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The Player Piano -- Randall Jarrell

Guest poem submitted by Sunil Iyengar:
(Poem #747) The Player Piano
 I ate pancakes one night in a Pancake House
 Run by a lady my age. She was gay.
 When I told her that I came from Pasadena
 She laughed and said, "I lived in Pasadena
 When Fatty Arbuckle drove the El Molino bus."

 I felt that I had met someone from home.
 No, not Pasadena, Fatty Arbuckle.
 Who's that? Oh, something that we had in common
 Like -- like -- the false armistice. Piano rolls.
 She told me her house was the first Pancake House

 East of the Mississippi, and I showed her
 A picture of my grandson. Going home --
 Home to the hotel -- I began to hum,
 "Smile a while, I bid you sad adieu,
 When the clouds roll back I'll come to you."

 Let's brush our hair before we go to bed,
 I say to the old friend who lives in my mirror.
 I remember how I'd brush my mother's hair
 Before she bobbed it. How long has it been
 Since I hit my funnybone? had a scab on my knee?

 Here are Mother and Father in a photograph,
 Father's holding me.... They both look so young.
 I'm so much older than they are. Look at them,
 Two babies with their baby. I don't blame you,
 You weren't old enough to know any better;

 If I could I'd go back, sit down by you both,
 And sign our true armistice: you weren't to blame.
 I shut my eyes and there's our living room.
 The piano's playing something by Chopin,
 And Mother and Father and their little girl

 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.
-- Randall Jarrell
Maybe because Jarrell was such an impulsive critic and essayist, he was all
the more careful to conceal the logic of his characters in poems such as
this one. Not to say that the logic of the narrator in "The Player Piano" is
obscure, only that we are lulled by a sort of pastoral until the fifth
stanza, when remorse infiltrates the poem. Considered to be his last before
Jarrell died -- in 1965, sideswiped by a car while strolling down a lonely
North Carolina lane --  "The Player Piano" begins with a charitable couplet:
"I ate pancakes one night in a Pancake House/Run by a lady my age. She was
gay." The generous tone is suggested not by the parenthetical, if halting,
remark, "She was gay," but by the short phrase that precedes it: "Run by a
lady my age."

This identification with other human beings, those who share a collective
memory, becomes the narrator's redemption. The reference to Fatty Arbuckle
and Pasadena is not so much a throwback to Jarrell's California childhood as
it is a clutching after a common likeness. The question that the narrator
asks herself, "Fatty Arbuckle/Who's that?" suggests a mischievous joy in the
"something that we had in common," something from which the reader might
feel temporarily excluded. Fishing for specimens of that "something," the
narrator trots out, a bit awkwardly, "the false armistice," or the calm
between the wars. Then follows the quaint example of "piano rolls." But the
armistice, or rather its falseness, lingers in the reader's mind and will
erupt later in the poem.

Confidences are exchanged between the narrator and the pancake lady. The
former shows her grandson's picture, a gesture that supports her
characterization of an earlier life, and her new acquaintance boasts a
modest enough accomplishment: "She told me her house was the first Pancake
House/East of the Mississippi." The combination of this provincial detail
("Pancake House") with the panoramic image, "East of the Mississippi,"
heralding the next stanza, is a quality to be admired in Jarrell's work
generally. The narrator goes home -- home to her hotel, she can't resist
adding -- and hums what sounds like a faded show tune, until we are lurched
into the present tense with "Let's brush our hair before we go to bed,/I say
to the old friend who lives in my mirror." Here our attention is commanded
not by the simple declarative sentence, nor by the substitution of "we" for
"I" in the first line, launching a new stanza, but of course by the
startlingly accurate metaphor of "the old friend who lives in my mirror."
I've never heard it used before, and it captures the sense of buried life,
an alternative existence, which the narrator invokes with the seemingly
innocent questions: "How long has it been/Since I hit my funnybone? had a
scab on my knee?"

The less said about the last three stanzas, the better. The narrator is old
and wise enough to absolve her parents from any blame in her upbringing,
after seeing them in a photo; as with the mirror, she wants to go beyond the
picture -- through the picture -- to identify with the lives therein. As for
the domestication of the armistice in Line Two, Stanza Six, and the
imperative, "Listen," in the first line of the final stanza -- what
commentary is needed? The "piano rolls" from five stanzas back resurfaces in
the titular theme, the player piano: "Look, the keys go down by themselves!"
The grown-up narrator, not the little girl sitting with her parents, holds
her fingers a "half-inch" from the keys. At the same time, she laments,
reminiscent of Kafka or Rilke: "If only, somehow, I had learned to live!"
Yet one cannot imagine many poets saying this outright, nor extracting the
fullest force of sincerity that Jarrell does. The final line evokes the
close at hand, yet unattainable; a virtual reality, one that will not submit
to the speaker's control. In closing, and with dubious relevance, I quote
the poem "Here" by Philip Larkin, of whom I am gratified to learn that
Jarrell approved: "Here is unfenced existence:/Facing the sun, untalkative,
out of reach."

Sunil.

35 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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