In Which Billy Collins Says All The Things I’m Thinking. Again.

So, my kids are at camp this week, and I’m not getting nearly as much done as I need to be getting done, but that’s the way things tend to go alas (in my defense, we were getting our stairs carpeted on Monday which really shot the day, work-wise).

Anyway, my two younger children are at Camp Kici Yapi, where they spend the day singing songs and making crafts and getting dirtier than seems humanly possible – as if all the dirt from all the children across the face of the earth and across time, as landed on my children. Or that my children now contain the dirt of all possible children, both born and unborn, from the beginning of time until the end. But, each day, as they recount in excruciating detail what happened in each discrete second starting with the moment they left, I am filled with nostalgia bordering on grief. The camp they go to is the same camp that I went to at the age of six, then seven, then eight. We sang the same silly songs, made the same stupid crafts, and gave our counselors the same odd nicknames: Midnight, Crash Dummy, Flip.

Today, Leo is going to be making a lanyard. “I’m not telling you who it’s for,” he says with a sly smile, and then devolves into a fit of giggles, and then runs away.

A lanyard! I made one myself, of course. And so did you, I expect. And so did Billy Collins, and his poem, “The Lanyard”, nails this experience nine ways from Sunday, which is why I’m posting it here. Thanks, Mr. Collins! You made me cry. Again.

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.

Included in the FORTHCOMING book (OCT 2005), The Trouble with Poetry. Purchase from Amazon (here).

4 thoughts on “In Which Billy Collins Says All The Things I’m Thinking. Again.

  1. I heard Billy Collins read this poem at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival a few years back. Until then, I’d never heard the word “lanyard” and I had no idea what one was. I suppose that means that I had a deprived childhood, or that, intractable non-joiner that I was as a child, by refusing to participate in camp arts and crafts, I cheated my mother out of a priceless keepsake.

    On a side note, you gotta love the graceful reference to Proust’s madeleine in stanza 2.

  2. This is so beautiful. I had heard of a lanyard, but had to go look it up anyway. I see why it made you cry, because it almost made me cry. Thanks for introducing me to lanyards, and Billy Collins and your sweet children.

    You came to my blog once when I posted about “Libraries going bookless”. I’ve packed my bags and taken the Guardian Cats to a blogger account:
    I love your blog and hope to stay tuned in better.

What say you?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s