Piano Lesson

By Gregory Djanikian

Featured Image: Ella at the Piano by Donald Shaw MacLaughlan 1876+

My teacher is looking at me sadly

as if with the large droopy eyes 

of a basset hound.

I’m stumbling through “Naima”

transcribed for piano,

my fingers tripping badly over

the minor 3rds, the flat nines.

On his face, such longing,

as if it’s the end of jazz,

we’re saying farewell.

I’m ready to start from the top 

playing all the changes, the repeats,

and he’s holding his head in his hands,

swiveling slowly in his chair.

The song is full of smoke and aching,

like a woman in a shiny dress

walking through a dark hallway

haunting the man she’s loved.

I can already feel the nostalgia in it

for what has never happened.

There are so many gray clouds here

I should play “Blue Skies,”

or “Mountain Greenery,” their upswings

rising like colorful balloons.

Now I see my teacher lying on his couch,

cupping his forehead in his palm.

It must be raining in his heart

for a love of something so perfect

there’s no place to find it

not in this room anyway

where I’m bent over the keys,

the rapturous jazz

just out of my reach

and my teacher is closing his eyes

and I’m closing mine

and we both might be imagining

Coltrane behind us breathing into his tenor

a song of love and departure

so fluent it feels like rain

falling into a lake

and maybe whatever is lovely

and improbable is always floating away

down a rivulet of dreams

where my body is falling

and my hands are reaching out,

and I am almost touching

something like water, like silk.


Gregory Djanikian has published seven collections of poems with Carnegie Mellon, the latest of which is Sojourners of the In-Between (2020). His poems have been published in numerous journals and anthologies and have been featured on Fresh Air and NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He was for many years the director of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and now lives with his wife, the painter Alysa Bennett, near Philadelphia. His website can be located at gregorydjanikian.com.

Originally published in NOR Spring 2010.

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