Sailing Alone Around the Room

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Monday, December 11, 2006
by Billy Collins #33

Oh, Billy Collins! Some authors are so potent I can't read more than one of their books in a short period of time -- I get burned out or bummed out. Everything I liked about the one book may be repeated in the second, retroactively sucking the joy out of the first one. So I wait a while, and it usually works out. I read my first Billy Collins collection not that long ago, but I thought maybe poetry would work differently than prose in my Not Too Close rule. I was right. If anything, I like him more now than I did then.

Why? He's conversational and witty without being obnoxious. He shares a lot of himself, but there's a lot held back, too, which makes me think he'd be really interesting conversational partner -- like he could surprise me with some crazy idea that I would then enjoy thinking about for days afterward. I like him. (I do not feel this way about every poet or author I admire.)

I've been trying to remember where I read my first Billy Collins poem, and I think the first may have been one someone linked to, in response to another poem on this blog. I know I was impressed enough with this dress poem, which showed up on Dressaday that I saved it into my journal. (it turns out he writes really well about clothes.)

Anyway, here is an excerpt that I had to include for it's Cherry Ames reference, since I read a lot of Cherry Ames (and even some Vicky Barr), back in the day. This bit is from the poem titled Canada

O Canada, as the anthem goes,
scene of my boyhood summers,
you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table,
you are the dove-soft train whistle in the night,
you are the empty chair at the end of an empty dock.
You are the shelves of books in a lakeside cottage:
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh,
A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson,
Ann of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery,
So You're Going to Paris! by Clara E. Laughlin
and Peril over the Airport, one
of the Vicky Barr Flight Stewardess series
by Helen Wills whom some will remember
as the author of the Cherry Ames Nurse stories.

What has become of the langorous girls
who would pass the long limp summer evenings reading
Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, Cherry Ames, Senior Nurse,
Cherry Ames, Chief Nurse,
and Cherry Ames, Flight Nurse?
Where are they now, the ones who shared her adventures
as a veterans' nurse, private duty nurse, visiting nurse,
cruise nurse, night supervisor, mountaineer nurse,
dude ranch nurse (there is little she has not done),
rest home nurse, department store nurse,
boarding school nurse, and country doctor's nurse?
(end excerpt)

And then there is this poem, which is the last one in the collection. One of the things I like about Collins is his ability to be kind of meta about poetry or the act of reading or writing without being annoying. (I also think there is a little resonance here with blogging.)

The Flight of the Reader

You'd think we would have had enough
of one another
after all the rain streaming down these windows,
the walks out to the garden when it clears,
the same yellow and white flowers,
all the sleepless nights ---
the toy car going in circles on the bed table.

But still, you stay perched on my shoulder,
cricket or bluebird,
wild parrot digging your claws into my loud shirt.

Is it because I do not pester you
with the invisible gnats of meaning,
never release the whippets of anxiety from their crates,
or hold up my monstrous mirror,
a thing the size of a playing field?

Whatever makes you stay,
I hate to think of that morning
when I will wake up and find you gone,
heading toward the open sea,
dragging the cables that bound us together,
leaving me with nothing more to say.

But don't get me wrong.
It's not that I can't live without you,
cannot sit under an ordinary green tree
with no desire to reach for the pen in my pocket,
or lie contented on the couch all day,
one hand over my mouth.

It's not like I have a crush on you
and instead of writing my five-paragraph essay
I am sailing paper airplanes across the room at you---
it's not that I can't wait for the lunch bell
to see your face again.

It's not like that. Not exactly.

(Billy Collins)
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