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 7

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