“Player Piano” by Kevin Young (published in the Winter 2002 issuse of The Georgia Review) is one of only a few free verse poems that I am going to look at in this 15 poem series. Although I stick primarily to formal verse in my own writing, and hence feel that formalists are where I will be able to learn the most, an occasional foray outside one’s own bailiwick must surely be beneficial. So in the spirit of learning, and with the caveat that I am venturing outside my bailiwick, I tentatively venture to approach the work of a poet who Flagpole Magazine calls “one of the hottest commodities in poetry today” and Swing magazine labeled one of the most powerful men under 30 (see same article).
“Player Piano” seems to be a sort of take on a love poem, but the images it employs to arrive at this sense are highly unique, and captivating. Allusions to the underlying theme come just often enough that I don’t get lost in the images–a good thing. I did think the transition from fishing images to he bookstore was a little too abrupt, one of my only nits. The poem shows evidence of a high level of crafting. I enjoyed the frequent use of highly poignant internal rhymes and/or significant assonances, such as near/fear/smear, forgot/rot, better/beg, and list/slick etc. The juxtaposition of the sound of the heart and the sound of the fish in the opening section was particularly effective for me as well.
Another thing that really stands out about this particular poem is the way that young seems to bring all of the senses into this poem. From the sound of the heart, of the fish, to the smell of the perfume, to the sight of women’s magazines, to the feeling of sea-sickness, to the taste of salt-water taffy. And let me also just mention a few of the line breaks that I thought particularly well chosen: “This afternoon I tore out [. . .]” “Driving home, [. . .]” “to beg– [. . .]” and most especially, “how still [. . .]” with its doubling of meaning when taken with the line before vs. the line after.
Idea wise, I was particularly taken with the idea of wanting to be a keeper, in the sense of fish/love. We see through this image that the speaker has not been a “keeper.” up to this point, and this gets expanded upon throughout. I think the first part of the Women’s magazine section worked least for me, from the perspective of the ideas presented. I don’t know why, but the idea that the speaker’s name might be listed as a disease in a Women’s magazine is just so far fetched and is juxtaposed with such an otherwise matter of fact account, that it just doesn’t hold water for me. Unbelievably, the idea of the speaker as a fish wanting to be caught makes more sense on some weird poetic level. On the other hand the second part of the magazine section, the part dealing with perfumes is absolutely brilliant in the way it conjures up scent, especially the clashing scents of the perfume samples of women’s magazines and the connection of that smell to sickness works especially well for a bundle of allergic reactions such as myself.
I’m guessing that the apple was chosen as the source of the sickening smell because of all of the apples baggage with women and sin and sex etc., but it didn’t work very well for me, primarily because even the rottenest of apples, at least to me, still has a scent that is, at some level, pleasing, but that may just be a personal quirk. Also, apples have cores (most likely), skins (not likely), remains (possibly), but do not, in my experience, have husks.
To move back to the accolades which are more due this poem, the ending introduces yet another metaphor, has nice associations of the sea with tears without ever making that explicit (which would be cliché), and ends on a positive note that keeps the poem from descending into self-pity. The ending opens it up into an offer, and one that, I think, no sane lady would turn down. In the end, the poem has certainly moved me at the least.