Book Review: The Grand Piano by Floyce Alexander

Floyce Alexander.  The Grand Piano.  Voice of the Poet Series: volume one

Northfield, MN:  Red Dragonfly Press, 2014. 55 pages. ($10 paper. $5.90 audio ebook for ipad; $2.99 audiobook)

Reviewed in North Dakota Quarterly, vol.80.1 by Dale Jacobson

Floyce Alexander grew up in the lower Yakima valley of Washington state, where his father homesteaded a grape farm after working as a coal miner in Arkansas.  His poems visit both areas of the country and are always conscious of his working class roots.  He holds an MFA and Ph.D., but I find even more significant his study of poetry with Theodore Roethke.  At 74, he has been writing poetry for the majority of his life.

This book presents three poems, each a sequence, “The Grand Piano,” “Another Young American Pilgrim,” and “Irene Casteñada.”  The poems all are interrelated, moving through different periods of the poet’s life.  One of Alexander’s projects in much of his poetry is to record– and some way save– his past, perhaps even redeem it from the worst aspects of its, and our, history.  This effort leads him to confront his own feelings toward relatives, and particularly women who have been important to him since love is the leitmotif of much of his work.  One might say that this book is a great love poem, despite our national culture which promotes so much division and hatred.  The poems are acutely aware of loves lost to the caprices of time, which remain very much alive to him.

This focus alone would make the book immensely worthy, but it does more, for personal love is not the limit of its concern.  Interwoven are larger societal and historical loves, or their lack.  The poet understands that love does not exist in political and cultural isolation.  And it is at this intersection that we confront our national obstructions to love, in particular  racism, but also our “love” of war, and by contrast, our inability to love the poor enough help them.

In “The Grand Piano” love is equated with music, a language for our passions just as physical sensation can be, if passion exists.  When it doesn’t exist, both become brutality, but when it does, the poems want to open our passions beyond what the country ordinarily allows, “a change of uniforms, an end to war.”  (20).  This suggestion that we can change our perspective toward what we love is one of the qualities of this work I admire most.  In fact, I have long opposed the idealization and elevation of “the ordinary” in our culture, which seems nearly ubiquitous, as if what is ordinary is the same of political democracy.  The truth is, oppression is the ordinary quotidian in our culture.  I very much admire poems that want to dislodge the ordinary, as do these.

And yet, the difficulties of our country don’t go away in Alexander’s poems.  There is no false sense that individual romantic love, however much the poet prizes it, can overcome the political realities that stand in its way.  While personal love is possible, racism was also largely responsible for denying him his first passionate romance.  In addition, the poet’s own memory is the past the country constructed, the racism of the South:  “My father’s / father hated this black man who hated / him back.  I saw why in my grandfather’s face.”  (21).   Later, we find a poem on Guantanamo, where music (and Christianity) is converted to an accompaniment for torture and death.

Alexander is not a poet who claims “love” answers history, one of those easy formulas we often hear, perhaps a hand-me-down from Jesus, nor does he assert it as a political weapon against the dark and greedy passions of war.  But these poems are perhaps an effort to understand at least three things:  where we have been, who we are as a nation (with our current limitations), and what is possible if we can surpass those limitations.  In some sense, then, one might think of the love expressed for the women in this book as more than personal, but also love for imagination itself, as we find in Whitman, the muse as love.   There is great optimism (despite great resignation) in these poems, as in these lines:

Ah love, the sky is our house and this earth

its floor, the sun and moon our bright windows

opening to the fire and to the stars…

Ah love, I love you:  you know all the words

I say will never carry the meaning

of our silence, your radiant presence…

(49-50)

Sometimes publishers get it right.  This is one of those times.

– Dale Jacobson

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