“unearthed from below—fire-eyed”

Piano in the Dark
by Nancy Naomi Carlson
Seagull Books 2023, $17.00

by Michael Collins




Mortality is a theme engaged from many perspectives in Nancy Naomi Carlson’s Piano in the Dark. Elegies for lost loved ones interweave with lyrics and meditations on the speaker’s personal confrontations with death as well as its atmospheric presence during the COVID lockdown. Carlson draws upon Jewish tradition and practice, musical and literary history, and a range of linguistic and mythological knowledge in her responses to these situations, at times as sources of inspiration in style, thought or value, at others as partners in ongoing supportive conversations that she honors, integrates, and questions.

“Dog Star,” an elegy for her dog Gigi, brings together several of these aspects like chambers of the collection’s heart.  The speaker locates Gigi’s soul according to Talmudic tradition, an “animal soul—the nefesh,” without “that divine spark—the neshama— that would allow her to ponder the difference.” Consideration of our ability to relate concepts of soul to lived experiences offers a segue to another tradition:

Did you know that the ancient Egyptians
convinced themselves that the heart
housed the so-called human soul,
and death sealed one’s fate by weight—
heart versus feather—the lighter the better—
though pharaohs got a free pass to ascend?

The phrase “convinced themselves” reminds us that we remain in the realm of ideas, none of them conclusive. The playful rhymes between “fate” and “weight” and “feather” and “better” and the gentle humor of “free pass” further qualify both the ideas themselves and the judgements they underwrite.

The direct address to the reader also sets a familiar tone suitable for the speaker’s improvisation of her own constellation story, in which “the best dogs get to become one / with Sirius.” From this discussion of afterlives we arrive at the present context of the poem, the Yom Kippur fast when “We Jews scour our sins, like stains, / and remember our dead—human or beast.” This passage introduces explicitly an aspect of the poem’s consideration that has been latently present throughout: the connection between awareness of death and moral self-reckoning.

As the ending of the poem brings home these essential and ego-transcending stakes, it also brings us home to the body in the sensory experiences of breaking the fast:

when the first bite of food to breach our lips
tastes sweetest after a day of going without,
and a star might wag its diaphanous tail
even in the darkest of nights.
What after all is a soul?

The moral, psychological and philosophical questions are answered with basic human needs and experiences: sustenance, community, reflection for the mind, connective mystery for the soul. Like the earlier humor, this qualifies the austerity of these concerns, yet it also involves us in their relevance to the continuation and deepening of human life.

All of these interconnections quietly prepare for the poem’s final question. At first glance, it appears rhetorical, referring to the star perceived in connection to an earthly pet, and such imaginative connections are, indeed, the self-creating acts of soul-consciousness. However, this connective “soul making,” in which the soul creates and engages mirrors of itself, has also been present in the work of the other aspects of the poem: philosophical and theological argument, humor, bonding with others that eventually requires elegies, and the integrating of all of these elements in the making of the poem itself. This subtle evocation of the human soul in its many interconnected aspects and creations flows continually from the center of this collection into its poems.

Questioning and by extension exploring self-reflectively or imaginatively into sometimes unsettling answers are the centering practices of this collection. “The Last Word” opens the book with a mythic evocation of its title’s subject, which “travels mouth-to- / mouth as in prayer or a plague” and “parted the painted lips / of emperors, lapped enslaved lips.” This foreboding evocation of omnipresence bends into an acceptance of emptiness: “It forgets / its name. It forgets that it had a name. / It has no word for this forgetting.” The poem’s own self-emptying, unexpectedly, serves as a point of imaginative connection for the reader: We imagine our own eventuality, and because of this connection, when we reread the poem, we also have a sense of our own unimaginable life through this strange identification. We are each our own version of the last word, momentarily miraculous, aware even in that moment of an entropy we cannot own any more than the miracle.

This identification with life itself allows and is allowed by different forms of interconnection within consciousness. “Translating the Body” channels corporeal forms of presentiment through its eerie music:

The body feels before it knows

the language of dormant cells
awakening, spreading like jimsonweed.
Our organs sing in different keys,

shipwrecked in growing storms—
defiant and desperate for places to hide.
Our organs sing in different keys
the body feels before it knows.

Skillful work in the Villanelle form weaves together the potential choral joy of the body with the foreboding of what its voices are trying to warn against, creating a haunting effect evocative of awakening to both the presence of death and the plurality of self.

In almost dialogical response, “An Excess of Dreaming” echoes a warning from Montaigne “against getting mired in the liminal / space between the visible and the not,” good advice for most poets to underline. Yet, the poem turns to a wish for less of the liminal in the dreaming the speaker has been doing for reasons beyond their control:

Late to rise, I’m also late for bed,

maybe waylaid by a waxing moon
or a word or phrase shooting past
white space like a star.

The need to rest in recovery is perhaps momentarily dignified by the imagining of cosmic connection, but the speaker’s mind contains the fantasy in the poem, allowing implicit expression of the pathos involved in wishing such connection into being. The expression of suffering that sees through its own fantasy of meaning deepens the reader’s capacity to empathize.

Other poems work with specific experiences of facing death that capture similarly nuanced psychological aspects and offer intuitive bridges to an array of readers. “The Half-Life of Memory” reflects on the mind’s impulses to control what it cannot by enacting self-erasure through a metaphor derived from “the cobalt lodged in my tumor bed”:

How stable are memories—
the kind you most want to forget,
as if forgetting could bring back

the whole of the life that was
before, before that year when you lost
a good chunk of your breast

and your hair fell out in clumps,
down to each forsaken follicle—

The poem displays an interesting trick of consciousness, attempting to avoid the awareness of loss by nullifying memory. The same underlying terror arises through a different experience in “Coming To,” fear of losing the consciousness that is recording and contextualizing one’s suffering:

Still, you persist in rehearsing
dying, though here and there
something catches your eye—
pleasure fluorescing in shades
of blues and greens flecked
with gold—a sunlit pond
as seen from below
the water’s surface, and you
with your legs trapped
in lily stems, hearing the current
lap at the sides of your capsized boat
with a swoosh . . . swoosh . . . weak
as your warden heart
or what your conscious mind
might let slip.

The speaker’s awareness of the threat her imagined dive may pose to conscious control shows that her lesson from Montaigne has been well learned. However, as in the previous poem, the soul sees itself most acutely when experiencing a partial loss of conscious regulation. Death, uninvited, is nonetheless tutor to these insights. Yet, both poems present consciousness grappling with knowledge of its own final helplessness in ways many readers may relate to. Grappling with ephemerality also presents an oppositional, mutually informing mode of the soul knowing itself from the elegiac approach of “Dog Star.”

A gentler source of wisdom enters the collection in the form of animals, such as ants offering humorous advice to “[b]uild your house on an ant hill / if you’re tired of living alone”:

Bred to bear twenty to fifty times
their collective body weight,
they can carry away your fears,
one by one, to the deepest reach
or bring you small crystals of garnets
unearthed from below—fire-eyed.

The strength embodied by the shadow-gifting ants pairs with a reassessment that occurs in the poem “Why Sturgeon Leap,” reminding us that the metaphorical amusement works in tandem with the lighthearted delivery, lest one “not even recognize joy as it flies / up and splashes you in the face.”

The freedom offered by the sympathetic imagining of other creatures is mirrored in the embrace of both form and improvisation— and especially the creative tension between them— in the writing process itself. “Finding / Keeping the Beat” connects the reading and expressive aspects of poetic practice with those of playing music:

My fingers were taught to translate / hold
and release each scored note

measured / poured bar to bar
on a musical staff, varying touch

The slashes create a secondary tension within some of the lines, challenging our assumptions about how a poem is read. They also create dual expressions that contain the simultaneous processes involved in playing a musical note. This recalls the way “[o]ur organs sing in different keys,” each contributing to the choral fullness of body and self.

This dual process of reading and performing, distinguished and integrated by the slashes, continues to explore relational nuances within musical practice, eventually connecting them to the play of poetic composition as a kindred practice:

in the absence / shadow of sound,
confirming Mozart’s belief that music lies

in the silence between notes,
not unlike the open spaces I’d later learn

to range by stroking / wheedling keyboards
synched to computer displays,

and though my voice was limited
by words that wouldn’t stick in my head,

here I could improvise,
count / compose stresses stretched over lines

dangling with dissonance, restless / flirting
cursor hungry to reach the tonic chord.

The move into the “absence / shadow of sound” drops down into the emptiness at the center of both musical and poetic practices, which paradoxically allows meditative movement between them. The final slash-connected words, “restless / flirting,” indicate a similar intuition about the way that the music and instruments, like their counterparts in poetic composition, want to play creatively with psyche, and, of course, vice versa. This desire for ongoing play, the unreached chord in the final line, and the unresolved word choices all participate in the joy that this poem, the collection’s final one, takes in the open ended, self-reinvigorating dance of beauty and meaning.

Recalling “Dog Star,” we can see a connection to how the speaker’s reading and inventing of cosmology worked cooperatively in the poem’s unfolding, psyche’s play with what has been created integral to making something today, the soul’s intuitions for meaning and creativity riffing together in one song. The attendant fears of “what your conscious mind / might let slip”— and the nearly dialogical closeness into which they are drawn in the presence of death— are integrated into the greater body of work as essential to both consciousness and creation. In all of these “different keys” of ongoing psychological composition, these poems journey the question that concluded “Dog Star”: “What after all is a soul?”

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