Enough to Make Us Even

It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, but I had never been introduced to the poet Billy Collins until I read a poem in the daily email sent to me a few weeks ago from The Writer’s Almanac.  Now I run into him about every fifteen minutes. Carrie followed through and posted more Billy Collins. I’ve only read bits and pieces, but the bits I’ve heard have been refreshing and funny and surprising and engaging and simply wonderful.  He mixes the mysterious and the evident with a deft hand. 

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 Lanyard

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-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.

Billy Collins. 

We must get to know him, my friend. 

Or maybe I should say, why haven’t you told me about him before? 


14 thoughts on “Enough to Make Us Even

  1. This is the homeschool dilemma:  I was never into all those crafty projects.  So you haven’t given me a misshapen ceramic bowl, a macaroni necklace, OR a lanyard.   But you’ve given me lots of hugs and lots of lovely notes.  Remember when you used to leave them under my pillow?  Sorry if I’m embarrassing you…

  2. I’ve loved Collins’ poetry for several years — but I didn’t know you so I couldn’t tell you 🙂 How fun to find someone else who enjoys his poems. One of my favorite collection of his poems is titled Picnic, Lightning. By the way, if you enjoy Billy Collins, you might also enjoy reading poems by Wislawa Szymborska.

  3. Laurie, how interesting that you should mention Wislawa Szmborska – he has just recently showed up on my radar.  And yes, Dana, I’m going to gather up some collections.  My husband told us about a poetry reading in college that was ghastly – the poet was surly and disconnected; he just stood there and read rubbish.  Billy Collins introduced each poem and his conversational style made you wish that he lived down the street.  

  4. His “Introduction to Poetry” is one of my favorites — I always shared it with my students to reassure them that we would not “tie the poem to a chair with rope /and torture a confession out of it.”
    Speaking of poetry readings and the poet I mentioned earlier, Wislawa Szymborska http://info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/szymborska.html, here is a link to her poem “Poetry Reading” http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/poetry/reading.html — I love her subtle wit:
    Oh, not to be a boxer but a poet, one sentenced to hard shelleying for life, for lack of muscles forced to show the world the sonnet that may make the high-school reading lists with luck. O Muse

  5. I’ve never heard of Billy Collins OR a lanyard, and I didn’t go to summer camp as a child, but I sure did enjoy that poem. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thank you once again for being the facilitator for good things.  After reading Collins for the first time, I am smiling and yearning for more. Thanks incredible lady! love, m

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