T.'s Reviews > Picnic, Lightning

Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins
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's review
Sep 30, 2011

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bookshelves: poetry
Read from September 30 to October 03, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 3

Here's one of my favourite poems from this collection:
Billy Collins

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
why 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 signing 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.”

Cover art is Martin Johnson Heade's Salt Marsh Hay (1865).

/ Written 30 September 2011
I am currently house-sitting for a relative, and I have hauled a lot of my books with me (mostly for rereading). I have turned one of the rooms into a 'writing room,' and it's nice to be able to write and read in silence.

/ First read 28 August 2004.
/ Reread on 17 February 2010.
/ Reread on 3 October 2011.
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Reading Progress

09/30/2011 page 9
9.0% "I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some / distant country hundreds of years from now. -- Mary Oliver"
10/02/2011 page 14
14.0% "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 (15, Marginalia)"
10/02/2011 page 17
17.0% "no matter what the size the aquarium of one's learning, / another colored pebble can always be dropped in. (What I Learned Today)"
10/02/2011 page 59
57.0% "...the mind, / the freakiest dungeon in the castle (Museé des Beaux Arts Revisited)"
10/02/2011 page 61
59.0% "I was here before, a long time ago, / and now I am here again / is an observation that occurs in poetry / as frequently as rain occurs in life. (Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey)"
10/02/2011 page 65
63.0% "I could look at you forever / And never see the two of us together. (Duck/Rabbit)"
10/02/2011 page 79
77.0% "But the heart is restless and rises / from the body in the middle of the night, / leaves the trapezoidal bedroom / with its thick, pictureless walls / to sit by herself at the kitchen table / and heat some milk in a pan. (The Night House)"
10/02/2011 page 98
95.0% "a partially open door, / rain dripping from the eaves (My Life)"
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