A dusty electric keyboard
dragged from someone’s attic sizzles
when I plug it in. I peck a tune
recalled from piano lessons
suffered long ago. “Country Gardens,”
jaunty and sentimental, never
sounded better. This keyboard
has talent. Now “Moonlight Sonata,”
a slow and glum tonality
expertly hewn by the printed
circuits I merely stimulate.
All this music discovered
at a yard sale. As I play,
the proprietor and customers
gather like bees at a hive.
“Lovely!” she punctuates. “Just five
dollars!” But I decline. “Two dollars?”
she offers. A child strikes a note,
then dashes panicked back to mother.
In the pumpkin-light of autumn
the “Sonata” fades, another
example of art consumed
by competing personalities
and filed in the back of the brain.
Back from a week of hiking
in the High Sierra, I catch
the United Parcel man trying
to unload a Steinway concert grand.
No room in my house, I tell him,
but he’s too disgruntled to listen.
Perhaps we could put it in the barn,
but alas, someone’s living there,
a matched foursome of newlyweds
whose cries of lovemaking shudder
and drip from the pines. Perhaps
I should give it to the playhouse
where second-string Hollywood stars
all summer forget their lines. But
the piano’s unloaded right here
in my driveway, and the truck
has grumbled away in fumes.
I sit and play “Greensleeves,” a
minor piece recalled from childhood,
and let the notes drift and shatter
and mildew in the humid light.
The keys resist me. The black
hardwood gleams and reflects me
in tones Beethoven would begrudge.
Awkward after thirty silent years,
my fingers tatter every note,
and the hammers strike the strings
without the faintest grace or passion.
I’ll have to leave this piano out
in the weather. Perhaps someday
it will petrify, and someone
will chisel my name in it,
and those fugitive notes I’ve played
today will flutter home and settle
like pages torn from a magazine
and strewn on a weedy grave.
AFTER THE TOWN HOUSE CONCERT
After the Town House concert,
Main Street, lacking traffic, leers like
a half-healed incision. The prim
but phony Asher Benjamin
Unitarian church, a lone
floodlight slurring its facade,
stands so upright and square
we’re almost moved to salute it.
Lightning spackles the eastern sky.
The storm passed two hours ago,
leaving the asphalt shining and deep.
As we walk to the car, our footsteps
dandle like Russell Sherman’s fingers
on the piano. I liked the Listz;
you preferred the Debussy Preludes,
each note separate but equal.
Listening to piano music
always inflames us, our bodies
still flexible enough to conform
to sonatas complex as the brain
itself. Too bad tonight’s performance
lacked that absolute presence
we caught Rudolf Serkin still
displaying deep in his eighties.
But something comparable haunts
the summer forest. Driving home,
we feel it stir the moonless landscape.
Safe in our driveway, we look up
and realize the stars have claimed
a status we can’t aspire to;
though surely all the spent music
of Serkin, Rubenstein, Lipatti
and a thousand others rose and fed
that atomic fire, the warmth of which
faintly but firmly sketches auras
about us, recalling our source.
In Pictures at an Exhibition
a certain passage unspools
a rattle of piano notes raw
as a glimpse of your face pressed
against a window in the subway.
Your train rushed north to the Bronx
while mine sizzled to city hall
where I surfaced near the ruin
of the World Trade Center, linking
that disaster with the expression
you wore like a shaman’s mask.
Today the winter rain ferments
in pine woods, inspiring fog.
The piano works so hard to force
the notes into chords it then
dismembers in a storm of silence.
I want to commemorate you
in so many atonal gestures
and exhume your ghost from
the musty two-room apartment
where you drugged yourself oblivious.
The weather’s almost as wretched
as the pasty handshake you offered
when we last met for coffee at
the Museum of Modern Art. Maybe
you were Picasso’s favorite portrait
and I, van Gogh without the ear.
Whatever spooked you erased
your cheerful mood the way the rain
erases the last of the snow.
Pictures at an Exhibition ends
in a shudder of upright chords
my hands are too brittle to span
but I still feel as if I played
rather than merely heard this piece,
the hammered strings still shivering
and your face pressed to the window
adrift in the fog although
I’m no longer tempted to follow.
Deer have nibbled all the buds
from my apple trees, so I’ve spiked
fairy-rings of carrots in the snow
to distract and nourish them.
I’d like to stay up watching the trees
struggle in the hiss of the wind,
but even sealed in my parka
with a crop full of coffee
I’d freeze like late Victorian
of jazz will distract me. Coltrane’s
Ascension fills the house, each note
independent and derisive,
the apparent cacophony
lucid and elegant and cool.
When spring arrives, developers
will claim the woods across the road,
and houses will erupt like toadstools.
The deer will lose more habitat,
and five new septic systems
will corrupt the local trout stream.
But Coltrane hits all the right notes
and dazzles me out of my funk,
the moonlight glazing the snow-pack
with a finish so hard nothing
but that runaway tenor sax
could ever penetrate it.