The tone, timbre, and character of instruments change as they age. Amati violins – the oldest in playable condition – produce a depth of sound that comes from being played thousands of times over centuries. The sound a piano can produce, after decades of having its keys lovingly worn by the whorls of skilled fingers, is as irrevocably changed by the passage of time.
Transformation and variation, in the musical sense, are central concerns of White Piano, the most recent collection by Montreal poet, essayist, and novelist Nicole Brossard. This is the second time her poetry has been translated by the team of Robert Majzels and Erín Moure. (The last collective effort, Notebook of Roses and Civilization, was nominated for the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize.) White Piano is another masterful collaboration, the language by turns powerful and quivering (as the section titled “Quivering” might suggest), and characterized by a transformative vitality.
Successive poems frequently grow out of one another, and are presented as numbered variations or different perspectives on a similar subject. The sequence “Piano frontera” proceeds through numbered verses titled “Eyelids” (“Eyelids 1,” “Eyelids 2,” etc.) to poems with more descriptive titles (“Eyelids (head)”). Occasionally, a word or phrase in the text is greyed out, allowing it to become more nebulous.
Throughout, Brossard, concerned with writing “the other side of the phrase,” interrogates language with wonder and precision. While her voice is occasionally tentative or delicate in its explorations, it is nevertheless capable of pressing forward and turning over linguistic possibilities.
Brossard acknowledges that the passage of time and its transformative powers are a force of erosion. At once achingly aware of mortality and hell-bound in its determination to press forward, change, and grow, White Piano is as brave as it is linguistically rich.