Poetry

Pay Attention: An Afternoon with Billy Collins and Mary Oliver

Rachel Giese Brown

Mary Oliver has won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Rachel Giese Brown

What’s the first thing you think of when you think poetry readings by a Poet Laureate and a Pullitzer Prize winner? Well, whatever it is, I’m sure you weren’t thinking dogs.

Nonetheless, pet dogs were brought up more than anything else during poetry readings by Billy Collins and Mary Oliver at the Strathmore in Bethesda, Md. on Sunday. They managed to bring up their dogs in a beautifully poetic way, of course.

But perhaps the most important take away from the evening came from Oliver during a question and answer time after the readings. She said something like this: “Pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it. We’re soaked in distractions. The world didn’t have to be beautiful. We can and should think about that beauty and be grateful.”

Those are words I have tried to live by for the last year.

Both poets demonstrated that attention in their work — even in poems about dogs.  

Nineveh

He uproots teeth primordial in nature and that eat his soul
with appetite the size of mercenary forces plundering a city

whose inhabitants do not fight back because most of them
are women, children, and animals that creep on all fours.

He knows of a city not spared and is without name, unlike Nineveh,
whose repentant king decreed:

Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth,
and they shall cry mightily to God.

He thinks of what to do but knows that he is not the prophet

The Wheel

I stepped down from the train,

Saw you there, old man, bent

Next to the Tudor station, smiling

And waving to me over the steering wheel.

Your aged blue eyes

Saw us through the maze of roads

 

Walled by high corn and close trees, roads

Which branch away from the train 

Station to the cottage, to your wife’s eyes

And worn wrinkled skin.  Her back bent

Over the low table.  You turn the wheel

And press the horn, she’s smiling,

FIRSTS: “Lord, Why Did You Make Me Black?”

FIRSTS image by sharpner/shutterstock with illustration by Cathleen Falsani.

FIRSTS image by sharpner/shutterstock with illustration by Cathleen Falsani.

I was thirteen years old, a freshman in high school. This was my first mission trip – a week of working in an elementary school in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

Inner-city urban experience, meet private-school-raised girl.

School grounds within the walls of my church, meet bars and constant police surveillance.

The students we were going to serve looked a lot like me, but I could not feel further from their experience 

 

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