Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
The piano has crawled into the quarry. Hauled
In last night for firewood, sprawled
With frozen barrels, crates and sticks,
The piano is waiting for the axe.
– “War Ballad” by Stanley Moss
In this haunting depiction of a life in suspension, a piano or a young World War II soldier braces himself against the howling wind and brutal cold, far from the trenches, lost in an icy no man’s land. Faced with his demise, he recalls a former, vibrant self whose voice reverberated through warm concert halls. Those memories stand in cruel contrast to what the world now intends to make of his body.
Within the spectrum of interpretations of this poem, I’ve always connected with the one that saw humans themselves as pianos, with fingers and spinal “chords” capable of resounding depth and connection. A piano represents our fullest selves, the ones that swap recipes, sign petitions, coax plants to blossom, grasp onto subway poles, lament communal losses, say goodbyes. But pianos are also vulnerable to attacks from without and within that weaken their purpose. And today, when I feel less than my full self in the midst of such urgency to be our best selves, I sway dangerously close to becoming firewood.
I think of becoming firewood as exchanging a vision of abundance for minimized hopes for survival. While it’s a different kind of death than what is literally described in Stanley Moss’s poem, it is one just as common. In times of pain, we often resign ourselves to being firewood by ambling with numbness, clinging to old lies, and choosing apathy.
In those moments, I tend to exchange lament for its deceptively similar but ultimately draining cousin, a doom-seeking that impales itself on accounts of cruelty without processing, without returning to shelter my spirit or tend to others’. With this approach, it doesn’t take long before I stumble out of the winter as a splintered block of wood.
But just when I think it’s too late for anything beyond survival, Regina Spektor’s wistful ballad “Firewood” peers into the same abandoned quarry and assesses:
The piano is not firewood yet
They try to remember but still they forget
That the heart beats in threes
Just like a waltz
And nothing can stop you from dancing.
There’s a touch of whimsy, but the song is anything but flippant or starry-eyed in reflecting on deep pain. As in “War Ballad,” there is a loss of innocence; a recognition that just as a $30 pound of the element tungsten can be manipulated into a deceptive $12,000 pound gold block, we have long settled for gilded visions of truly caring for one another. And just as sound is one of the few forces that can reveal tungsten for its true silver-white form, Spektor suggests we can tune our ears to new, more truthful melodies.
Instead of denying present and future wounds, the song acknowledges the various temptations to survive without the risk of yearning. Yet it insists on the generative power of remaining full and present—an act ultimately necessary for music and for abundant love.
As you respond to the demanding fires of this week and the next, I share “Firewood’s” closing desire and conviction for you:
Everyone knows you’re going to love
Though there’s still no cure for crying.
Comfort Sampong’s heart is sparked by fried plantains, tropical foliage and the stories of women thriving and creating a way out of no way. She graduated in 2018 with majors in economics and international development. Now she lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works on English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Honduran non-profit fighting for justice and peace.