To His Piano
by Howard Nemerov
Old friend, patient of error as of accuracy,
Ready to think the fingerings of thought,
You but a scant year older than I am
With my expectant mother expecting maybe
An infant prodigy among her stars
But getting only little me instead–
To see you standing there for six decades
Containing chopsticks, Fur Elise, and
The Art of Fugue in your burnished rosewood box,
As well as all those years of silence and
The stumbling beginnings the children made,
Who would believe the twenty tons of stress
Your gilded frame’s kept stretched out all this while?
Two pianos—the old upright rosewood box in Howard Nemerov’s poem and the shiny black grand in Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace where I left the poem—are as different as can be. The music coming from each is different as well—Beethoven and Bach from one, Mozart and Strauss from the other.
But there is one (stretch of a) connection between the two. In the gilded Schonbrunn Great Gallery, lit by (electric) candlebras and crowned with a dramatic rococo ceiling mural, it’s easy to imagine young Mozart delighting the Austrian court with his glorious music. That is until the actual concert started. The music we heard in this tourist-y concert didn’t always match the fantasy (although I think the problem was coming from the string section, not the piano). Nemerov details a similar disappointment in the poem. His mother hoped for a prodigy and got instead Chopsticks played badly.
Still, rather than becoming a source of shame, Nemerov’s piano is an “old friend,” patient, unconditionally loyal, bearer of neglect and all the uncomfortable tensions in the household. Exactly what a son might wish his mother to be.
Poet, novelist and essayist Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was born in New York City to a wealthy family (think nannies and white gloves). His parents owned a Fifth Avenue department store, but art more than commerce was the family focus. His dad was a well-regarded art historian, his sister photographer Diane Arbus, his other sister a sculptor.
Given the artistic milieu Nemerov grew up in, his mother’s hopes for a musically talented son have a special sting. She was, by Nemerov’s account, a cold and distant mother.
A high school football player and star student, Nemerov graduated from Harvard and served in World War II as a pilot. He was a famed professor at Hamilton, Bennington, Brandeis and Washington University in St. Louis. He was twice appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate, won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He was married to Margaret Russell and had three sons with her. He died of esophageal cancer.