Piano Practice

By Howard Moss 1922–1987 Howard Moss

For Frances Dillon Hayward

Such splendid icecaps and hard rills, such weights
And counter-weights, I think I scale the heights
When pentatonic Chinese crewmen start
Up in a cold sweat from the bottom of the keyboard
Only to arrive at some snow-stormed valley
To dissolve in steam-holes and vanish out of sight.

The left hand’s library is dull, the books
All read, though sometimes, going under velvet,
An old upholsterer will spit out tacks,
Turn them into sparks and smartly hurl them
Up and down the loudest bowling alley—
His pressure of effects can last all night.

Two bird notes endlessly repeat themselves.
Or are they fish scales—iridescent, hard?
Mica into marble back to mica?
No images in trills. They’re formal. Take
Your foot off the pedal. You’re in a wood
Near the sea. And every tree and wave is fake.

An underwater haircut by Debussy?
Oh, that’s too easy. Astringent lotions
Let the swimmer down by easy stages
Down among the flashy soda fountains
Down to the bottom where the light bulbs waver
Down where all the mirrors eat their hearts out.

Grammar becoming poetry is what
You’re after—say, a rational derangement
Requiring that you forget technique
And concentrate on what is harder like
A fireplace that burns pine needles only,
Before which spills the gore of Persian rugs.

A vial of antiseptic meant for Schubert,
One modest, flat meticulous translation
Of Chopin’s lightning undercurrent Spanish—
These are the mere necessities of travel.
Someone you must meet is Dr. Czerny.
Then, through him, Domenico Scarlatti.

Seizure are occurring. Despite snow-lightning,
The black keys are bent on mountain climbing—
All of it against a doctor’s warning.
Soon they’re descending like the black dots of
A wirephoto in transmission. An
Erotic black wing hovers up above.

Bach is more like opening an ember
And digging hard into the heart of fire.
The heart of fire is another fire.
When it comes to Mozart, just say nothing.
Think of it as milk, and drink it slowly.
Slowly you will taste the cream of angels.

This black and white’s deceptive. Underneath
The spectrum rages. Did you ever see
The calmest waters quickly come to life
Because a minnow’s tinfoil flash in sun
Had rent them suddenly? It came. And went.
We take two thousand takes before we print.

Don’t try to catch that lion by Rousseau.
Before you wake, he’ll eat you up. If you
Should meet the sleeping gypsy, let her sleep.
Tomorrow they’ll be gone without a trace,
Half fact and half enigma. Now your hands
Are on the mysteries of the commonplace.

Howard Moss, “Piano Practice” from New Selected Poems, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1985 by Howard Moss. Reprinted by permission of Estate of Howard Moss.

Source: New Selected Poems (Atheneum Publishers, 1985)

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Poet Howard Moss 1922–1987

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Music

 Howard  Moss


Howard Moss was the poetry editor of the New Yorker for almost forty years. In that influential capacity, this quiet, unassuming man was one of the key figures in American letters in the late twentieth century, boosting the careers of many young poets by publishing their work in one of the few mass circulation magazines which bought poetry and paid well for it. Writing in World Literature Today, Ashley Brown observed that "it . . .

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SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Music

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