Sometimes, in the middle of the lesson,
we exchanges places. She would gaze a moment at her hands
spread over the keys; then the small house with its knickknacks,
its shut windows,
its photographs of her sons and the serious husband,
vanished as new shapes formed. Sound
became music, and music a white
scarp for the listener to climb
alone. I leaped rock over rock to the top
and found myself waiting, transformed,
and still she played, her eyes luminous and willful,
her pinned hair falling down –
forgetting me, the house, the neat green yard,
she fled in that lick of flame all tedious bonds:
supper, the duties of flesh and home,
the knife at the throat, the death in the metronome.
When I read this poem for the first time one line – the moment it appears, its timing – became a kind of music lesson in itself:
her pinned hair falling down
Again, like the ending of the Milosz poem, it is seamless way in which the poem moves between the actual and the metaphoric; the real and the reflective.
The poem opens with the image of the music teacher sitting at the piano “her hands / spread out over the keys”. As the music teacher plays, the student (the speaker) drifts off into a dream-image of white scarp suggested by the music. Then as she reaches the summit in her reverie, the poem returns to the room: “and still she played, her eyes luminous and willful” (note the word 'willful'). And then the detail:
her pinned hair falling down
This is more than just showing a particular. It is the particular detail that is most suggestive of the themes of the poem: how the music teacher – lost in her lonely, loveless and ordered life – finds expression in her music, an intimacy that exists nowhere else in “the small house with its knickknacks/ its shut windows”.
The last stanza simple develops what is already given in this image: that this fastidious woman, in the tidy world of the suburb, plays music to escape the entrapment of her life, to allow for a moment of passion to be present. (Oliver calls this “the death in the metronome” hinting perhaps at a displaced sexual, or at least, sensual aspect in the act of playing.)
Another interesting device (which she uses twice) is the transition from the image of the teacher and student sitting at the piano, to an awareness of the 'house', which in both cases has disappeared from the mind of the piano teacher. The small house with its knickknacks and photographs slips away from her for the few minutes in which she can lose herself in music. It acts like a slow pan-shot in cinema. Later, Oliver repeats, “forgetting me, the house, the neat yard…” Although these things are precisely what the teacher has become unaware of as she plays, their physical presence in the poem creates a counterpoint and tension upon which the central theme of frustrated passion is expressed, as "her pinned hair" falls down.