Mayapple Press 2012
Reviewed by Bob Wake
Begin with the beckoning title of Wisconsin poet Sarah Busse’s Somewhere Piano. Within its pages, we find the eponymous poem doubling down and rechristened as “Somewhere Piano, Again.” It’s a poem about getting things right, not just on piano or paper, but in our heads:
These are the rehearsal rooms of the brain,
strangely echoed, some, and others
strangely dead. Wander once more
the narrow, ill-lit halls.
There’s no poetic triumphalism here. “Somewhere Piano, Again” suggests a painfully stalled dark night of the soul, a writer’s prayer for illumination:
Rehearsing and rehearsing
on the instrument of haunt, reversing again,
and overheard through walls, muffled,
a someone else, anonymous, not quite
in tune, remembered ever, trying
and trying (how much we want)
to get that passage right.
Busse is a rare species of writer: a secular poet of the sacred. She has found a language to illustrate the all-too-brief moments of revelation that sneak into our days, the instances of what theologian Jean-Luc Marion has called “saturated phenomena,” when we’re astonished by unbidden hints of connectedness. Busse’s poem “Flicker,” for instance, begins:
This morning a flock of flickers—flash of red,
flash of yellow at my feet—rose and flew
past the blue turkey-foot, the prairie dropseed.
The grasses nodded their purple heads, bronzed,
lazy in their affirmation … until the wind blew.
Although the moment evaporates in a September breeze, the poet’s own “feathered heart,” in the second stanza, has been altered by the experience: a quickened recognition of “how the honey locust / shivers down its gold and gilds my driveway …” By the third and final stanza, following the trail from prairie to driveway, the poet arrives home with a renewed reverence that continues to draw its airborne imagery from the bird flock seen that morning: “My children toss leaves up to see them / leap and fall and leap again, laugh and beg for more.”
Busse’s poems have the curious feature—not uncommon in religious poetry from Donne to Dickinson—of never quite being about what they presume to be about. Her work directs our gaze or our contemplation to something beyond the poem’s focus. She’ll grant you a stable ground outside your kitchen window, but then she’ll pull you seductively toward something chaotic and profound, undefined but ecstatically present at any given moment if we choose to engage it, take it on. Here, embedded within a poem framed around her eight-year-old son’s whimsical improvisations on the family piano (“To Robert Cabaste Wind on His Birthday”), a kind of cosmic disturbance invades the morning:
He is playing imagined music for
imagined listeners of imagined radio, the lit
windows of morning kitchens dot the hills
of the Driftless. The music launches,
and a coffee cup suspends, dishes
go unwashed, an argument hangs midair.
Eyes go vacant at the curious passages …
In the final stanza, mirroring her son’s improvised melodies, the poet/mother is inspired to improvise her own morning prayer or hymn, a suburban matins:
Blessings on the marriages of the morning,
blessings on the scrambled kids about to board buses,
the dogwalkers and garbage trucks and gardeners
who will let the music drift over and off
and get on with their variegated days …
Busse in the last few years has gained recognition as a tireless proselytizer for poetry, especially in her roles shared with fellow Wisconsin poet Wendy Vardaman, as co-editor of Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press. Verse Wisconsin found its voice—or, to be accurate, voices plural, as in “multitude”—when in the thick of the winter 2011 labor protests in Madison, the magazine’s Facebook page became a living anthology of poets old, new and spontaneously birthed, reacting in real time to a historic political crisis. In January, 2012, Mayor Paul Soglin appointed Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman to a four-year term as Madison’s Poets Laureate.
While two chapbooks preceded it—Quiver (Red Dragonfly Press 2009) and Given These Magics (Finishing Line Press 2010)—this is Busse’s first full-length collection. The real success of Somewhere Piano’s diverse and rich selection of 47 poems can be measured by the fact that Busse’s chilling 2012 Pushcart Prize-winning poem, “Silhouettes,” an account of a home-invasion and sexual assault, is but one example of the high level of artistry on display throughout Somewhere Piano.
[A version of this review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Wisconsin People and Ideas.]