Laurence Carr reviews Cracked Piano, poems by Margo Taft Stever

Cracked Piano, poems of Margo Taft Stever. CavenKerry Press, Ltd., 2019.

Margo Taft Stever’s new book of poems, Cracked Piano, is a voyage that takes us through two centuries of both the familiar and the foreign. As the reader moves from page to page, they will enter a surreal space, and then one totally recognizable, and then suddenly, will be swept into that crepuscule land of in-between, simultaneously dreamlike and grounded in our world. It’s a rich volume of 68 pages minus the five dusky dividing pages. A longer volume would have diminished its emotional impact.  Upon deep viewing on its red-brown cover, one will see piano keys morphing through time and wear into something not yet decipherable. I’m a believer that book covers are doorways and a reader opens them to enter a unique world that the author has created. I was interested in entering through that door and into Ms. Stever’s world and was not disappointed.

            Cracked Piano is divided into five untitled sections. I harkened back to Eliot’s five sectioned (and titled) 1922 seminal poem, “The Waste Land.” Both works share that attribute of living within our time and outside of it. The centerpiece or dark star around which the other four planet sections orbit is a poem, “The Lunatic Ball: after a ‘Dance in the Madhouse’ by George Bellows, 1882-1925”, a 1917 lithograph by the American artist, along with a series of letters, here fashioned into found poems. “The Lunatic Ball” poem, in the second section, sets the often bleak and rhythmic tone that like waves of a midnight sea, wash over us throughout the book. “Furious dancing gives way to screams;/ five men stare, ghoulish, at the wall./ This is the lunatic ball.” The staggered line breaks, the rhythm, word choice and rhymes all add to the unsettling atmosphere, feverish at times, that pervades the book.

            Of the six found letter/poems in part two, three possess a lyricism equal to many of the Stever poems. They were written in the late 1870s between Peter R. Taft (Margo Taft Stever’s great-grand father and half-brother to President William Howard Taft) and Peter’s father. Three others were written to Peter’s family by W. S. Shipley, M.D., Superintendent, Cincinnati Sanitarium, Private Hospital for the Insane. Peter was institutionalized for a condition that may have resulted from a medication, calomel, a compound laced with mercury. His letters reflect the life and times of one who is confined in an asylum: “I am alone this evening as every,/ alone. An artist of imperfect/ mind is endeavoring to extract/ harmonious discords out of a cracked/ piano just to my left. Life here/ is of the plainest, I might say, of the hardest kind.”

            These lines from the Peter letter/poem resonate throughout the book. The poems are filled with grief and the anger that can arise from it. There are also a wide range of reflective images with no conclusions drawn, but which raise more questions. One of the most perceptive yet unsettling pieces is the short poem, “I Have Been My Arm.” I quote it here in is entirety: “resting on the side of the truck,/ carrying a cigarette/ to my mouth-/ my hand, an animal/ that cannot see or hear.”

            There are references throughout to mothers and stepmothers, neither of whom fare well. And off-beat travelogues through Ohio seen through the poet’s unblinking eye in “Why So Many Poets Come From Ohio” and “Queen City”. We’re taken to the Hudson River to take in more celestial waters: “The river stretches out/ like a line of flight, a pattern/ winging toward God.” And also taken to Sleepy Hollow in the poet’s back yard in “Raven’s  Rock” where ghosts still haunt in an updating of Washington Irving. I was also pleased to revisit two poems, “Wind Innuendo” and “Idiot’s Guide to Counting” which were published in two different Codhill Press anthologies that I edited. In reading Cracked Piano, I was taken to the dark side in nearly every piece, but was never depressed by the book. Nor was I uplifted. Ms. Stever is not writing “feel good” poems but rather is bringing us to the outer realms of thought and feeling. The characters and narrators in the book (And it’s loaded with them.) are mostly alone in their thoughts, and the poems create that sense of aloneless. Many of the pieces feel like inner monologues. We feel an awareness that the characters are standing at the edge of the abyss, then turning back to tell us what they are experiencing.  And in this, perhaps, we may find some solace.

            On a practical note, some may question the font that was chosen. It’s certainly readable, but another choice might be better. And the book does have one of my major pet-peeves: long book blurbs on the back cover. Does anyone read these in full? Perhaps a line or two by several more people could work, but back covers shouldn’t be the place for lengthy paragraphs.

            Last, on a literary note: Cracked Piano is a truly fine, contemporary poetry book, perhaps the very set of poems for our unsettling times: thoughtful, deep, and totally engrossing. Take it in slowly line by line. 

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In 2019, CavanKerry Press published Margo Taft Stever’s second full-length book, Cracked Piano, and Kattywompus Press published her chapbook, Ghost Moose. Her other poetry collections are The Lunatic Ball (2015); The Hudson Line (2012); Frozen Spring (2002); and Reading the Night Sky (1996). She is the founder of the Hudson Valley Writers Center and the founding editor of Slapering Hol Press (www.margotaftstever.com).

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Reviewed by Laurence Carr, the publisher of Lightwood magazine.

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