Book Review

Set during the wider context of the global pandemic and within the personal history of the speaker’s grappling with cancer, Nancy Naomi Carlson’s Piano in the Dark looks at the latent danger within “everything in nature,” as in a startling untitled villanelle she dedicated to her late sister-in-law, Roxanne Miller:

Everything in nature contains its violence:

honeybees trading lives for stings;

electromagnetic waves beheaded for violets.

The human voice can shatter a glass of wine

thanks to sound waves and resonant frequencies.

Everything in nature contains its violence:

hydrangea globes laced with cyanide;

fresh-killed catgut strings for violins;

wavelengths of yellow and green rejected for violets,

those ancient flowers of mourning. Like Whitman’s “I”

they contradict themselves, contain multitudes.

Does everything in nature contain its violence,

like a teratoma you always had? . . .

Through the refrain in the first and third lines of the villanelle, Carlson surprises the reader by directing the speaker’s gaze toward contradictions: within multitudes of the self lies danger, or poison. In the poem “Vigilance,” Carlson further explores the beguiling quality of what is beautiful, like the hydrangeas that are “reborn / each year, despite the cutting back.” She writes:

Like immortals, they’re reborn

each year, despite the cutting back.

My backyard hydrangeas hog the azalea’s light,

beautiful and deadly when swallowed

with a compound that morphs into cyanide,

though dried and smoked

they yield a cheaper-than-pot high.

My scientist father never shared

that trip with me, sticking to complacencies

of soil and pH: acidic to yield true blue

and alkaline for pink.

Were he still alive, I’d have confessed

how I mistook a magnified view

of Covid-19 for hydrangea,

with their clustered cells,

like the mutinous clutch taken

from my breast right after he died.

Thus, nature’s awesome vitality, which approaches the divine, parallels a decline in civilization, as in how the overgrown hydrangeas hog the light meant for the azaleas during the pandemic, when they can no longer be curbed the same way as in years past. That vitality underscores the way in which nature “contains its violence,” as it comes in tandem with the absence of human activity—a vitality made possible by immense human suffering, made personal as the speaker trades the electromagnetic light for the violet of medical apparatus to “see” what is hidden more clearly for the first time, after her father’s death.

Here, Carlson is the azalea who is overshadowed by the hydrangeas as she explores what her biologist father never taught her, beyond “complacencies / of soil and pH: acidic to yield true blue / and alkaline for pink.” In some ways, if hydrangeas are a harbinger of sorts, it will be in the overflowing of their large “globes, laced with cyanide,” of “cheaper-than-pot high,” or poison when nature is “dried and smoked” the wrong way. Beyond even this facade, Carlson is at once fascinated and repulsed by the verisimilitude between a magnified view of the hydrangeas and that of the coronavirus, the “mutinous clutch” from her breasts.

This metamorphosis of the natural, to the viral, to the personal is fascinating in parallel to the mythological and biblical, as it begs the question of who would’ve known of the “mutinous clutch / taken from her breast right after her father died.” In a grappling lyric that ends just so for each poem in the collection, Carlson examines when “the bodies’ early warning systems / fail us as it failed the ancients,” as bodies become physical sites of devastation and shame, “if only” the speaker knows, perhaps tragedy might have been averted. To want to defy the fate of exes, of disease and plague, is fully embodied in Carlson’s wish to become the wind, to “define shape and surface, droplet and wave,” rather than the “wave, pulled and pulled again, embracing the weight of each body’s crossing.” The poet reckons with the inevitability of death, even while singing of life.

The pandemic and severe illness both have a tendency to make us turn inward, away from the light. It also has a tendency to make us disbelieve, as “gone are the givens–talismans / we clung to, believing / we might be spared in some ways,” as we are let down and the system that has taught us our life values crumble. In lieu of leaving us with despair, Carlson shows us the great expanse of an imagined Sahara Desert, as in the end of “Vigilance”:

a lull in Maryland deaths led me to don

a mask from my chemo stash and hold my breath,

as images bloomed on the digital screen,

cloudy as Saharan dust, now on its northerly trek,

swirling its plume to feather our sunsets

with shades of scattered light.

In this scattered light, the light of our religious and familial traditions passes through in spite of the devastating prognosis. Carlson imagines the sukkahs her neighbors and her “ancestors pitched to keep / the Sinai sun at bay,” even as Carlson mourns those who have left her behind. This parallel of Carlson’s combat against cancer while being in treatment with adjuvant tamoxifen during a global pandemic and her ancestors’ pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem, elevates Carlson’s struggle to the heroic, as she has grown wiser through her journey. It is here that Carlson is at the height of her lyrical prowess, as in her wisdom she has come to embody a nightingale, both in the “sandstorm” in the wilderness of the physical Sahara of her ancestors, and in the wilderness of her elderly mother, as she played by heart Chopin’s Nocturnes. Carlson envisions poetry as a community to get through a literal and metaphorical sandstorm as she mourned the deaths of those around her and stood strong against yearly mammograms during the COVID years. And through her playing of the piano in the dark, like Chopin before her, “the earth ceased to mourn.”

About the Reviewer

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and the chapbook When Ilium Burns (Bottlecap Press), as well as co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert/El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.