Five Kentucky Poets Laureate: An Anthology
Sena Jeter Naslund


Sena Jeter NaslundSena Jeter Naslund is the author of nine works of fiction, including critically acclaimed, national best-selling novels Ahab's Wife; Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette; and Four Spirits. Her works have been translated into German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Polish, Danish and Greek. A resident of Louisville for over 40 years, her most recent novel has both a Louisville and European setting: The Fountain of St. James Court, or Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman. She was the first director of creative writing at the University of Louisville, where she later became Distinguished Teaching Professor and Writer-in-Residence. She cofounded the Spalding University low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program, Kentucky's first MFA in writing of any kind, where she is currently program director. Her awards include the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer Award, the Hall-Waters Prize, the Southeastern Library Association Award in Fiction and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is also the recipient of an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. She served as Kentucky Poet Laureate from 2005 through 2006.

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"The Perfecting of the Chopin Valse No. 14 in E Minor"

This short story recasts the ordinary fears and struggles of a daughter caring for an aging mother in the world of magic realism. Students may have difficulty relating to the theme of aging, but the fairy tale and mythic qualities offer a strong point of connection. Here again, however, the story will not fit neatly into student expectations, since it is NOT myth or fairy tale from the tightly patterned realm of pure fantasy, where poetic justice and laws of symmetry prevail. To appreciate this story (which cannot be summed up in a moral or a neat statement of theme), students will need to appreciate the way it builds a tension between a patently realistic narrative and the dream world it creates; the way it somehow entices the reader along on its unrealistic journey; and the way that journey offers something quite distinct from what a realistic narrative could provide.

Though a previous study of realism could be beneficial to the students’ appreciation for the ways that magic realism plays off of it, they will have the necessary background in the realm of the supernatural and the supernatural hero predominant in popular culture from books to blockbusters. Getting students to see how this story works within and against such narratives is the key.


Words to Consider:
Students without a musical background may be slightly thrown off by the musical terms in the story but should be reassured that they can get all the meaning they need from the context. In fact, attempting to work through all the musical terms would unnecessarily bog down the reading. You can demonstrate how the meaning is revealed in the text, for example, with the second paragraph on page one which includes the phrase "double forte." Ask students to listen while you read the first half of the passage (down to "Dripping wet,") and try to figure out what the phrase means. The same principle will hold true for the cooking terms and names of dishes later on in the story.

Quick Reference:
Arthur Rubenstein: virtuoso concert pianist

James Beard, Irma Rombauer, and Fanny Farmer: authors of famous cookbooks

Joseffy: Rafael Jossefy, pianist famous for work on technique and associated with the works of Liszt and Chopin

Frederick Chopin: Polish pianist and composer, known for beautiful, difficult music

maharini: female counterpart of a maharaja or Indian prince

Jacob Marley: Scrooge’s dead law partner who appears in order to warn him to change his ways in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

It may be useful to at least review the words below before reading:

Literary Features
Magic Realism:
Without getting bogged down in excessive literary theory, students can simply understand that this fictional mode intertwines the realism’s emphasis on detail, on the psychological, and on ordinary, everyday life with the motifs, symbolism and sense of possibility or optimism (not to mention pleasure) offered by myth and fairy tale. The mix creates a dreamlike narrative that offers some liberation from the typical pessimism of realism.

Prereading Activity:
Tell students that they are about to read a story about magic nights in a moonlit garden. Ask them to brainstorm about whatever this setting brings to mind. What would happen in this garden? What would be the elements of magic that they might expect? Who would be the main characters? Ask them to name any stories that they can think of that involve such a setting. List student associations on the whiteboard and use their expectations to discuss the features of the fairy tale and larger genre of fantasy.

Next, explain that the story they will read is probably contrary to their expectations about a contemporary middle-aged daughter caring for her aging, declining mother—a realistic set of characters and concerns. Introduce the concept (definition) of magic realism, with its combination of realism and the supernatural, and tell them to watch how the story mixes the qualities of both.


Questions for Understanding:
Have the students preview these questions before reading. After the story has been read, preferably aloud by the teacher, have students answer the questions below in pairs. These questions are designed to give a basic comprehension of the events and plot of the story, necessary before interpretation and thematic analysis. (Answers are given separately.)

Handout SJN-1 PDF

  1. In the beginning of the story, why does the main character turn off the shower and go downstairs naked and wet?

  2. In the first section of the story, before the added space, what information about the situation can be gathered by the literary detective? What do we know about the two women? Just the facts!

  3. What do you think "Hydropres" is? How is it significant to our understanding of the characters?

  4. Why is it so significant to the main character, the daughter, that the mother’s playing of the waltz is improving? The mother herself comments "I’m improving. You always do, from time to time." Is this true? Why is the daughter so sure this must be a "fluke"?

  5. What does the narrator think when she sees her mother go into the garden at night to sit on the rock?

  6. Throughout the story, the daughter is worried about her mother. List three of her main concerns or worries with a quote that expresses each. Are these concerns unusual or typical with regard to an aging parent?

  7. What changes after the mother’s first night in the garden?

  8. What happens at/with the rock on the second night? Why does this seem unlikely?

  9. Why doesn’t the narrator ask her mother what she is doing in the garden?

  10. Give three examples of things that seem impossible or magical about the party.

  11. How does the party contrast with the main characters’ real lives?

  12. Describe the unusual symptoms that the narrator begins to have during the story.

  13. What is the crowning moment or climax of the party?

  14. What does the narrator discover in the garden in the last section of the story?

  15. List central elements of magic or fairy tale that appear in this story, or any mythical events or characters this story brings to mind.

When pairs have finished answering the questions, review their answers orally.


  1. She is astonished that her mother’s playing of the waltz seems to have improved.

  2. Some of what we know includes the following:
  1. The mother is probably at least 60 years old. The daughter herself is at least 25.

  2. They lived in Birmingham, Alabama, but now live in Louisville.

  3. Both mother and daughter know a great deal about music and are interested in literature.

  4. The mother takes medication for some unknown medical condition.

  5. The mother is losing her hearing.

  6. The daughter works at a pharmaceutical lab, or a lab that makes medications.
  1. Hydropres is probably the name of a medication. The daughter reminds her mother to take it. She is taking on a caregiving role, as the mother seems to be forgetful.

  2. Things do not always get better, without reason. Piano pieces can improve with practice, but people generally lose their ability to play as they age.

  3. She thinks her mother has lost her mind.

  4. The worries, which are very typical with an aging parent, include those below:
  1. Her health is failing: "She was tired. She was less ready to smile, and her eyes took on a hurt quality. Each day she seemed to get up later."

  2. She will or has hurt herself with exertion: "She moved very slowly ... Her shoulders stooping, her hands and arms hanging like weights, she slowly began to walk down the bricks toward the house ... Nevermind. Nevermind. You don’t have to do it, I’ll hire a crane, I’ll hire the neighborhood boys, I’ll hire a doctor day and night, don’t try this, here, here let me help."

  3. She will fall: "At a certain point, she passed beyond my sight line. There were three small steps there; and my ears strained to tell me that she had negotiated them all right, that now she was opening the storm door, now she was coming in from the night, that she had not fallen at the last moment, that she was not lying hurt right at her own safe door, that she had not struck her head on the steps."

  4. She is losing her memory and abilities: "Memory was becoming uncertain."

  5. She will die: "I knew that this improvement was temporary. That August, gesturing toward the garden, a friend who raised berries told me that death was part of life ..."
  1. The mother’s health declines and her eating habits change radically.

  2. The mother seems to have been trying to move the rock. She is too old and weak to do this.

  3. She experiences a kind of paralysis when she tries to ask about the strange behaviors.

  4. Fantastical elements include the mysterious distribution of the invitations, the grandness of the feast, given that they do not cook, the fancy dinnerware, the magnificent fireworks, the miraculous proliferation and blooming of the chrysanthemums, and the appearance of Frederick Chopin, who died in 1849.

  5. In ordinary life, they do not cook and eat mostly frozen dinners, they are shy and do not entertain guests, and they are not wealthy enough to afford the food or fancy china.

  6. As mentioned above, she experiences paralysis, not only being unable to move, but also being unable to speak. She feels completely powerless, "rigid," stiff, and still, like a corpse. She speaks of this condition as not being able to "question" and as if her body were "to imagine death."

  7. The "perfect" performance of the Valse No. 14 in E Minor.

  8. The stone has been moved to its proper location, and a chipmunk has established itself in the hole where the stone had sat.

  9. For starters, magical things often occur on moonlit evenings. The three evenings in the garden also invoke the "magic number." The great feast is characteristic of many fantasy stories, and unusual appetite or eating is often a symptom of bewitchment. Characters are turned to stone in many myths and fantasy stories, particularly as punishment for disobedience. The mother’s superhuman qualities may also remind students of fantasy stories. One famous example of a story with similar elements is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Students may think of other examples. Are there echoes of Sisyphus, who in Greek myth tried to evade death and was condemned by the gods to eternally rolling a boulder up a hill? Or even of the Gospel story of Jesus and the rolling away of the rock from the tomb? Possibly, but in the way of magic realism any such resonance is present vaguely and incoherently, as in a dream.

*Note: The questions above could also be answered in groups of three to five students (depending on the class size). One possible configuration would have students in groups answering questions as follows and then presenting their work to the class via the overhead projector.


Group A: Questions 1, 3, 4, and 5
Group B: Question 2
Group C: Question 6
Group D: Question 7-9
Group E: Question 10 AND 15
Group F: Question 14


Students’ written responses to the questions can be used to assess comprehension. For purposes of testing, multiple choice questions could be developed from the questions above. For example: Which of the following best represents the daughter’s initial reaction to the improvement in her mother’s ability to play the piano?

  1. She is pleased and proud of this accomplishment.
  2. She is baffled, since her mother’s other abilities are declining.
  3. She is jealous, since she, too, loves to play the piano.
  4. She doesn’t notice, since she is preoccupied with her own life.

Handout SJN-2 PDF


  1. At the end of this story, the mother is gone, beyond contact, albeit only to England. Consider how a realist story would present the decline and "loss" of an aging parent and how that would contrast with this story. Explain how this contrast illustrates the "joke played on realism" that literary critic David Young describes as the heart of magic realism.

  2. A garden can be seen as the intersection of humans with the natural world, and more particularly as a place where humans attempt to manipulate or control nature, to shape it to produce what they want. This tension is present in the following quote from the story: "That August, gesturing toward the garden, a friend who raised berries told me that death was part of life; she pointed at the seasonal changes. We stood on the patio talking while the Chopin Valse No. 14 rolled out the windows ...I told my friend that the gulf between the seasonal lives of flowers and the lives of human beings was unbridgeable." Using this quote, explain how Naslund uses the garden to represent a human conflict with nature and the resolution of that conflict. Be sure to consider the ending of the story.

  3. A garden can also be seen as a work of art, the artful shaping of the plant world or natural landscape. What does Naslund’s story suggest about the relation and possible tension between nature and art as a human act or product? Again, be sure to consider the ending of the story!

  4. Music is central to this story, as indicated by its title. Explain how Naslund uses music symbolically throughout the story. What does the "perfecting of the Chopin Valse No. 14 in E Minor" represent?

  5. At the center of this story sits a massive stone, and the daughter experiences fears that she herself is turning to stone: "Even as I tried mentally to formulate an inquiry, my body stiffened. I resisted that stillness. I would not be frozen into stone in my own garden in late summer. I would not take on that terrible rigidity." Explain how the stone functions symbolically in the story, how Naslund uses it in exploring central themes such as art/music, human accomplishment, the power of nature, etc.

  6. Describe the relationship between the mother and the daughter and how it changes in the course of the story. Explain how the story depicts this change and why. How is the situation at the end different from that in the beginning? Consider how the shift in the story may symbolically represent an ordinary or realistic relationship between aging parent and adult child.


Literary Analysis for Portfolio Pieces:
If NOT given the discussion questions above, students could be given the option to write a literary analysis of the story focused on its emphasis on art or music, its use of symbolism, or of how it manifests and manipulates the characteristics of magic realism. Such a piece of literary analysis would require the student to formulate a more specific, individualized thesis and personalized topic.

Students could use their guided analysis of this story as a springboard for a portfolio piece about magic realism and how it operates in another work. Authors often included in high school text books who work in this area include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ben Okri and Isabel Allende. The works of several American authors such as Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme and Kurt Vonnegut also show substantial influence from magic realism. In addition, films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Big Fish could be analyzed as examples of work within this literary type.

Creative Writing:
To coach students toward the writing of a piece of magic realism, start with the study of myth and fairy tale. Have students select one or two myths that particularly appeal to them and identify a few specific supernatural elements of those myths that they would like to include in a story (such as turning to stone). Then encourage students to think of recent incidents or dilemmas in their lives that still trouble them. Have them write a story centered on this dilemma which is set in a very mundane setting with which they are very familiar, such as a school restroom or bowling alley. Their objective will be to address their own dilemma in this setting, with a "tall tale" freedom and to incorporate the mythical elements they have chosen. They should include as few characters as possible and should make sure to begin the story, as Kentucky writer James Still advises, as near the end as possible! Their first drafts should be considered experimental. Some students may decide to rewrite the story in a realistic way, and this could be allowed as long as they tried the initial assignment.

Five Kentucky Poets Laureate: An Anthology was published by the Kentucky Arts Council (an agency in the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet) and is made possible through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Page last updated: June 27, 2016
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