Piano Practice

Derek Walcott

From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1980, Volume II, No. 1

for Mark Strand

April, in another fortnight, metropolitan April.
Light rain-gauze across the museum’s entrance,
like their eyes when they leave you, equivocating Spring!
The sun dries the avenue’s pumice façade
delicately as a girl tamps tissues on her cheek;
this is my spring piece, can you hear me, Laforgue?
The asphalt shines like sealskin,
like the drizzle trying to bring sadness in,
as furrows part their lips to the spring rain.
But here, in mock Belle Epoque Manhattan,
its avenues hazy as Impressionist clichés,
its gargoyle cornices,
its concrete flowers on chipped pediments,
its subway stops in Byzantine mosaic—
the soul sneezes and one tries to compile
the collage of a lost vocabulary,
the epistolary pathos, the old Laforguian ache.

Deserted piazzas swept by gusts of remorse,
rain-polished cobbles where a curtained carriage
trotted around a corner of Europe for the last time,
the ending that began with Sarajevo,
when the canals were folded like accordions.
Now yellow fever flares in the trouble spots of the globe,
rain drizzles on the white iron chairs in the gardens.
Today is Thursday, Vallejo is dying,
but come, girl, get your raincoat, let’s look for life
in some café behind tear-streaked windows,
let’s give in to the rain, even if I catch
that touch of a fatal chill called Europe.
Perhaps the fin-de-siècle isn’t really finished,
maybe there’s a piano playing it somewhere,
or else they have brought the evening on too early
as the lights go on in the heart of the afternoon.
I called the Muse, she pleaded a headache,
but maybe she was just shy at being seen
with someone who has only one climate,
who knows only Manhattan’s mock-malaise,
so I passed the flowers in stone, the sylvan pediments,
alone. It wasn’t I who shot the archduke,
I excuse myself of all crimes of that ilk,
I accept the subway’s obscene graffiti,
and I could offer her nothing but the predictable
pale head-scarf of the twilight’s lurid silk.

Well, goodbye then, I’m sorry I’ve never gone
to the great city that gave Vallejo fever,
I can offer her nothing but the bracelet of the sun,
I know that I can never
rhyme my exile with the damp fields of Dijon,
but the place I can offer is still yours—
the north coast of an island with wind-bleached grass,
with the one season, with no history,
with stones like white sheep in its pastures
by a silver-circletted sea.

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