Monday, May 27, 2024

“Picnic, Lightning”

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Poetry Corner

By Norah Christian

Billy Collins was born in New York City in 1941.  He is, as the New York Times has called him, “the most popular poet in America,” not only because he is both funny as well as deep, but he is understandable.

Poet and critic Michael Donaghy called Collins a “rare amalgam of accessibility and intelligence.” Collins served two terms as the US poet laureate, from 2001-2003, was New York State poet laureate from 2004-2006, and is a regular guest on National Public Radio programs.

In his poem “Picnic, Lightning,” while Collins is planting his red impatiens, he is also thinking about “the instant hand of Death”: the bizarre and various ways we can die, and instantly.

I, too, think of death all the time—since I was seven. (Perhaps due to Catholic school in the 40’s and 50’s.) I do not think of this as morbid (though my kids do). Death is, after all, the greatest mystery. Reminding yourself of death gives an edge to your life. In “The Sun Also Rises,” Hemingway has Jake say, “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull fighters.” Precisely because the bull fighter looks death in the eye every day, his life is more vivid, precious, and valuable to him.

I also think of Wallace Stevens’ line in his poem “Sunday Morning”: “Death is the mother of beauty.” Because Death exists, Life is beautiful. Here’s Collins shoveling compost. He thinks of death, and “then the soil is full of marvels”—his eyes are opened to everything, he sees a beetle, the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the clouds a brighter white, the plants are “singing,” and he is truly alive in the hours that sweep him into the next.

Picnic, Lightning

By Billy Collins   1941 –

 

It is possible to be struck by a

meteor or a single-engine plane while

reading in a chair at home. Pedestrians

are flattened by safes falling from

rooftops mostly within the panels of

the comics, but still, we know it is

possible, as well as the flash of

summer lightning, the thermos toppling

over, spilling out on the grass.

And we know the message can be

delivered from within. The heart, no

valentine, decides to quit after

lunch, the power shut off like a

switch, or a tiny dark ship is

unmoored into the flow of the body’s

rivers, the brain a monastery,

defenseless on the shore. This is

what I think about when I shovel

compost into a wheelbarrow, and when

I fill the long flower boxes, then

press into rows the limp roots of red

impatiens — the instant hand of Death

always ready to burst forth from the

sleeve of his voluminous cloak. Then

the soil is full of marvels, bits of

leaf like flakes off a fresco,

red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick

to burrow back under the loam. Then

the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the

clouds a brighter white, and all I

hear is the rasp of the steel edge

against a round stone, the small

plants singing with lifted faces, and

the click of the sundial as one hour

sweeps into the next.

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