At Mercandante Funeral Home & Chapel
For love of Barry Manilow, his mother
enrolls him in piano after school
with Mrs. Magdalena, a hypoxic tumor
ballooning from her cheekbone like a plum
so bulged with fluid it trembles when she sits
beside him on the bench to rap his knuckles.
One afternoon, she scratches till it bleeds.
Chastising him for his botched bagatelles—
the way he cocks his wrists above the keys
and hums along with Schubert, Liszt, and Brahms—
she smears blood on the Bösendorfer’s lid
and slaps the action: “Pi-ah-nee-see-mo!”
He stops playing to watch a crimson tear
drip down her jowl and dangle from her chin
before it stains the rug. She yells, “Again!”
and paces, closing her eyes as she swats the air
to conduct with one hand, itch with the other.
A month later, Mrs. Magdalena dies.
His mother leads him to the living room
they only use for special company,
and says she’s sorry. Good, he thinks, You should be,
and asks her if he’s finished with piano.
She glares at him and barks, “Go find your slacks.”
At the wake, they kneel together by the casket,
the tumor bristling with thick black hairs
slathered with concealer. He tries not to stare.
His mother rubs his back: “It’s fine, you can touch her.”
Reaching over Mrs. Magdalena’s blouse,
he grazes the tumor with the tip of his finger.
His mother smacks his hand away: “Not there.”
Brian Brodeur is the author of the poetry collections Natural Causes (Autumn House Press, 2012) and Other Latitudes (University of Akron Press, 2008), as well as the poetry chapbooks Local Fauna (Kent State University Press, 2015) and So the Night Cannot Go on Without Us (WECS Press 2007). New poems and interviews have been published or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, AWP Writers Chronicle, Measure, The Missouri Review, 32 Poems, and The Southern Review. Brian curates the blog “How a Poem Happens,” an online anthology of over 150 interviews with poets. Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University East, he lives with his wife and daughter in the Whitewater River Valley.
Brodeur’s poem, “The Picture of Little B.B. in a Prospect of Flowers,” reads like a novel in miniature. The narrative rhythm of the poem recalls James Joyce’s best short stories and Flannery O’Connor’s mythic depth and capacity to reveal the psychological and physical frailty of humankind. Indeed, the “hypoxic tumor” becomes the grotesquery around which the poem is framed, but the frame, of course, shines with the centered humanity of the poem.
Written with a careful attention to enjambment and sound (“botched bagatelles” is but one example), the poem—even in its seemingly effortless limpidity—evades the prosaic and the proselike. If the tumor is the point of fixation for the child in this narrative, a narrative that encapsulates the frailties of the boy himself, his mother, and Mrs. Magdalena, the poem is timeless in its strength and vision—its motifs of imperfection, ugliness, innocence, and experience.