the lanyard

I'm not much of a poetry-reader. Just say it in good prose is my philosophy. But last night I was watching something on PBS about Walt Whitman, and at the end, there was a clip of Billy Collins reading his poem "The Lanyard." I love Billy Collins; there's a song cycle by a New York composer (whose name escapes me suddenly...Tom something maybe?) called "Another Reason I Don't Keep a Gun in the House" that I really want to play someday with a good baritone. Anyhoo, here's 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.


katie said…
I may just borrow this one for mother's day this year!

I like to read poetry, but for some reason I cannot stand to hear it read aloud (unless it's garrison keillor -- sometimes).
Scott said…
Tom Cipullo is his name, and he's awesome, and has something like 100 songs out there. I met him last year, and he was an actually nice, gracious gentleman of a composer, unlike some others I met at the same event. You should totally play it! I have a tenor doing the cycle on CD, so I don't think it's baritone-only rep...

P.S. Hi! This is Scott from UW... I lurk mostly, and rarely have time to leave comments, what with my 6-week-old baby here... but hi!
Suze said…
Hey, Scott, I guessed it was you! Thanks for telling me his name. It's been on the tip of my tongue all week. Hope your new babe is doing well.

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