Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Pianist, 103,' By Helen Dunmore (1952-2017)

Pianist, 103,

looks at the morning
where she will play
from nine to one
and says how beautiful
each note, each sun.

Such scales of suffering –
no one can weigh them,
she says how beautiful
each smile, each footfall
each startled face
in the heat of love –

Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore need say little more. Her poem bears a purity that is purged entirely of superfluity. Reflection is wrought, instead, in the silence beyond words – the conjuring of a context around the raftered bones of suggestion.

The centenarian pianist of the poem is, or was, a real figure; Dunmore has said that ‘Pianist, 103,’ is informed by the life of a woman who survived the Holocaust by the serendipitous fortuity of her playing skills. And there is a heavy irony in the performative act: concentration camp survival was predicated, for a few, on the ability to play Bach or Chopin for 'cultured' gaolers. The Nazis, as the soldier-poet Martin Bell noted with murderous sardonicism, did ‘Beethoven beautifully’, meaning that they recognised no inconsistency between aesthetic appreciation and extreme brutality, as though a violin might drown the inconvenient discord of a scream. Sometimes, their victims - Primo Levi amongst them – struggled to live with the ‘survivor-guilt’ which leeched a regenerate postwar landscape of its colour and energy.

Drawing her narrative forward into the present of the poem, Dunmore constructs an echoing room of memory around the dignified Étude of the piano, the peace of a drawing room, and the inveigling rays of a figurative sun. The overwhelming mood is one of harmony and of a kind of late resolution. For the pianist is also a celebrant who infers poetry in the simplicity of a taken breath, of a footfall, or a startled face, and whose ingenuous joy is not ingenuous at all, but forged in circumstances of incalculable hardship and pain.

The measureless ‘scales of suffering’ are weighted, in the end, towards music and towards love.

‘Pianist, 103,’ is taken from Helen Dunmore’s Counting Backwards: Poems 1975-2017 (Bloodaxe Books: 2019). The poem is reproduced here with the kind permission of Bloodaxe.