Happy National Poetry Month!
Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets. I adore his sense of humor and irony. I’d like to share a few favorites; this first is The Revenant. This is a video of Collins reading it at the Miami Book Fair a few years ago. Collins channels the spirit of a deceased dog and subverts the accepted relationship of man and his best friend. The poet somewhat playfully pokes fun at modern pet owners, and by extension modern people in general, by using the angry spirit of a dog to point out the various indulgent absurdities that they purchase.
This is another favorite, for obvious reasons.
Books by Billy Collins
From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus
I can hear the library humming in the night,
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.
I picture a figure in the act of reading,
shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book,
a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie
as the suicide of lovers saturates a page,
or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem.
He moves from paragraph to paragraph
as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.
I hear the voice of my mother reading to me
from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs,
and inside her voice lie other distant sounds,
the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night,
a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.
I watch myself building bookshelves in college,
walls within walls, as rain soaks New England,
or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.
I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves,
straining in circles of light to find more light
until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs
that we follow across a page of fresh snow; when evening is shadowing the forest
and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs,
we have to listen hard to hear the voices
of the boy and his sister receding into the woods.
From the collection Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins
Finally, if you want to give your mother something really special for Mother’s Day, perhaps you can read her this poem:
The Lanyard by Billy Collins
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-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air 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-toned 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.
From the collection The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins
In a touching and funny way, Collins identifies one thing I’m sure all children thought at some point, that we can “repay” our mothers in some sense for all that they do for us. Of course, that’s impossible, but that is, as Collins correctly notes, a “worn truth.” It seems blindingly obvious that we can never repay our mothers. The comic relief in which Collins throws this is wonderful. All the selfless, loving acts of motherhood answered with, “yes, I know, here’s a lanyard.” It’s often said that parenting is a thankless job, and the naivete of children when it comes to gratitude probably does not help.
While I am not a parent, I still think that most mothers (or fathers) would accept that lanyard with thankfulness and joy. I hope you think about selfless love, reader, and enjoy the humor of the poem. We can never repay our mothers, but that’s not important. Love is boundless, and knows no time frame. It makes the world go round, and even when our loved ones are gone, is still as present as that lanyard buried somewhere in a drawer in the house. (analysis courtesy of A Poem A Day)