping” and “floods of remembrance” don’t grip me in the same way as precise, sensory details that invite me weep and remember. Which is precisely why this poem sticks with me.

In the first stanza, a woman’s voice seeps through the dusk like the soft, remaining glow of light. The speaker, drawn into this beauty, experiences an out-of-body memory and imagines himself as a child many years ago.

The next two lines are what grab me:

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

What I love about this memory is the full sensory appeal of it, especially the sense of touch. I feel the vibration of the strings under the piano–both the “boom” of the bass notes and the strains of the “tingling strings,” words whose similar sounds cause the music to tremble under my own skin. The tender detail of the child “pressing the small, poised feet” of his mother is just unusual enough to make the scene real to me. Specific is universal. I can imagine a child touching his mother’s feet because of my own children, who affectionately tug my sweater sashes, knee me in the butt, or whack my head with coloring books.

In Everything That Makes You Mom, author Laura Lynn Brown asks readers to recall memories of their mothers in specific situations, such as concocting treats in the kitchen, driving, playing, or tending plants. By imagining and recording these scenes in writing (remember, imagining is image-ing), readers not only reward themselves with rich pictures from the past but can give their mothers the invaluable gift of showing how they noticed things all those years.

My mom is not a musician. She’s creative, yes, but as a master quilter, builder of Victorian dollhouses, and any other task requiring an eye for detailed design. The images of my mother embroidering calico brown wedding rings and laying tiny shingles one by one on gabled roofs will never leave me. But these wonders were wrought in her own private moments as I stood in the background. We did share some important times together, however. And they did not take place alongside a musical instrument, easel, or Great American Novel.

Every Saturday night, during my childhood in the late 70s and early 80s, my mom and I watched The Love Boat while sharing a one-pound bag of M&Ms. We weren’t the snuggliest family in the world, but once a week we put our feet up, threw comforters over our legs, and huddled with a bag of candy between us. Of course The Love Boat was not a masterpiece. Plot lines were predictable and corny. Charo was a frequent guest star. But it was “our thing.” In fact, one year my mom gave me a sterling silver heart necklace to commemorate our sweet ritual, and even when I returned from college on the weekends, years after The Love Boat went off the air, I would find a large bag of M&Ms awaiting me on my bed.

As a mother, I wonder what close moments my children will remember. Hugging my son as I walk into his first-grade classroom as a volunteer? Squeezing through clothing racks with my oldest daughter at the mall? Lying next to my middle daughter as she paints watercolor flowers while on her bed? (Yep. I’ve decided to let her paint in bed.)

A whole poem can capture you, each word catching more and more of your breath until you’re dizzy with wonder. Sometimes just part of a poem does it: a stanza, line, or word. This is what “Piano” has done for me, releasing my own, okay, I’ll say it—flood of memories.

Give every poem a chance to explore you. You’ll never know what will sing.

Piano

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

—D.H. Lawrence

Photo by Michael Schrempp, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.

Elizabeth Bishop Collides with Mockingjay

Autumn Trees The Hanging Tree To a Tree

The other night, I took Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems and a glass of red wine upstairs to the bathtub while my kids hung out in the family room with their dad. I call this combo my “mom medicine.”

I started off with some of Bishop’s well-known pieces, like “Filling Station,” “The Armadillo,” and “One Art,” inhaling some of the beautiful, witty lines I hadn’t visited since college. Then I flipped back to a section titled, “Poems Written in Youth ”– poems, according to the volume’s Publisher’s Note, that Bishop “would not have reprinted. . .for she was too severe a critic of her own work.”

Of course, that note made me want to read them all the more.

I began to recite some of the lines Bishop wrote when she was a teenager (still exquisite, of course). Then the marching began.

Two weeks ago, I had taken my middle schooler to see Mockingjay, Part 1. At one point in the movie, Katniss, the main character played by Jennifer Lawrence, sings the haunting “The Hanging Tree.” My daughter sat transfixed. And she wasn’t alone. The song quickly moved up the charts upon the movie’s release.

That night, my daughter taught the song to her younger sister, and now, to my annoyance, the two were singing the dirge-like tune quite aggressively, marching throughout the house. Their pounding feet sent waves through my bathwater.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
They strung up a man
They say who murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where the dead man called out
For his love to flee.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.

And so forth, for several more stanzas. It is a disturbingly beautiful song, but now I wanted to keep reading the Bishop poem open before me:

To a Tree

Oh, tree outside my window, we are kin,
For you ask nothing of a friend but this:
To lean against the window and peer in
And watch me move about! Sufficient bliss

For me, who stand behind its framework stout,
Full of my tiny tragedies and grotesque grieves,
To lean against the window and peer out,
Admiring infinites’mal leaves.

Of course. I was getting distracted reading a young girl’s poem about a tree because my two young girls were marching and singing about a tree.

But then the connections began to hit me. One scene is haunting and one comforting; however, both capture the intimacy and mystery of our relationships with trees–how the young are drawn to them irresistibly as places to love, grieve, and imagine. As places to find oneself or lose oneself. Trees are our mirror selves of growth, change, and loss, limb by swaying limb.

I won’t get into any mystical theories about how or why these poetic connections happen, but they seem to happen for me all the time. Most people would probably say they are coincidences. Fine. I can accept that. But even with coincidences, why not have a little fun? Pick up a book of poems, and start reading them aloud. Don’t read with a goal to “get” the poems. Enjoy the sounds and images and see how they touch on the events, experiences, and feelings in your own life. Write these connections in the margins. They may change tomorrow or the next day. No matter. See how the poems speak to and reinforce your day now. These connections will make the poems more real. And perhaps your life.

Reading poetry. Strange things do happen here. And that is sufficient bliss for me.

Photo by pslee, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.

Dog’s Death by Updike Does Its Work

Dog's Death John Updike Cute Puppy Picture

 
 
I was not always a dog lover. In fact, for most of my life I found any chance I could to deride the codependent beasts in favor of self-respecting felines. My disdain for dogs was well known, even a badge of my identity.

One afternoon, after a tiring two hours of teaching The Scarlet Letter to high schoolers, I went back to my department office and slumped down at my desk. This photocopied poem lay before me:

 
 

Dog’s Death

She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, “Good dog! Good dog!”

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.

—John Updike

Mark, a quiet, middle-aged English teacher who sat nearby, briefly made eye contact with me, then looked back down at his stack of papers.

“I don’t like dog poems,” I said.

“Just read it,” he replied.

So I did. I read the poem and set it back down. “Not gonna work,” I said, and rolled my eyes.

What I didn’t tell Mark, and what I didn’t admit to myself for several years, is that the poem did work on me, first with that immediate wallop of guilt I felt as I slipped the poem in the recycling bin and avoided the expectant gaze of dogs for the next several days, then with the slow unraveling of images deep inside me.

The ruptured liver. The heart lying down. The weak attempt at a bite.

And, of course, the splattered newspaper.

In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins tells us to “walk inside the poem’s room/and feel the walls for a light switch.”

That switch is the “ah-ha moment” in a poem, the moment that shocks us awake to a feeling or idea, illuminating the poem as a whole. In “Dog’s Death,” the rather embarrassingly unpleasant but beautifully loving picture of a dog trying to please his owners up to the moment of death lit up the entire poem for me. Strange as it sounds, a soiled newspaper incarnated the fierce love between a family and their pet. This image slowly chiseled away at my heart, even when I tried to forget the poem.

I understood the truth in this image years before I would realize that I would not only tolerate, but need dogs in my life, that what I was maligning about them–their seemingly naive and insistent desire to please–was what made them tender companions.

It would take many positive encounters with dogs, family discussions, and compromises to reach the decision to adopt Toby, a rat terrier, from a rescue organization. But the work started years before, with a poet’s moving images and words turning on the light.

Good poem.

Photo by Sukanto Debnath, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.