Review by Sally Bliumis-Dunn
The central narrative in Cracked Piano describes the poet’s great grandfather, Peter R. Taft, who was institutionalized in the Cincinnati Sanitarium during the 1870’s. Peter had been first in his class at Yale, contracted typhoid, and was treated for the resulting severe headaches with a drug that gave him mercury poisoning. The implication is that he was institutionalized as many people were, for acting strangely, but had no long term mental illness. It is thought that perhaps his prolonged stay in the hospital had to do to with his family’s social prominence and embarrassment. Peter’s brother, William Howard Taft, would become president of the United States in 1909.
Two out of five sections in this book are dedicated to Peter’s institutionalization. Stever allows letters from the asylum’s doctor to Peter’s father and the letters from Peter to speak for themselves as “found” poems. The title poem is one such letter. Peter addresses his father; he describes his inmates and his loneliness in a very flat, nonblaming tone which evokes deep sympathy in the reader. Here is one description of mealtime banter, “the conversation is neither amusing/nor instructive. It is liberally/interspersed with grunts.” And he signs the letter, “A kiss to the baby. Your affectionate son…” My favorite poem from these sections is not a letter but rather is spoken though a third person omniscient voice and is called, “The Lunatic Ball.” Outsiders are invited into the asylum to gawk from behind a glass window at the patients as they dance. “One man plays a flute, calls himself Faunus; another uses an invisible latrine.”
The sensibility in Cracked Piano shows a fractured and often frightening world with a speaker who yearns for a human existence that is less broken, not cracked like the piano in the title poem where one of the inmates is trying to “extract harmonious discords out of a cracked piano.” This may as well be Stever’s own quest, to speak out of pain with some sort of hope for harmony. In the book’s opening poem, called, “Idiot’s Guide to Counting” the speaker wishes that all that exists and no longer exists could be found in “the solution of one.” Many of these poems are spoken as a kind of haunted and haunting incantation that is pointed towards this hope.
There are poems about the speaker’s difficult childhood, the strangeness of suburban life, but even these poems are never just about what they seem. In “The Hudson Line” the train becomes proof that god exists. And the poems of childhood trauma are not self-pitying but serve as windows into what helped to form the speaker’s large empathic heart.
These wide-ranging poems are drawn to whatever injustice Stever encounters: there is a woman and child hiding beneath floorboards in El Salvador, a black man discovered and embalmed and put on display in a shack for the neighborhood to gawk at. “He could shelter nothing beneath his limbs.” Stever’s poems often try to highlight the wronged and the likely to be unseen of this world. The poet evokes local history with the headless horseman but gives much more attention to three women murdered near the famed Raven’s Rock; women whom history has ignored but appear as angry ghosts.
And then there is the ars poetica, “Why so many Poets Come From Ohio” which says that “Poets come from Ohio because/of the homelessness of the hills… looking westward for relief.”
The poem has a comic tone but ends by saying, “They search the soured hills for daffodils, for turnips,/for everything they thought once grew there.” There is, in Stever’s poems this hope against hope that she might retrieve something purer that’s been lost to the world.
As Stever says in her stunning poem, “Hand.” “A hand can be a monastery,/fingers bent in repose,/or a slaughterhouse/where nothing is safe.” Stever’s poems strive to restore us, if not to the “monastery” then at least to a place of relative safety and “repose.”
Cracked Piano is the fourteenth title in CavanKerry’s Literature of Illness imprint.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 22, Issue 4.
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