Claudia Emerson, Poet Laureate of Virginia and Pulitzer prize winner, born 1957. In a cruel trick of fate she died at 57, in 2014, of Colon Cancer.
Piano Fire : by Claudia Emerson
How she must have dreaded us and our sweaty coins, more
than we hated practice, the lessons, scales, the winter-hot parlor,
her arthritic hands, the metronome’s awful tick. She lectured
to us about the history of the piano: baby and concert grand,
spinet and player had come across oceans in the holds of ships,
across continents in mule-drawn wagons, heavier than all the dead
left behind. On her face we could see the worry: all the struggle had come
to this, the tacky black upright she had once loved haunting the room
it could never leave. And her piano was now part of a mute,
discordant population doomed to oldfolks homes, bars, church basements,
poolhalls, funeral parlors—or more mercifully abandoned
on back porches where at least chickens could nest, or the cat have kittens.
So when she could no longer play well enough even to teach us,
she hired some of the men to haul out and burn the piano
in the field behind the house. We watched the keys going furious and all at once,
heard in the fire a music-like relief when the several tons of tension
let go, heat becoming wind on our faces. We learned that when true ivory burns
the flame is playful, quick and green. And in the ash, last lessons: the brass,
clawed feet we had never before noticed, the harp’s confusion
of wire, the pedals worn thin, shaped like quenched-hard tongues—loud, soft,
sustain. We waited with her until they were cool enough to touch.