Friday, 11 May 2012

Billy Collins is not a kind of drink

Through the wonders of live-streaming, I can pop into Sunday services at Demeter's church.  I watch her toddle up after the offering to light a candle, and sometimes I see her bun hovering at the bottom left of the screen. It's oddly reassuring.

One recent Sunday,  I tuned in to discover that the morning service would be a lay-led poetry reading and that my mum was among the readers.  To my delight, my mother's selection was from a poem-a-day anthology I'd sent her a year or so ago.  With a world-weary wryness that matched the tenor of the poem beautifully, she read "Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins, and told us afterwards that she was unprepared for the laughter. The lady who had organized the service, a long-time friend of my mother's, made a comment afterwards about Billy Collins being "accessible". I have a nasty feeling that she was not being complimentary (she's a writer and artist herself and can be a wee bit snarky about those kind of things), but hope I'm wrong. Here's the man himself reading "Forgetfulness" and a poem that is particularly pertinent with Mother's Day coming up -- "The Lanyard":
I first became aware of Billy Collins when he was a guest on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion, about the same time he became the US Poet Laureate. Almost immediately, I got myself a collection of his poems, accessibility being a plus for me. It must have been about 2002 because elder daughter was turning ten, and I knew this was not the moment to show her this poem:

On Turning Ten 

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in a bad light ---
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
 It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends, 
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees.  I bleed.

- from The Art of Drowning (1995)

Another favourite of mine is called "Passengers" and I'm putting a link to it for two reasons:  1) you may like the option of hearing it read as well as reading it; 2) if you're travelling by air any time soon, you may want to skip it.  Trust me.

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