Sunday, April 13, 2008

Else Lasker-Schuler - My Blue Piano


At home I have a blue piano.
But I can’t play a note.

It’s been in the shadow of the cellar door
Ever since the world went rotten.

Four starry hands play harmonies.
The Woman in the Moon sang in her boat.
Now only rats dance to the clanks.

The keyboard is in bits.
I weep for what is blue. Is dead.

Sweet angels, I have eaten
Such bitter bread. Push open
The door of heaven. For me, for now---

Although I am still alive---
Although it is not allowed.

---Else Lasker-Schuler

Else Lasker-Schuler’s My Blue Piano

The transformation of tragedy into art is remarkable. Tragedies cause moments of severe debilitation to imbed under our flesh, amongst our blood and nerves. The simplest errands become the largest endeavors. Greeting a stranger, or an old friend, becomes a task that requires ample energy. Tragedies naturally involve loss, and in the losing we struggle to compensate, to restore all parts of ourselves that are irrevocably altered. Else Lasker-Schuler was able to take the horrors of war, and her resulting loss, and craft moving poems, including My Blue Piano. We’ve already explored a few poems dealing with the complex emotional issues of war this month, and like some of those poems My Blue Piano approaches the question of survival, but from a far different perspective.

“At home I have a blue piano. / But I can’t play a note.” In two lines Lasker-Schuler delivers the heartbeat of this poem. She introduces our speaker, her piano, and initiates a conflict. Almost immediately she has readers asking why can’t she play a note. The piano is tucked into a shadow and it’s been that way “ever since the world went rotten.” Whereas some poets address war specifically to the place, dressing the landscape of their poems with the markers of Vietnam, Korea, Omaha Beach, and other noted battlegrounds, Lasker-Schuler plainly omits any emblems of specific places. The war, in this regard, is insignificant, but its impact is monumental. It has turned the world “rotten” and in this type of world life is supremely difficult.

The piano is a primary character in the poem. The scope of time can easily be viewed through the eyes of the piano. In happier times it was alive with music, but now “Four starry hands play harmonies. / The Woman in the Moon sang in her boat. / Now only rats dance to the clanks. // The keyboard is in bits.” Like the world and its inhabitants, the piano is in shambles. The starry hands playing the harmony are ghostly and might seem to be comforting, if not for the fact that they are playing (in clanks, mind you) exclusively for rats. Compare this to the whole town dressing in their finest attire and assembling in a concert hall to hear a virtuoso performance and you have a clear idea of the impact Lasker-Schuler is attempting to convey with the piano’s demise.

From my perspective, this poem reaches a peak of brilliance in the haunting final two stanzas. So much of the poem is written in simple, straightforward sentences. The words are nothing extravagant; they feel, themselves, like scraps left behind in the war’s wake. “I weep for what is blue. Is dead.” This admission triggers a direct address and request that ruptures all hope and captures the devastated mindset of a survivor so accurately. Lasker-Schuler continues “Sweet angels, I have eaten / Such bitter bread. Push open / The door of heaven. For me, for now---/ Although I am still alive---/ Although it is not allowed.” In finishing this poem, so much of me begs for the speaker to die and join those she has had taken from her in heaven. So much of me understands that she can’t understand what has happened, that she can’t find anything good in her loss. So much of me believes that she is not giving up. And yet, I read these lines and realize that without life, without the gift or burden of survival, Else Lasker-Schuler wouldn’t have been able to write this poem. Like Elizabeth Bishop, she wouldn’t have been able to gather her loss into words. Like Yusef Komunyakaa, she wouldn’t have been able to ask why she survived and why she can’t be with those who died right now. She herself knows what she asks for is unreasonable; why else would she end with “Although it is not allowed.” Again we have an example of the magic of poetry. Lasker-Schuler turns to it in her most downtrodden moment to see if it can spark a bit of hope in her, if in transforming her grief into words she, too, will be transformed.


Unknown said...

Hi Frederik. Very good translation of the Blue Piano :) I am looking for a translation of her poem "Die Liebe" in english. do you have some ideas ?

sincerly caroline

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hi Caroline and thank you for your comments on my essay. Unfortunately I don't have any leads on other translations of Else Lasker-Schuler poems. I was fortunate to find this one through Edward Hirsch and his book Poets Choice.