For Billy Collins
In fourth grade the competition gets hot.
line after line—rimes, ballads, elegiac sorrowings
of Mrs. Browning—in the Fifth Grade
you say them,
letter perfect, to Ms. Wheeler before school.
her glossy dark hair shining,
bends to enter the number of lines
and, smiling, her precise red lips mouth “Well Done.”
The pride that drives you to memorize surges
beneath your dappled skin,
accomplishment shines in your eyes
when you scan Literature for Young Readers, Volume Two
and choose poems on the sole merit of
length. How many lines
can you expect
to have written in pencil
in the rectangle next to your name?
“The boy stood on the burning deck,” you reel off
brightly, his hapless figure clear to you,
wanting to help him
considering his abundant heroism
while we lie out here
on the Plains
unaware he perished two-hundred years ago.
Yet, by the shores of rust-red water,
By the shining Deep Fork River
you encounter Hiawatha and his faithful friend, Nokomis.
there you truthfully recounted
all the lines and say them clearly,
boldly facing Mrs. Elzie
dainty, aging, Fifth Grade teacher.
her kind smile embraced your effort,
touched your heart and left you fearless.
Hawthorne, Blake, Robert Service
will be yours before you finish.
Odd towns and settings, for none you knew
have run across the accounts set out in
Literature for Children, Volume 2.
You marvel to think of the lady Lou in the Malamute saloon
As Dangerous Dan McGrew
And the kid plays a jag-time tune.
You know them all by heart.
Remember their galloping lines for years,
decades, so well they are in your way, obscure recollection
of other things you want right now.
Your brain was once a two-drawer filing cabinet.
Now it’s one.
Full of stuff over which you have no say – now and then
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner disrupts a grocery list,
a telephone conversation,
an especially lively tune on the radio
morphs into “Robinson Crusoe”:
“The night was thick and hazy/when the Piccadilly Daisy
carried down the crew and captain in the sea.”
It’s like the old friends have left you,
one-by-one, like great-aunts dying,
as though good neighbors moved to the lake.
It’s like a specter floated in the window
onto the slender joinery on which
stand your accolades.
Sometimes, at night, I see a light is on where
you sit carefully thumbing your Granddad’s Bible
memorizing the dates and names.
You will not give them up—names to go with the voices, faces,
resting at previous holiday tables;
you do not need to explain reciting your late night soliloquy,
evoking that schoolroom wall.
My light—also—is on.