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Waltzes for Mechanical Piano

ISSUE:  Summer 1970

“Listen. Look, the keys go down by themselves!
I go over, hold my hands out, play I play—
If only, somehow, I had learned to live!
The three of us sit watching, as my waltz
Plays itself out a half-inch from my fingers.”
        The Player Piano, by Randall Jarrell


As the scroll unrolls, scales
Ripple by the glass like fishes
Flashing gaseous tails,
So much the masters of their métier
They never need emerge for air. Rather,
It is we who tire of pumping.

This music entices mice to waltz, men
To the jumping-off point.
The plunge into the dim aquarium, though,
Is pointless: fishes swallow the keys
The instant someone threatens
That tranquil surface.

The scroll rolls off the cylinder: the waltz
At its most intense is over–if un-
resolved. Forms that seemed,
At the safe dry distance of glass,
Frozen in coral, shatter…
Dissolve… or run
                                         to schmaltz.


“That was a roll of
The eminent Polish piano
Virtuoso Ignace Jan
Paderewski performing Chopin’s
Waltz in c-sharp minor”—
How it must have swabbed the salons

In the nineties! “Now, his tour-de-force
The Revolutionary Etude”—on tour,
Forced to practice at a dummy
Keyboard, Paderewski practiced-out the grimaces
Before a mirror, leaving feeling
(and the wrong notes) in.

“The Spinning Song”—are we spinning,
Returning like a song, in time
That never quite returns? As in
His mirror, turning away, we only
Turn within it further… until we learn
To get the nuance right.



The timbres of a string quartet
Did not appeal
To Edward A. MacDowell.

It was the Indian Summer
Of American Music,

Still a sophomore at Yale, had yet
To make a real beginning,

His String Quartet No 1 provoked Horatio
Parker to remark,

Why must you hog all
The keys?”….

The Unanswered Question wrote the broker-
In reply. No lamb he,

He never nevertheless was one
To hog the limelight, strut
Lionized across a stage

                                     or cage.

IV: Ode to Erik Satie

“Nightingale with a toothache,
Your songs are spare,
Yet never sparing, never

Frail. Because you caught the thatness
Of the cat, without the cat’s
Fat hairy shadow, I get

The distinct impression you knew
What flowers were at your feet.
At any rate, it was your bent always

To go wherever you went on foot, carrying
An umbrella. Your mien—hardly
Pedestrian—you borrowed from your Uncle

Adrien (“Sea-Bird,” the sailor Debussy
Was never meant to be). And though you wrote
Memoirs of an Amnesiac, you never forgot

“…the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do.” Adieu,
Adieu. Anathema be your accolade.

And may your plaintive anthems never fade!


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