Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tuesday Poem: "Thanking my Mother for Piano Lessons" by Diane Wakoski

The relief of putting your fingers on the keyboard,   
as if you were walking on the beach
and found a diamond
as big as a shoe;

as if
you had just built a wooden table
and the smell of sawdust was in the air,   
your hands dry and woody;

as if
you had eluded
the man in the dark hat who had been following you   
all week;

the relief
of putting your fingers on the keyboard,   
playing the chords of
         in an afternoon when I had no one to talk to,
         when the magazine advertisement forms of soft sweaters   
         and clean shining Republican middle-class hair
         walked into carpeted houses   
         and left me alone
         with bare floors and a few books

I want to thank my mother   
for working every day
in a drab office
in garages and water companies
cutting the cream out of her coffee at 40
to lose weight, her heavy body
writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers
alone, with no man to look at her face,   
her body, her prematurely white hair   
in love
         I want to thank
my mother for working and always paying for   
my piano lessons
before she paid the Bank of America loan   
or bought the groceries
or had our old rattling Ford repaired.

I was a quiet child,
afraid of walking into a store alone,
afraid of the water,
the sun,
the dirty weeds in back yards,
afraid of my mother’s bad breath,
and afraid of my father’s occasional visits home,   
knowing he would leave again;
afraid of not having any money,
afraid of my clumsy body,
that I knew
         no one would ever love

But I played my way
on the old upright piano
obtained for $10,
played my way through fear,
through ugliness,
through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases,   
and a desire to love
a loveless world.

I played my way through an ugly face
and lonely afternoons, days, evenings, nights,   
mornings even, empty
as a rusty coffee can,
played my way through the rustles of spring
and wanted everything around me to shimmer like the narrow tide   
on a flat beach at sunset in Southern California,
I played my way through
an empty father’s hat in my mother’s closet
and a bed she slept on only one side of,
never wrinkling an inch of
the other side,

I played my way through honors in school,   
the only place I could
       the classroom,
       or at my piano lessons, Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary always   
       singing the most for my talents,
       as if I had thrown some part of my body away upon entering   
       her house
       and was now searching every ivory case
       of the keyboard, slipping my fingers over black   
       ridges and around smooth rocks,
       wondering where I had lost my bloody organs,   
       or my mouth which sometimes opened
       like a California poppy,
       wide and with contrasts
       beautiful in sweeping fields,
       entirely closed morning and night,

I played my way from age to age,
but they all seemed ageless
or perhaps always
old and lonely,
wanting only one thing, surrounded by the dusty bitter-smelling   
leaves of orange trees,
wanting only to be touched by a man who loved me,   
who would be there every night
to put his large strong hand over my shoulder,
whose hips I would wake up against in the morning,   
whose mustaches might brush a face asleep,
dreaming of pianos that made the sound of Mozart   
and Schubert without demanding
that life suck everything
out of you each day,
without demanding the emptiness
of a timid little life.

I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning   
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
slide away,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again.
Love is a man
with a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I   
am alone;
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
telling me,
confirming what my teacher says,   
that I have a gift for the piano   
few of her other pupils had.
When I touch the man
I love,
I want to thank my mother for giving me   
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
in mind;
            of the beauty that can come
from even an ugly

From Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962–1987 by Diane Wakoski
Reprinted by permission of Black Sparrow Books,
an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.
Copyright © 1988 by Diane Wakoski

Interested readers can link to the book's page on the publisher's website: 

if they would like to know more about the poet, the publisher or if they would like to know where to buy this or other books by Diane Wakoski.

Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962–1987 was the winner of the William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry Society of America.

Diane Wakoski wrote of the poems in this collection: "My themes are loss, justice, truth, transformation, the duality of the world, the possibilities of magic, and the creation of beauty out of ugliness. My language is dramatic, oral, and as American as I can make it. I am impatient with stupidity, bureaucracy, and organizations. Poetry, for me, is the supreme art of the individual using language to show how special, different, and wonderful his perceptions are. With verve and finesse. With discursive precision. And with utter contempt for pettiness of imagination or spirit." 

You can read more about Diane Wakoski's life and work here:


I must admit that I was not aware of the poet, Diane Wakoski, until a poetry-loving friend sent me a copy of the poem featured above. I was immediately entranced by her wonderful, fresh imagery and the fragile beauty of the narrative that she sustains throughout this poem. The poem is rich and bristling with so many possibilities of meaning and interpretation. It is a poem that you can return to again and again and always be rewarded with new layers of meaning and poignancy. Diane Wakoski is a fearless poet who is not afraid to bare some of her soul in her poetry. I will certainly be seeking out more of her work to enjoy.

Reading this poem, I think that if I could write a poem a tenth as good as this one, I would go to bed a happy man.


  1. A poem of endurance, tenacity and great patience, Andrew. I can't help smiling at Diane Wakoski's frank candour re; the language of poets! '. . . And with utter contempt for pettiness of imagination or spirit." Thanks for the introduction to her work.

  2. Goodness. This poem blows me away. It's so thorough, so relentless in the details it recalls, so vast in its loneliness, so fragile in its humanity... The repetition works so well here, too. And I felt the same way reading it as you do -- I love what you write in your last sentence. This poem makes me weep.

  3. Thanks, Claire and Michelle, for your excellent, thoughtful comments.

  4. Claire and Michelle, that was me, Andrew, accidentally signed in to the Library Blog at work when I commented. Naughty boy I am.

  5. Oh Andrew, I've loved Wakoski's work since I first discovered it in my early twenties - and I'd kind of forgotten how much I loved it until re-reading this poem here. Thank you for posting it!