Fugue by Emily Bobo

Fugue is the first short book in the third volume of the Lost Horse Press New Poets Series.  Bobo was born in Kansas and now lives in Indiana with her musician husband. Herself a “recovering musician,” Bobo writes about an ex-pianist’s relationship to her instrument, citing two definitions of “fugue” on the cover page–first, the obvious musical definition involving multiple voices playing a contrapuntal theme; second, the psychiatric definition involving a psychological flight from circumstances, manifesting like amnesia.

My beloved wife is also a recovering pianist. An injury in her mid-thirties brought her successful concert career in Europe to an abrupt halt. I know intimately that, whether the circumstances of prevention are physical or psychological, dedicating one’s life to the difficult task of becoming a successful pianist, then having to stop, can surface painful memories and profound questions. Bobo approaches these with an almost archaeological curiosity, interspersed with biblical grandeur, and scraps of dear-diary-like confession.

The mother figures large throughout the collection, imposing discipline and transferred hopes. In one of the early poems, “The Recovering Musician and the Parable of the Mustard Seed” (after Matthew 13:31-35), the mother pronounces, “The kingdom of heaven is like a daughter, which a single mom bore and enrolled in piano lessons.”

This intensity of expectation manifests more fully through “Dear Piano,” which begins innocuously with the line “Mother has said that I can play with you today.” Permission quickly becomes demand in the next line, “Mother has said that I must play with you until dinner.” The idea of “play” becomes increasingly sinister, though the straightforward tone continues:

Brother does not like to hear us play.
Brother has said he wants to break our ivory teeth.
So let us pretend we are gold-colored fish in dark water.
Let us not play anything that will betray our anger.
Let us pretend not to have the power.

We can infer from the collection as a whole that some time after the death of a much-loved piano teacher named Ruth, the “recovering musician” gave up playing. In fact, in the seven-part long poem “The Recovering Musician Quit the Piano Because,” Part III stands out with only two words: “Ruth died.”

The collection unfolds a complex tangle of inner and outer relationships, through parables involving Father, Mother, and Satan reminiscent of Louise Glück’s Ararat; to a series of letters, including one “Letter to an Ex-Stalker” which speaks of obsession in musical terms, then declares, “Yours / is the lid I cannot / let close, the wound / I tend with salt / and carefully.” Throughout this collection, Bobo “tends the wound” of not playing piano through parable, epistle, and child-like declamations, layering rich contrapuntal melodies sung on the theme of loss.

Fugue is available in New Poets | Short Books Volume III from Lost Horse Press. Read more reviews from the Lost Horse Press New Poets series.