Litany, Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea-cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.

You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and – somehow – the wine.

…So, do you know that feeling you get when you write a whole post (insert your creative or work-related outlet here), and then you look at it and think, “No. Just…no.”

That’s what has happened to me. I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen more often, but I’m glad too, because deleting a thousand words has a powerfully negative effect on my mood. It had to be done, but I sort of feel like punching something now, so I suppose it’s good that I recently took up boxing and have an outlet.

You see, my best friend is visiting, and I gave her this poem as part of her birthday gift back in December. Having her here with me made me want to share it again – which is actually how my favorite poems always make me feel – once I unfold it to one person, I want the rest of the world to read it with me.

I gave her a whole book of poems, in fact, and pictures – all things that reminded me of the twenty years of friendship we had been fortunate enough to share, and out of everything in the book, I think (and I could be wrong, but when you’ve known and loved someone for twenty years, sometimes you just know) that this was the one piece that gave her pause.

It was hard to sit with her while she read through the whole book, but at the same time, I did it because I wanted to see moments like this, where she read and thought and tilted her head just so, then smiled. It’s a difficult pregnant moment, that pause, and I held my breath and felt my stomach squirm because what if she didn’t understand? It’s a difficult concept to grasp, even between dear friends, but nobody could write it and have it make sense the way that Collins does.

He somehow manages to capture the essential love, but also the spaces necessary to a relationship. We are not all things to all people, not even those closest to us. We often see this most clearly as we grow out of the tight bonds we have with our parents when we are young, but it happens with every person we care about. It is not just important, but in fact critical that the emotional and physical distance grows so that we may find our own selves at the bottom of it all. This is a hard thing. Our hearts don’t always grow apace with those we love, and sometimes our favorite relationships change in fits and starts. The strong ones survive and adapt while the weaker pass from us.

I’ve had this happen many times now, and I know just how much it hurts to ask the heart to shift itself for the better. It’s tough to say and to understand that “you are mine, but you are also yours, and maybe theirs. You are mine, but you are not everything – I am some things and some things are neither you nor me.” But the ones who love us well understand eventually. They hold themselves still in the pauses and listen, and wait, and understand.


You can find out more about Billy Collins here. And I also highly recommend watching the video below of this child, who had a chance to meet Collins when NPR did a story on this, recite “Litany.”

18 thoughts on “Litany, Billy Collins

  1. I heard Billy Collins read this poem. Now, if one hero-worships Billy Collins he is in person a bit disappointing. I noticed (and others have told me that it happens at other times) that he complains about the people who are presenting him, that he can be whiny, cut at other poets in ways that don’t seem fair given his talent, but this is just it — he isn’t POET, Muse, Saint — he is this man, having this day, sharing the sweetest gift. Sometimes he is the moon in the treetops and sometimes — the evening paper blowing down the alley. AND HE READS LITANY AMAZINGLY.

    1. I know, right?!? And apparently this is just something this kid does! He’s memorized and recorded more than one poem – at that age, I think I was eating paste…

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