What can I say about one of Billy Collins’ poems that can’t be said about a book of them? That he is gradually becoming my favorite poet as I read more of his work? That his greatest gift is taking soft, insignificant moments and turning them into iridescent experiences for his readers? That he sees the world so much like I do and yet captures it a thousand times more beautifully?
I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you,
that it was I who got up early
to sit in the kitchen
and mention with a pen
the rain-soaked windows,
the ivy wallpaper,
and the goldfish circling in its bowl.
Go ahead and turn aside,
bite your lip and tear out the page,
but, listen — it was just a matter of time
before one of us happened
to notice the unlit candles
and the clock humming on the wall.
Plus, nothing happened that morning –
a song on the radio,
a car whistling along the road outside –
and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat.
I wondered if they had become friends
after all these years
or if they were still strangers to one another
like you and I
who manage to be known and unknown
to each other at the same time –
me at this table with a bowl of pears,
you leaning in a doorway somewhere
near some blue hydrangeas, reading this. (p 3)
What has drawn me to him lately is that his writing illustrates the points of a poetry professor I despised in college. I can’t remember his name anymore, but I recall the tension around the table as we dissected the amateur work of every student as though it was yesterday. I thought that seminar was where the fevered scribbling of poetry went to die. It was surely death to my self-confidence at the time. Whenever I read Collins’ poetry, though, I have a revelation. I have a bone-deep feeling that a truly special poem does require a sort of ineffable twist to reveal its greatness – a quality I barely understood then, and certainly could not create on my own.
It’s not often that learning, especially when it comes to writing, has these “aha!” moments. It’s also not often that my education is very nearly tangible, and I cling to the feeling, even though the lesson may have left a bitter taste in my mouth at the time. It is a click, a slotting into place of something once parroted, now understood.
As children, knowledge is poured over us every moment as we discover the world, but as experience dulls the edge of discovery, it’s easy to miss those gentle shifts of understanding. These days, as I see my formal education retreating as rapidly as a ship from shore, I try not to take moments like this for granted.
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even. (p 45)
For more about Billy Collins, go here.