Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Power of Poetry: Billy Collins' The Lanyard

Here's the power of poetry: a friend of mine posted a funny picture on Facebook this morning. It was a macrame owl, and he made the joking comment that macrame was making a comeback. Seeing that little rainbow colored owl suddenly made me think of all the sweet but rather lame craft type projects I did in the 70s and 80s, things like weaving strips of cloth together to make pot holders, putting together leather bracelets at the camp craft hut, or carefully gluing together popsicle sticks to make...well, something.

And all of that suddenly triggered the memory of Billy Collins' beautiful poem, The Lanyard.  Collins is a master at taking something ordinary, even something ordinary and a little lame, and turning it round and round so you see all its facets. As though this thing, this moment, that we thought was so ordinary, turns out to be a diamond, because in it we see ourselves and our lives in a new way that is not at all ordinary and might even be profound.

The poem begins with these words:

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.


And it  ends with these words:

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.

If you've never read the poem in its entirety, you can find it here at The Writer's Almanac.

It's a poem I've loved for a long time, but this was the first time I'd read it since my mother's passing, and I find that I love it even more. The poem hasn't changed, but I have, and I needed to remember its unworn truths -- not just that we can't repay our mothers (the "worn truth" he admits as the obvious takeaway) but the audacity of our childhood love.

Of course the gift of a lanyard could never "make us even" with the huge, giving generosity poured on us by a loving parent. But here's the wonderful thing I see, from the vantage point of my own motherhood and the vantage point of losing my own dear mother -- a mother doesn't see such gifts as "useless" or "worthless" and that is *part* of the generosity and grace she gives. The poem's narrator looks back ruefully with adult eyes, recognizing how much he owes his mother, and maybe how ungrateful he sometimes was at different times in his life, or how oblivious -- and that in itself is a gift.

But I would be willing to bet that the mother's view of that gift when he gave it is much different than his view of it now. I would be willing to bet that she laughed over that clumsy lanyard (not in his presence) and put it away like a treasured jewel to be brought out years later, when she remembered not so much the gift itself, but the precious boy who gave it to her, and she reflected on how quickly he had grown, and how amazing that he had turned into a man who could grace the world with beautifully made things (like poems) and how good it was of God to have given her the chance to raise him.

And I remember a home movie of my own mother, on a Christmas morning (before I was even born) accepting the gift of some plastic roses from the hand of my older sister or brother (I can't remember which one handed them to her). Her face as she took those plastic blossoms was just luminous. She leaned in and pretended to smell them, and then she reached down and hugged that child with a gratitude that even now, fifty-some years later, feels palpably real and loving.


Don said...

So tender! Welcome back, Beth!

Beth said...

Thank you, Don! It's good to be back!

sandy said...

My Mama-heart loves this.

Beth said...

And what a wonderful Mama-heart you have!

Erin said...

Such a moving reflection on one of my favorite poems. And what a beautiful moment that was captured on film! <3

Beth said...

I think you might have been the person who shared this poem with me originally, Erin!