This poem is the winner of Plough’s 2023 Rhina Espaillat Poetry Award.

from Claude Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque in memory of my mother

There’s D-flat major at the first and last,
but in between, a haze of harmonies
yearns lightward, though the light has long since passed.

I played the notes; she heard the light. The keys
were mine to coax and animate; their sound
was hers to claim: a shimmer of heart’s ease.

And while my fingers stretched and danced and found
their way through black and white, her ear would find
a prism—her own light parsed and unbound.

She had a knack for joy and was inclined
to wonder. Clair de lune had mesmerized
her, in a spell that left me far behind.

After my mother’s death, I was surprised
I still played it so often; I suppose
the effort occupied and organized

my sorrow-scattered mind. So in the throes
of grief, I practiced, as if I’d impress
a ghost with my devotion. And in those

half-haunted hours, I mastered more, I guess,
than just the notes. I hadn’t thought I’d learn
to hear what she did—but through some finesse

of time and skill and need, I now discern
the half-lit murmurings that no midnight
can mute, the moon-pale promise that can turn

unrest to peace, a star-sung appetite
for breath. At last I share my mother’s light.

Félix Vallotton, Clair de lune, detail, oil on canvas, ca. 1894.

Listen to Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune on piano.