A cup of fine tea: Martin Alexander’s “Smashing up the Grand Piano”

Martin Alexander’s “Smashing up the Grand Piano” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #3 of Cha)

–This post is written by Tammy Ho.

Alexander’s poem, which won the International Grand Prix for Poetry (2009), describes  a family’s intimate relationship with its grand piano. The first stanza relates the persona’s early experiences with his grandmother’s musical instrument: ‘In Grandma’s house when we arrived on leave / the grand piano yawned and woke from two years’ sleep / and bared its gleaming teeth – black-gapped and white – / sprawled out, a friendly beast across the sunny parlour floor’ (L1-L4). These lines present a nice insight into what happens to many pianos. They become a piece of unused furniture until a guest comes to rediscover their charms. For the visiting children, the instrument is an inviting curiosity, ‘a friendly beast’ which they are happy to wake from its extensive sleep. Note the fairy-tale characterization of the piano which the children see as a kind of comical monster; it almost appears to smile as it bares ‘its gleaming teeth’. In later sections, we will see this gentle monster morph into something sinister as the family members’ relationship to it changes.

In the next stanzas, the piano continues to provide entertainment for the children. They use it to create sound effects for their exuberant games: ‘We had a / satisfying way of making thunder for our cannon / with a fist of lower keys’ (L6-L8). Their mother, however, is not amused by this juvenile behaviour: ‘the staircase thundered too / with Mummy’s tread: “Don’t touch it!” and we stopped’ (L8-L9). We see here the beginning of association between the piano and the mother as she too thunders. Despite the mother’s admonishing, the adults also find enjoyment in the piano’s sounds: ‘The whole house hummed the taut strings’ tune / when Daddy played sonatas on our last night in that room / – every note touched lovingly like trembling light and air’ (L10-L12). But underneath this domestic joy, something seems slightly out of tune: ‘Mummy leaned with eyes that gleamed / and smiled that wicked smile behind the curtain of her hair’ (L13-L14). Apart from the uneasiness present in phrases like ‘wicked smile’ and ‘behind the curtain’, we also see something else at work. The mother herself whose eyes ‘gleamed’ seems much like the piano which ‘bared its gleaming teeth’. The reference to the curtain of her hair under which the gleaming eyes hide mirrors the cover which hides the gleaming piano keys.

The shift in tone hinted at in the earlier lines comes to full fruition in the fourth stanza: ‘When Grandma died the grand piano / swelled its bulk to fill the tiny Highgate flat’ (L15-L16). The piano which seemed so charming in its natural environment (‘sunny parlour floor’) now has grown to a disgusting monster which ‘absorbed the little light and bullied all the crowded room’ (L17). This transformation in the family’s view of the piano develops out of their grief at the death of the grandmother. In their mourning, they shut the monster’s lid and forbid it to speak. It becomes a memorial for the past: ‘Its lid was weighted shut with books and wedding photographs – / my mum and dad both still alive in black and white, / the old ones dead and fading faintly into yellow like the pegs / that filled the grand piano’s wide and sulky mouth’ (L18-L21). There is incredible sadness in the images of the family photographs disintegrating into yellow while the piano also ages, its pegs turning colour. Of course, the sadness derives not from the disintegration of these inanimate objects, but from what it symbolises: the degeneration of the family itself.

The family’s luck continues to be bad as the mother takes ill in the next stanza: ‘At the end of one summer mum was sick’ (L22). In her sickness, the piano is forgotten, ‘and no-one came to tune the strings’ (L23). Is this because it was the mother who would have called the piano-tuner? Or does the family simply have too many other concerns to worry about? Regardless, the mother is again tied to the piano, her fate affects that of the instrument. Frustrated by his wife’s sickness, the father takes out his anger on the keys, in a manner reminiscent to the persona’s childhood games: ‘Father banged out booming muffled thunder – / angry rock and shaky ragtime tunes, / the bloody pedal held down far too long’ (L24-L26). There is also a strong contrast between his former self who played sonatas by touching the keys ‘lovingly like trembling light and air’ to the man who now bangs out ‘angry rock and shaky ragtime tunes’ and holds ‘the bloody pedal’ down for too long. He plays like this until ‘the music stopped’ (L27).

Once again, it is the mother who ends the piano’s noise; this time it is not the thunder of her tread, but of her death: ‘My mother died that English spring, the age I am today’ (L28). After the mother’s death, the home begins to fall apart: ‘My father went abroad to work. We cleared the flat. / The bits and books were taken home, or sold / or carried to the skip that we had hired. We drank’ (L29-L31). In this situation, the piano becomes a burden to everyone: ‘The old piano – Boosey – had a name that fit the time / but no-one wanted it or had the room’ (L32-L33). However, such a large, important object is not so easily got rid of. The family considers hiring ‘smudgy man’ to ‘haul it down the path’ (L34, L36). But as the men ‘wanted fifty quid’ that the family ‘did not have’, ‘It stayed’ (L35, L37).

They are left with only one choice: to dismantle the piano. The process starts methodically: ‘At first it was screwdrivers and blisters on our palms. / The lids. The legs and pedal spindles. The body on the floor / and all the length of keys and hammers dragged / and twisted out and lugged along the path. / Varnish thick with polish, immaculate for all those years – clawed’ (L38-L42). There is an echo here of the piano as monster in the word ‘clawed’. The word also introduces the next more aggressive stage of the piano’s demise. The children revert further into their violent and loud childhood games: ‘Then other hammers and a borrowed saw. We smashed it up’ (L43). Although these lines provide the poem’s title, the family has in fact been smashing the piano up for many years in their different ways. The association with the mother and the piano here is perhaps slightly troubling. What does the persona’s destruction of the piano signify in regards to his relationship to his mother? Is this the final catharsis, the climax of his grief?

The persona is not willing to completely give up his mother or the piano, however: ‘I keep with me a dozen stubs of keys’ (L44). That he associates the piano with his mother is evident in the following lines. For him, the keys are ‘a memory like my mother’s jaundiced skin’ (L45). These keys trigger his remembrance of her last moments: ‘The night before she died her eyes were closed / and thunder – really – rolled far off. Of all / the many light and loving words she spoke / only the last three remain: “Don’t touch me”‘ (L46-49). Not only is the mother brought to the imagination, the father is also recalled in ‘light and loving words’, words previously used to describe his musical technique: ‘every note touched lovingly like trembling light and air’ (L12). As this stanza proceeds, however, it is the mother’s association with the piano which is stressed. We see an echo of the children’s childhood games in the ‘thunder – really – rolled far off’. Again, the mother tries to stop the noise. But this time, her response is more personal and devastating: ‘Don’t touch me’. Has she in some sense become the piano?

In the last stanza, the mother’s wedding photograph has moved from the top of the piano to the persona’s new home: ‘Half a world and life away my mother’s / wedding photograph is here, upon my wall’ (L50-L51). In the final characterization of her: ‘the eyes alert, direct, not weak; about / to wrinkle in a smile, about to reach / the mischief round the mouth – about to speak’ (L52-L54), we are reminded of that night when the family sang around the piano: ‘and Mummy leaned with eyes that gleamed / and smiled that wicked smile behind the curtain of her hair.’ (L13-L14). We recall the mother at her best before she was ill; we recall the piano at its best before it changed, before it was smashed up. These are the images of his Mummy and the piano the persona wants to leave the readers with. Are they also those he wants to remember himself?

In an edited extract from Rupert Thomson’s This Party’s Got To Stop, (Granta), published in Guardian on Saturday 27th March, 2010, a scene is reminiscent of the smashing up of the grand piano in Alexander’s poem. Read the extract here.

Martin Alexander [website] a prize-winning writer whose poetry, short stories and travel writing have been widely published. He is Poetry Editor of the Asia Literary Review, a member of the HK Writers’ Circle and an organiser of Hong Kong’s poetry group, OutLoud. In March 2004 he published a collection of his poems, Clearing Ground (Chameleon Press), and in 1999 he won the South China Morning Post Short Story Competition. In 2009 he was awarded the Orient-Occident International Grand Prix for Poetry and was a finalist in the Bradt / Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition. He has been a featured writer at festivals in Hong Kong, China, Egypt, Singapore and Romania.

2 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Martin Alexander’s “Smashing up the Grand Piano””

  1. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    This is one of the best poems that I have read over the last few years. Tammy’s beautiful analysis does it justice.

    Martin masterfully allows the piano to resonate with the family’s emotions. The opening stanzas really set up the scenes of good times well. But when Grandma dies the piano fills their tiny flat, as grieving must have done. The piano turns from a source of joy and family connection to a memorial, all of which Tammy notes.

    Father’s anger at his wife’s sickness is played out on the piano, “the bloody pedeal held down far too long.”

    When Mother dies the family members try to deal with death by removing all memories of it…Father deals with it by going abroad, to put distance between himself and grief. The other family members “cleared the flat”.

    Strange men, “smudgy men”, show up to further clear away the wreckage. They’re there only for the money, the “fifty quid”. Death has been reduced to a business, handled by strangers.

    So the family handles the business themselves. Again the piano reflects the moral and emotional messiness…a mere “body on the floor”. Its keys and hammers “dragged and twisted out and lugged along the path”. In a show of complete disrepect the piano is smashed up.

    Still the narrator keeps a “dozen stubs of keys”, mementos. “A memory like my mother’s jaundiced skin”. The pain of the narrator is reflected in these few yellow keys and his mother’s dying image.

    But despite the sunny memories of his childhood, the only loving words he retains of her are her last: “Don’t touch me”. He can neither touch the piano or her again. They have both been “cleared” from his life.

    But just as he retains the “stubs of keys” he keeps his mother’s wedding photograph on his wall, “the eyes alert, direct, not weak”…the wrinkle in her smile always there.

    Despite the hauling away of the flat’s furniture, the smashing up of the piano, the wish to clear things away, memory still lives, some of it almost too painful to touch, but others still sunny, and always ready “to speak”.

    A gorgeous poem….

  2. t Says:

    From Martin:

    Dear Tammy,

    Thanks so much for that! I’ll pass around the link and look forward to seeing comments from readers. Very strange and interesting to read another person’s analysis of my poem – I’m still getting used to the idea….

    But I am very grateful that you have sufficiently enjoyed the poem to have written so carefully and in such insightful detail about my poem.

    Thank you!


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