Monday, August 19, 2013

Poem of the...month: Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins

In memory of my dear friend Joan Owen.

Picnic, Lightning
Billy Collins

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident 
(picnic, lightning) when I was three.                                                                                                                                         --Lolita

It is possible to be struck by a meteor
or a single-engine plane
while reading in a chair at home.
Safes drop from rooftops
and flatten the odd pedestrian
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.

Billy Collins

She had the eye that the speaker gains in the last two stanzas, but always. She saw the beauty and the marvel of life--in everything, really.

I am updating here, because I've been thinking about this poem.
On my first few readings, I thought those last two stanzas were about being more present, more alive to the moment, more cognizant of the sensations that tie us to this life. But on subsequent readings I began to think that maybe they are about what it's like to die--maybe the tiny things he sees in the compost are details of death as well as life--for what is compost but a life-giving mixture of dead and rotting plant life with alive and kicking bacteria? Maybe the rasp of the steel edge is Death sharpening his scythe. Maybe the blue, the white, the singing flowers are the ecstasy of death, a vision of another world. And isn't the sweep of time inextricably connected with death? Maybe I'm pushing this too far.

No comments:

Post a Comment