When Pianos Fall from the Sky
by Travis Wayne Denton
Marick Press, $14.95 paperback, 82 pages
When I received my copy of Travis Wayne Denton’s second collection, I was more than excited—I felt slightly electric, nearly-buzzing in anticipation of these poems, some of which I had heard read aloud, but which would be new to me on the printed page. Once I gathered myself and calmed down a bit, I relaxed on my porch for couple hours of poetry. Over the last few months I’ve returned to this book on more than a few occasions, but although I knew this review would need to be written, the writing came much more slowly and with much more difficulty than the reading.
This is not to say that I found trouble connecting with these poems. Quite to the contrary; it’s easy to list reasons why I enjoyed them—memorable characters who are utterly (sometimes frighteningly) relatable; an abundance of humor and humility in the tones of the poems; a wonderful attention to detail showcased through carefully selected objects and actions; I even loved his sprawling syntax that seemed to reach out as if to grab as much of the world as possible, joyfully grasping for one more element to stack into Denton’s already sizable and vivid lists—however, no matter how many times I listed the obvious strengths of the book, I felt that I was excluding something important. Somehow, I was oversimplifying the work.
If I had read this book simply as a casual pastime and pleasure, I might have overlooked something that I now realize to be central to these poems: a strange, even unsettling atmosphere which envelops the reader (I recognize this may seem vague or evasive, but bear with me). At a cursory glance, this could be attributed to Denton’s southern poetry heritage and inclination to tell stories, but again, that felt too easy, too sweeping to define his work, especially in this new collection. What I’ve come to realize is that the fractured landscapes inhabited by these poems is strikingly reminiscent of those that house myths and fairy tales. The events within these poems may be catastrophic or grandiose, but they’re also accepted as commonplace, however lucky or un-, because, “You are blind luck, your hands full/ Of blind luck, like stones.”
The opening poem “from The Book of Jubilations” welcomes readers to a “strange land,” but simply named “Elsewhere.” Ok. So we’re now a part of Elsewhere? What about those odd italics? Perhaps that’s not the name on the signs at the city limits, but we do learn that we’re here at the Lord’s bidding, that we’ve left at the cost of “our land of cattle and grain…our lambs and second born…our loose women,” and despite all that, we will, “Celebrate with feast and dance/ That we are not alone here.” In a country where pianos fall from the sky, loss and suffering are common occurrences, but so are companionship and joy, and these can exceed the agony.
And while this book ultimately maintains an optimistic position in support of hope, it is impossible to ignore the odd variety of the misfortunes encountered in the poems. There’s a love poem set among gallows with a backdrop of guillotines in the distance. In other poems, cities are razed by flames or consumed by floodwaters. Lovers murmur curses to one another as pillow talk. Hands are severed. A man chews off his own fingerprints in a jail cell, desperate to free himself from his crimes. Another slowly poisons himself by ingesting apple seeds. Many of the poems confront the tricky situation of how to approach aftermath. In his poem “Local Men,” Denton explores the fates of the anonymous victims who appear in newspapers under that generic label, men whose lives are “Summed up in two inches of newsprint,” men whose existences we have only registered as “A moustache sitting on a bar stool/ In a local bar, who none of the other locals notice” until the police arrive searching for missing persons. It’s enough to make someone a little paranoid, especially considering the casual treatment such events receive.
Or perhaps it could under different circumstances. As I said before, this book, on the whole, has an optimistic stance despite these justifiable grievances with the world. This matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the many and varied dangers of the world actually grants the speakers of these poems a sense of measured experience, of wisdom. While our natural instincts may be to panic, these speakers don’t. They lead us through the trouble like reliable guides on a treacherous mountain pass or comforting narrators in a story filled with dark woods, witches, and goblins. They make jokes which allow us to laugh at our problems or at least move through them. By noticing the magnitude of our potential problems, these poems provide readers the opportunity to trivialize our tribulations as we escape into this foreign, yet familiar space.
Sometimes, Denton even brings us to praise the sources of our displeasure, envisioning their places within a larger plan—a concept that certainly evokes common notions of faith if not a specific religious creed. The title poem, “When Pianos Fall from the Sky” focuses on a female character who is “Walking to a job that made her hate every day/ Between Sundays…” until her near-miss with a falling baby grand leaves her feeling “…lucky to have worn heels today and happy/ For the blister on [her] right foot that made [her] a half-step behind…still hoping the blister never goes away.” It’s a poignant moment, especially for something grounded in somewhat of a cartoonish circumstance. But that’s the world Denton has created—a world with an overblown sense of wonder and gratitude amidst disaster, and it’s far more successful at providing hope to an intelligent reader than all the sentimental greeting-card verse that tries so awkwardly to be inspirational.
Travis Wayne Denton writes uplifting poetry without oversimplifying his subjects, without avoiding emotional complexity, without resorting to the cute familiarity of sing-song lyrics, and in all likelihood, without even trying to be inspirational. That’s what the best poetry always does for me whether it’s Neruda’s romantic metaphors or Larkin’s formal crabbiness—it fills me with a sense of thankfulness and strengthens my love for a world that can sometimes seem haphazard at best in how it distributes its blessings and curses; it restores a little of my faith, and as much as I could have praised this author’s technical skills for 1000 words, there’s just something larger, more human, and ultimately more important than his craft alone. Do yourself a favor: read this book.