Monday, February 7, 2011

Lunch with Billy Collins (part 2)

Driving from the northwest side down to the Arizona Inn was an instant replay for TBG of the countless trips he made over the 10 days I was hospitalized.  Down First and over to Campbell, trying to avoid the traffic on Ft. Lowell and failing, as it moved ever westward, inexorably challenging buses and passenger cars alike, he railed at the bumps in the road as he looked anxiously to his right, worried beyond measure about his sweetie and her aches and pains.  

I tried to be brave, but the outside world is a scary place for me right now.  Unintended consequences do happen.... short Jewish girls do get shot.... the guy crossing the street could turn suddenly and ......  It was a struggle to stay focused on the big blue sky and the cold fresh air buffeting my fragile self.  Brother was in the back seat, on his way to the airport and the (other) women who love him and he kept up a steady patter of chatter designed to keep me distracted.  It almost worked.

Did I know where we were going?  Yes, turn left at the hospital and the hotel is on the right.  The hospital, looming large and frightening and comforting all at the same time.  My room, hidden behind the parking garage, a small safe sanctuary from the craziness outside... the urge to return was nearly overwhelming.  The nurses and doctors and security personnel would keep me safe, would keep the uncertainty of the real world at bay, and I could lie on my plastic mattress and pretend to sleep while I healed.  But retreat is not an option, and Elm Street is one of the prettiest roads in Tucson, and suddenly there was the curb cut and the bellman and the borrowed wheelchair and Beautiful Anne, my hostess, just waiting for me to arrive.  TBG and Brother argued over who would escort me to my seat and be sure that I was comfortable and unbroken between the sidewalk and the banquet room but wiser minds prevailed and, after promising that I would be returned "without so much as a hangnail"  I was rolled to the venue.

I left the wheelchair behind; if Tucson is seeing me as an icon of recovery I had to enter the room with my walker.  From the perspective of a wheelchair I am looking up at an unfamiliar world.  Doing bar-dips, hopping across the dining room to the Speaker's Table (the Speakers Table!!), I was closer to my old, independent, 5' self.  No one approached me, which was a good thing because balance and distance and exhaustion make for an interestingly unstable combination these days.  But their eyes were upon me and I could hear the whispers identifying me.  It's not intrusive so much as surprising, not invasive but definitely within my personal space.  I'm coming to terms with being the face of Tucson's recovery and "Oh, look, it's Suzi!" has become my new normal when I venture out into the world.  I have a new appreciation for movie stars who want to run out for a gallon of milk when they need a haircut and have no clean clothes.  Before I'd left home I'd examined my outfit from all directions, sitting and standing, and my hair came in for some serious mousse and fluffing.  It's not who I was, but it is who I am.

It took me a while to get over the excitement of sitting at the head table..... I wasn't the bride nor the speaker.... I'd just gone to the grocery store with a friend.... but there I was and then there was Billy Collins, quietly entering and approaching his table... our table... to sit next to me.  Lunch with Billy Collins.... I could barely catch my breath.

Little Cuter has been pretty jealous of this whole event.  It was she who introduced me to his poetry and cries of "Not Fair!" have never been far from our conversations.  I had The Apple That Astonished Paris in my purse, a token I'd ask him to inscribe for her as a means of assuaging my guilt that I and not she was sitting there, eating salad and warm rolls and drinking iced tea with the former poet laureate of the United States of America.  For the moment, though, all I could do was glow as he and his fiancee shook my hand and rubbed my back and told me how glad they were to meet me.

How glad they were to meet me..... I am still getting over that one, denizens.

Literary Society members approached with politeness and grace, offering books for autographs and sharing snippets of their lives.  Billy Collins sat with a stack of books and papers on his lap, rearranging and reorganizing as the meal progressed.  Then he was introduced and took the podium, appreciating the impromptu description of his life and career which was told from the heart instead of from a script by the organizer of the event.  He was gracious even before he began.

I scooted my chair around so that I could see, and I tried to ignore the throbbing in my hip and my quadricep and my lower back.  No way was I going to miss a second of this; the pain was relegated to its own little box and I was there, in the moment, as Billy (it's hard to call him Mr. Collins; though that seems more respectful it just doesn't ring true) talked about his influences and recited Bacon and Eggs by Howard Nemerov in its entirety:
The chicken contributes
But the pig gives its all.
The ice was broken and he was off and running, sharing little moments in time which he'd made into poetry.  "And that's what the poem turned out to be," he said, describing how a glance out the window had turned into a sonnet on another topic entirely.  All the while his fiancee was looking at him with adoration and amusement and love; I could feel the vibes bouncing off him and being deflected by the warmth of the crowd back at him again.  He was small and the opposite of bombastic and, as Beautiful Anne said "Not everyone can write and read... but he certainly can."  

There was one teenager in the room,  braces and barefoot sitting cross legged at the front table across from ours.  She was enthralled and smiling and then bright red and abashed and laughing as she heard

Not only in church
and nightly by their bedsides
do young girls pray these days

Wherever they go,
prayer is woven into their talk
like a bright thread of awe

Even at the pedestrian mall
outbursts of praise
spring unbidden from their glossy lips. 

She turned to her grown-up and cocked her head.  "YES, that's you!" came back to her in full force and those of us lucky enough to catch the encounter were entranced.  As I mentioned in part one of this story, he didn't come into the event with a pre-determined playlist of poems.  His selections were personalized to the audience; he was a self-described poetry jukebox.  His choices were impeccable.  

For a man with no work habits, who commits an act of literature as he describes mortality being able to italicize life, he was really quite incredible.  Like Audrey Hepburn spurning Cary Grant's offer of friendship in Charade, his brain is too full: 

(It's as if there is a) shelf in my head... when I read a new one the one at the other end falls off..... and the shelf is shrinking..... the memories have retired.

Or, as he said while commenting on the veracity of a poem:

It wasn't quite like that...
But it wasn't unlike that, either.

I wish you all could have been there.  It lifted my soul and my spirits and my brain was flickering in a way it had not since before the 8th of January.  Thank you, Beautiful Anne and Kim Nelson* and the Tucson Literary Society and the Northern Trust Bank, for a most wonderful afternoon.

*see comments for the wonderfulness that she's bringing to The Burrow these days 


  1. A perfectly beautiful first outing, calm and restorative. In the safety of love and poetry, a balm for your healing.

  2. Oh, Suzi... you make me blush and you make me proud.
    Tell me ~ did you take notes or have you a didactic memory? Your recollection of the afternoon is like being there again, and for that I am thrilled because it was a truly wondrous experience.
    On another note, in this post you expose a fragility and level of concern that was held completely under wraps that day at the Arizona Inn. You are an actress as well. Why am I not surprised?
    Blessings and continued speedy recovery

  3. oh but the bloom would be so much more perfect
    had petal not dropped

  4. I loved the poem about the teenager. So true and funny at the same time. Thanks for sharing your meeting with Billy Collins with us.

  5. If one had to have a first outing outside the security of one's home, I doubt it could have been any nicer than yours. So glad you had a wonderful time and hope you have more outings in your future! ...debbie

  6. " I have a new appreciation for movie stars who want to run out for a gallon of milk when they need a haircut and have no clean clothes. Before I'd left home I'd examined my outfit from all directions, sitting and standing, and my hair came in for some serious mousse and fluffing. It's not who I was, but it is who I am."

    There were so many perfect bits in this, it was hard to pick one. I chose one of the less obvious mini-stories just to illustrate that you do write so very, very well. Billy Collins may be the master at poetic alchemy, but you are a master at putting us in your moment. And what moments!

    And the fragility, the power of imprinted memory...those are just as you and I, in our professional lives, would have expected. And that doesn't help one damn bit, does it? Well, not enough damn bits, anyway.

  7. It was so pleasing to read about the lovely outing you had! I hope the outside world is a tiny bit more comfortable to navigate. Wishing they all bring you some peace and comfort.


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