Interior, with Music
The Glass Piano
MadHat Press, 2015
What exactly is the purpose of a glass piano? The title of Ben Mazer’s poetry collection first appears in the poem “Spring,” where in the speaker observes, “The glass piano falters on the wall.” A glass piano could be a novelty or a curiosity, but Mazer presents it in a way that suggests decay or failure, a reader is left to ask: What is it doing there? It doesn’t play music; it’s not where a piano is supposed to be, doing what pianos are designed to do.
Throughout The Glass Piano, the speaker grapples with his own sense of purpose in relation to the larger world, as well as the tension between physical objects and abstract ideas. From “The brilliance of lost days surrounds the night”:
The brilliance of lost days surrounds the night,
shining in abstraction, for what is real
and most particular has taken flight—
a putting away of all the things we feel.
Preoccupied with his own isolation and the disconnect between himself and others, between himself and the larger world, in “Starlight by Streetlight,” he lays out the dangers of letting the outside in:
A million visages, a million words,
of advertising copy, conversations
heard in the street, or heard in railway stations,
invade the heart, informing its desire
for privacy […]
The word “invade” implies that external influences are overwhelming and harmful. Likewise, in “The Years in Switzerland,” he insists: “I’m mine. I am the one I am.” Although he and his lover “are alone, safe haven with a door,” the presence of the door indicates that they are not really alone; the threat of the outside world entering is ever-present. When the poem reaches its catastrophic end, the last line is delivered calmly; the conclusion is not a shock but rather a natural result of the speaker’s isolation, indeed, of every individual’s isolation:
[…] each one aspires to his own heaven.
Let darkness gather round the radio;
let each feel all, but tell not what they know.
The world war has begun. Just so. Just so.
Each individual in the group is separate, shrouded in darkness, and mistrustful of the others. When this outlook is repeated on a global scale, war is inevitable.
The desire for isolation can be found even in the voluble and ironical “My Last Dutchman”: a dramatic monologue, like the Robert Browning poem from which it takes its title. Proclaiming, “I do not need historical accuracy/to be who I am,” the speaker presents himself as the exception to the rules others are bound to. Mazer does not take a huge leap in moving from the abstracted observer-speaker of the other poems to the Peeping Tom of this one, who has “hung mirrors on lengthy poles/to catch a glimpse of my aunt undressing in the room next to mine.” Though the speaker feels “confined” in his isolation and clings to the one-sided form of human contact he gleans from mirrors and his “window’s little view,” his solitude also provides his only comfort: “I more and more retreat into my head.”
The book’s centerpiece is the title poem, “The Glass Piano.” Its meter and rhyme scheme amplify the poem’s paradoxical, explosive effects:
The bombs explode! Just so the glass piano,
which lies so still and patient in the hall.
the predicate of morning—bright Diana! —
lends harmonies to evocate the all.
Leaves flutter—why should they not?—reclaiming space
that scenes are cast in—who could not remember
the absolute interment of motion in place
where heart abided in some lost September?
The piano bursts not in a physical shattering of glass, as might be expected, but by “lend[ing] harmonies to evocate the all.”
The tension between the material and the abstract is played out extensively here. In this universe, ideas without form or mass can occupy space: “flat shadows dense oppose expanding time”; leaves “flutter…reclaiming space/that scenes are cast in.” In his word choices, Mazer often sacrifices transparency for words whose music imitates the piano’s melodies, harmonies and potential discord. Words like “marmoreal” and “evocate” appear where the more accessible “marble” and “evoke” would be expected. Mazer frequently uses alliterative language (“violet visages”; “wearier, wiser”) and words that double as musical terms: “the true note of creation/falling blankly as spent and fluttering leaves.”
As in other poems, the speaker treats time like a physical object – one that can be made sense of by turning it over and worrying at it. There are “crowded episodes,” a “lost September.” Describing memories, he says:
The hours they live in, empty shells, adornments
of simple wishes, mornings of coffee with friends,
project in violet visages their torrents
of supple lucidity where mind unbends.
Here the speaker consoles himself with the thought that memories, rather than disappearing, live somewhere. Yet in the following quatrain, he concedes that this idea doesn’t hold up :
They travel far—were distance not an illusion —
only to return, wearier, wiser,
a momentary stay against confusion,
heaped in vast relics absence solidifies there.
Memories, and the times and places they represent, are gone, replaced by physical evidence that they once existed. These relics provide comfort and the reassurance that the memories are “not an illusion.” Ultimately, however, the speaker depends rests on abstract, not material comforts: “slim beliefs” and “the true note of creation.”
Is the glass piano, then, material or symbolic? Mazer’s poems present compelling arguments for both interpretations, but do not arrive at a tidy conclusion.
The tension between the material and the abstract is best illustrated in “The last stop, the seventeenth century”:
The last stop, the seventeenth century:
such capturements are frozen by the sea
as die hard on the surface of a wave, […]
Time, though eternal, does not freeze as a physical object can; instead, it is swept up in the ocean, more physically powerful and equally undying. Mazer further develops this concept through the juxtaposition of the off-rhyming “atom” and “idiom”:
split off like atoms shooting aimlessly
in darkest roots of the imagination,
procuring life where there is yet no station …
How many modes of idiom they see
in spiritual harvests, illumination’s bounty, […]
Though the speaker may see the physical world as “aimless” and making no sense, he acknowledges that it can give root to something where there was previously nothing. The particles of the physical world take up residence in the imagination, inspiring people to create in abstract modes. People use language to describe the physical world. The “harvests” and “bounty” of the poem imply an abundance of material goods, but their modifiers tell us it’s not this kind of abundance. The harvests are “spiritual;” the bounty is one of “illumination.” While the material seems to have won the battle, then, it hasn’t won the war. The speaker has faith that a spiritual harvest is a harvest nonetheless, though it has no specific purpose, can’t be seen or touched.
Later in the collection, the piano becomes, again, symbolic. In “Imagined grandeur covets and conceals,” the speaker passes elegant homes in Cambridge, lamenting a life that is out of reach for him:
imagining the first edition scores
on the piano, bought before the wars,
and flower vases sitting there for years,
and private rooms with laughter and with tears.
Though at first glance, the speaker seems preoccupied with material wealth, the objects in fact stand in for the lives he imagines the people in these homes lead: for “life’s ideals,” “such formulations as professors teach,/the private banter.” It is these more abstract blessings, and the larger implied question of why some have and others have not (“then what do they withhold…?”), that seem to haunt him.
Over and over in this collection, the inner and spiritual world seem to provide for the speaker what the outside and physical world cannot. While acknowledging the concreteness and stability of the latter; in “Home was the place I knew night after night,” he laments: “this year, this year is not a thing.” Abstract concepts such as time are not as solid as he would like, as he states in the final quatrain:
No steady mantle I shall lean against
where in my knowledge, everything I sensed …
but folding myself up inside a star
look inwards for some sign that you still are.
Time is not a guarantee, knowledge not something you can “lean against.” But even after acknowledging that the material world is more dependable (if less intrinsically meaningful), still the speaker turns to himself and his own thoughts for “some sign that you still are,” for a form of connection and a way out of his isolation. He must look inward, finally, and lean on his own knowledge in order to find answers.
Liza Katz is a teacher, poet, and critic residing in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Poet Lore, The Cumberland River Review, The Critical Flame, The Battersea Review, and elsewhere.