I picked up Billy Collins Live at the library and listened straight through it twice tonight. I started it and dinner at the same time. My son was cooking the bass; he started laughing and turned up the volume. We told Curt about poem after poem and convinced him to listen to the CD after dinner. After chores were completed we sprawled out on the furniture, dimmed the lights and listened as a family. My, my, my. If you want to interest someone in poetry (even if that person is yourself) go with Billy Collins.
My favorite poem from this CD is long and I know that means most of you will click away without reading through it. But if you’ve ever been to summer camp and made those plastic lanyards this poem will resonate — it will ring true, I promise you. As I listened to this I could see the old red barn converted to a low-ceilinged craft shop at Bair Lake Bible Camp. I could feel the slippery plastic and remember the frustration of a loose braid. And I could hear the piercing whistle that usually hung at the end of the lanyard.
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.
We must get to know him, my friend.
Or maybe I should say, why haven’t you told me about him before?