October 1, 2006 at 12:15 am 2 comments

Billy Collins

Listen (to Hatshepsut read)

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Hatshepsut says, “I’d recorded this a while ago but never thought to send it in. Strangely I had never noticed that there was no Collins on pō’ĭ-trē, which is monstrously unpardonable, given that I think he is a genius and love him with much ferocity. I was galvanized into action when you pointed it out though.

I tend to blow hot and cold with most poets, liking certain poems or phases of their creative development distinctly more than others. I confess to liking Collins rather indiscriminately – he has such range that man, and I like the sound of all his voices. “Litany” especially is chockfull of lines I like to quote in just about any context (Try for example “There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.”) Also ever since I read that poem, I’ve thought of myself as a blind woman’s tea-cup. It’s one of those thoughts I have not been able to shake out of my head.

Anyway I digress. I love Marginalia for many of the reasons I love Collins: a felicity for graphic description (I especially love the word-picture of Irish monks scribbling in their cold scriptoria), a perverse humour and moments of unexpected tenderness and bitten-back pain. My favorite line from this one has to be about the memory that “dangles from me like a locket”. Just gorgeous.”

* Collins reading Marginalia here. (thx! Hatshepsut.)



Entry filed under: Billy Collins, Black Mamba, English, Hatshepsut.

Tao Te Ching (Chapter 1, An Extract) Te Recuerdo Como Eras

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. hatshepsut  |  October 1, 2006 at 8:06 pm

    was just reading through this again, and noticed a bunch of typos. i hadn’t thought to check for typos before sending it out- i just blindly copied it from trusty minstrels. interestingly, all the other websites i went to had typos identical to the ones in this version.

    the typos are: stanza 2- “why” which should read “who”;
    stanza 5- “manage” which should read “managed”;
    stanza 7- “signing” which (i think) should read “singing”.

    i will admit that signing birds are not an poetic impossibility, but somehow i don’t think collins was using this poem to showcase strange avian pastimes…


    PS – while i was looking for a typo-free version, i chanced upon a link where collin reads his own poem
    – enjoy!

  • 2. blackmamba  |  October 2, 2006 at 1:48 am

    hatshepsut: :) interesting typos these. fixed now. also added a link to collins’ reading.


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