Published on Academy of American Poets (

Portrait of My Father as a Pianist

Behind disinfected curtains,
           beyond touch of sunrise
devouring the terrible gold

           of leaves, a man could be
his own eternal night. City
           flattened to rubble, his

surviving height a black flight
           of notes: the chip-toothed
blade and oldest anesthetic.

           Escaped convict, he climbs
wild-eyed, one hand out—
           running its twin on the rails

of a broken Steinway. Who
           has not been found guilty
of a carrion cry—the dream

           of a feathered departure
one has not earned, then fall
           back down teeming fault lines

of the flesh? Memory recedes
           into nocturne, a kingdom born
of spruce and fading light—

           he reaches in the end what
he had to begin with: fingertips
           on corrupted tissue, cathedral

of octaves in his thinning
           breath, tears like small stubborn
gods refusing to fall. 


Copyright © 2017 by Cynthia Dewi Oka. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 7, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“I spent many late nights playing an old donated Steinway in the visitor's lounge of the cancer ward when my father was dying. If only by imagination, I wanted to give him one of his lifelong, unfulfilled dreams—to play the piano. In the poem, he takes my place as the pianist, or rather, he is fused with me—he stays, which is my unfulfilled dream. The poem’s form roughly invokes the Steinway’s keys, many of which were missing so that from across the room, when it was silent and alone, what was left resembled in the autumn light, stanzas.”
—Cynthia Dewi Oka


Cynthia Dewi Oka

Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of Salvage (Northwestern University Press, 2017). 

Date Published: 2017-12-07

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