Just The Right Chord Can Bring You To Tears

I’ve discovered poetry.

I cannot express just how exciting this is, as if a beloved friend has given birth to the most exquisite, amazing, surprising creature.


New forms, new shapes; not bound by lengthy character explanations or plot twists. Small increments of life and death and everything in between.


I had completely forgotten this – that as an adolescent, I wrote poems. A lot of poems. Angsty, emotional screeds of darkness and anger – things I knew little about, save through the intuition of being human. I even edited the poetry magazine we published at my high school – Deja Vú, we called it. Somewhere in the attic are old copies, my skittish writing within.

I’ll head up into the dusty cobwebs and find them someday soon.

Meanwhile, there is this: Each day I ‘discover’ a new poem, and it is as if the rotation of my spiritual experience – the twists and turns and sometimes breaking of old, rusty bolts that bind my sense of self and of the Divine and the place where the two meet – it is as if all the voices that have sung themselves down such a road before are now singing to me. Gently, safely; they describe small moments, and it is enough.

I sat with my spiritual director yesterday and heard myself saying, I want to do small things. I have this yearning for small, simple. Small things. 

I confess, that was not premeditated. I didn’t know I thought this until it came out of my mouth (this is, in a nutshell, the pure delight of spiritual direction; space to let thoughts squirm to the surface and find the light – and then to walk out of that little room with me, part of me, whole). But there it was.

Poems are small things. I like that.

Here is a poem that I found so deeply resonant; I wish that I could comment, line by line, to share my excitement. But I’ll just leave it here, for anyone who might relate.


by Billy Collins

My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.

He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.

He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.

I am doing my scales,
the familiar anthems of childhood.
My fingers climb the ladder of notes
and come back down without turning around.
Anyone walking under this open window
would picture a girl of about ten
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,
like a white Horace Silver.

I am learning to play
“It Might As Well Be Spring”
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him in to the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.
It is the largest, heaviest,
and most beautiful object in this house.
I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.
And late at night I picture it downstairs,
this hallucination standing on three legs,
this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.

I first heard of Billy Collins while listening to A Prairie Home Companion. Since then, I’ve found a few books at the library; yesterday, I picked up a collection at Chop Suey Books in Carytown. For some reason, it seems to me that any book of poetry that would come into my possession must be preowned. I don’t want these poems fresh and new; I want them gently used, well-loved, connecting me to another. Weird, I know. 

I guess this means that you can send me your old, unwanted books of poetry. 


A student; my favorite vantage point.

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