Stepping Over the Velvet Rope

by Becky Brown
September 29, 2023

Sometimes when people ask me about volunteering at Reynolda, I tell them it keeps me from lecturing the walls at home. The drive to talk about something one loves is strong. Leading a tour or answering questions in the house relieves that urge.

I ran across a poem recently that I felt the itch to share. I think you’ll like it. It is about one person’s experience while looking at a Frederic Edwin Church painting in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The speaker in the poem imagines stepping into one of Church’s panoramic paintings.

While Reynolda’s Church is not quite the same as the one at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, we can still, as the speaker in the poem, “step over the velvet rope” and imagine hiking from the warm foreground at the cross up to the icy mountains in the distance, and we’ve all met that visitor to the painting who points out something that no one else sees and suspecting that the visitor is a little “off” and might need to be “led away to a cell.”

The poem was written by Billy Collins, who was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003. It was published in The New Yorker on May 10, 1987.

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When I read the poem, I imagined standing with a group of second graders in front of our Church and asking, “Where in the painting would you hide?” if you were playing high and go seek—or asking a group of seventh graders who don’t want the focus to be on them personally, “Tell me how the people gathered around the cross got there?”—or asking a creative writing class to use Collins’s poem as a model to write about our Church—or asking a tour group what this “postcard” from Ecuador tells us about the country itself. The poem invites me into the painting in new ways.