Jody Gladding's "For Piano and Strings"
Thoughts on grief and endurance.
For Piano and Strings
In G minor
is that high
the bows drawn
at the broken
surface where business
must go on
so many little steps
for the restless
from Poetry (March 2004)
I searched for a long time for this poem. I remembered reading it over a year ago, and I dug through old photos and postings and such until I found it. I remembered the way it looked in my mind — a thin, broken poem about grief and music. And when I found it and encountered it again, I was struck, as if reading it for the first time, by that word — sustained — occupying its own line, its own space.
I think I was thinking about this poem because, earlier this week, for the first time in a long time, I was able to play music with my friend George (shameless plug for our remotely-recorded quarantine band, PRØM, here). We met on the third floor of this rehearsal space in Manhattan, in a beautiful room with a grand piano, and George plugged a guitar into a floor amp, and I hammered away on the keys, trying and most likely failing to do justice to the ghosts of opera singers and their accompanying musicians — those who probably filled that room with grace long and continuously before we even tried.
I grew up playing the piano, and I miss the feeling of having one nearby. Every room in this world should have a piano. At a high school where I once taught years ago, there was a grand piano in an auditorium that no one ever used, and in between classes, I’d sneak down there and play to that wide and empty place, filled with vacant seats. I loved how it felt to peel the cover back and press the soft pedal down so the music didn’t carry out of that lonely space. When my parents split two decades ago, I was just a kid, and my mom gifted me a guitar not long after she left. I broke it by accident, unaware that it was sitting on my bed before I threw my young body onto my mattress. The guitar flew upward and crashed down on the floor. It snapped at the fret.
My mom had taken the piano from my childhood home — it was hers. She bought it when she was still with my dad, at a sale outside a church. I don’t know how I remember that, or why. But I do. And so, after the guitar’s fracture, on the nights I’d see my mom, I’d try to figure out how to play the keys. I didn’t tell her about the broken guitar. I’d go immediately to the piano, a decorative thing decorated with pictures. I’d put a CD on a Walkman, and play with my headphones covering one ear, trying to make the music from the piano match the music I was hearing so intimately — and so quietly. I didn’t want to upset anybody. To get the notes wrong.
I don’t know how to read music in full. I can read the lines of melody, but not quick enough to play them as I read, and so I’ve learned, mostly, to play by ear and key. If you tell me the key of any song you’re playing, I can figure it out quick enough, and play alongside you. When this happens, the piano appears — truly, I mean this — like something operating in the universe of light and shadow. Whatever notes work within the key are lit up. If a song is in E, I see the notes — E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E — shining in my field of vision, and then I try to get my fingers to fiddle and bustle and hustle upon them.
And so, that being said, the first thing I love about this poem is that G minor has always felt to me like a difficult key to play. On the piano, it makes difficult sense of the hands. And so, as such, maybe it is fitting that Gladding compares G minor to grief itself. But what I love too about this poem are its first five lines:
In G minor
is that high
The broken placement of this clause — the way it scatters each word and phrase and fragments them across these short, stunted lines — moves quickly at first. The “G” in the first line is echoed by the word “grief” itself, and the poem descends at a rapid pace until it lands on that word sustained — a word that is drawn out by nature, a word that enacts the very musical notion it defines. Say it out loud. Feel the way the first syllable fills the mouth and lingers. And feel the way the final syllable lengthens well past the length of the word. And then notice some of the words in the lines that follow:
the bows drawn
This entire middle section of today’s poem functions as a kind of sustaining hum. Words like drawn — low, slow, and mellowed out — hold the poem in a lengthened pause. They fix the gaze. And the gaze is locked on grief, that sharp word at the start (and heart) of this poem.
Such a moment makes me consider the endurance at the heart of grief, which is another way of saying the endurance at the heart of life. I can’t help but think of the band The National playing their song, “Sorrow,” for six straight hours. The way such an act dilutes the song into an act of almost tragic comedy, the way it forces new considerations of how to move through what seems familiar, the way it makes humans wonder about what is possible and what isn’t. Life is a song sustained for far more than six hours. It’s a song sustained for as long as life lives. In that act of sustaining — the bows drawn, the days slowed and ordinary — is our breath, our heartbeat, our dailiness, our way of moving through the world, changed and unchanged by all we feel and all we have yet to feel. We move slower than healing, but eventually healing comes. We move as slow as we do, and we feel and change along the way. To do this — and to grieve as we do — is an act of endurance. It feels rarely recognized as such.
But endurance, as always, is made an act of endurance not by the slowness of its pace, but by the flitting and small and sometimes painful dailiness of the ordinary acts that must be performed along its way. This is how Gladding describes such a thing:
at the broken
surface where business
must go on
so many little steps
for the restless
It’s a beautiful way to describe how a day moves, even when it is hard to move within that day. Isn’t it? Every act of endurance — whether something physical or whether something grief-stricken or whether life itself or whether all these things combined — is an act that merges the ongoing pain of endurance itself with the “many little steps” we must restlessly or annoyingly enact in the sustained moment. Notice, too, how the sound of the language changes. Instead of those long, mellowed words — sustained, healing, meanwhile — we are given quicker words. Words like business, little, steps, restless. Words that mirror each other in sound. Their short, quick s’s. They hiss on the tongue and then leave, like water flicked onto a hot pan.
In one of her poems from her stark and startlingly beautiful collection, Obit, Victoria Chang writes:
The grief remains but is changed by what it is covered with.
That line makes me think of Gladding’s poem. Of the “many little steps.” The things that fuss about and cover our grief, but don’t change our grief. Isn’t that endurance? To go on through life with one unchanging pain while so many changing pains sort themselves out in the everyday?
This second half of today’s poem feels transcendent in the illustration of this point. It takes the poetic conceit of the piano and utilizes it to its fullest effect. I think of other metaphors, too. I think of the oft-named one, of a duck rapidly pedaling its webbed feet to stay afloat while above the surface it appears to be the picture of grace itself. For the duck, the water line is that “broken / surface.” Notice the line break there, the way Gladding enacts for us the brokenness of daily life by breaking the image of our daily lives into two lines.
As someone who struggles to hold a bass melody in my left hand on the piano, I feel this image intimately. I know what it’s like to keep a song together with those restless hands, those hands that are trying and often failing to paint a picture of cohesion. It’s a struggle — to make a song feel like one beautiful and unified thing when really it is so often a tense and restless one. As I write this, I’m listening to a song that does this so well. It is a song that embodies for me so much of what this poem is about. It’s called “Said and Done,” composed by the contemporary pianist Nils Frahm. Here is a live recording of it. It’s worth your time.
I first heard this song a decade ago, and it’s been something I come back to continuously. It begins relentlessly, with Frahm hammering on the same note over and over again. You think the song will be about nothing else but this one note. But then, with his left hand, Frahm eventually introduces a gorgeous progression. It swells underneath the one-note arpeggio, but still that note never leaves. It offers rhythm but also texture. It, too, just one note — it ebbs and flows. It sometimes seems to be more than one note, but it is still the same note. It is like grief. The same sound, heard through the different days.
If there is a metaphor here, maybe it is like a heart. But maybe that is too on the nose. But maybe not. The heart beats and beats and beats. It sometimes murmurs and sometimes skips. It does not stop until it stops. It beats, sometimes, so loud that it becomes the only thing we hear. And somedays, maybe most days, it beats so quietly that we forget about it. We forget that it is the undercurrent that allows us to breathe, to move, to live. And it, as a metaphor, carries everything we feel. It carries our love and our grief. It carries our sorrow and our pain. It holds so much, and beats still. It is, in each of us, the ongoing metronome counting out the time of our endurance. It beats through its own heartache. Beats quickly through our physical struggle. Beats in our eardrums in our moments of anxiety. It reminds us, when we hear it, that we are alive, and that the act being alive carries so much along with it.
In this way, the heart is that sustained note in each of us, as today’s poem mentions. It goes on and it goes on. But in each of us, too, is that broken surface. That place where, as Gladding writes, “business / must go on.” It is a sad thing — that word business, that word must. Such words shouldn’t have to be there, but they are. It does go on. Our dailiness. The ordinary action that comprises each of our everyday lives. Our hands busy themselves. Things are bought. Errands are run. Memories are forced to the back of the mind. In this way, today’s poem captures one essence of our humanness. That we are like songs. In their beauty, yes, but also in the tense interplay of instruments that, when performed in conversation with another, make them beautiful to hear. The way a piano is played by two hands owned by the same person, and the way both hands must figure out a way to perform their parts, even when one is doing more than the other, even when one is moving slower than the other. It’s hard. But this interplay happens in each of us, every day. We figure out a way to carry on, to play the song with both hands.
So many of my favorite moments in my life have happened as a result of music. I remember drunkenly commandeering a piano at a bar in New Orleansafter my girlfriend’s brother’s wedding, and trying to figure out how to play “Shallow” from A Star is Born while the whole family tried to sing along. I remember the late aftermath of a reading I once hosted not far from City College, and how, after all the poets had read and the people were beginning to shuffle outside for cigarettes and subway rides home, George and I sat at the piano bench and played and sung a song we wrote together, not caring if anyone was listening. I remember what feel like stolen moments on pianos, melodies I’ve tried to work out in solitude, songs that no one has ever heard. I remember being young, trying to navigate brokenness, and how, long before I ever snuck into that school’s theater as an adult, I snuck into my own high school’s theater as a kid. I’d go there during my lunch period, and my friend Marty would meet me, and one of us would play while the other sat on the stage. We’d listen to each other, not knowing that such a thing is what amounts to love. Listening to someone try to figure it out. Listening always. Listening with grace and gratitude, because it is beautiful to listen, and it is beautiful, too, to be offered a chance to play when the listening is over.
I’m thinking, too, about how, even when something is fractured, it still continues. That is also part of endurance. I’m thinking about how life didn’t end decades ago, when my parents split up. I’m thinking about how they each went on to reimagine their lives. And how I, whether or not I was thinking of it as an act of reimagination, went on to do the same. I’m thinking about how reimagination means holding room for forgiveness, which means holding room for grace, which means holding room for music. I’m thinking about how, in this contemporary moment, every day seems to add its own note to the long sorrow that is this life. Endurance cannot just be the same song, over and over again. We pick up many griefs along the way. Maybe grief itself isn’t beautiful, but our capacity to bend, in our grief, toward the light — this is beautiful. I will never not be surprised by this. One hand naming our sorrow. The other playing the melody underneath.