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Marginalia by Billy Collins

Lasts. Everybody is talking about their lasts, as we spend the final days in the university this week. The last Monday, last Tuesday – that we’ll ever spend.

Today: the ‘last’ Wednesday, and I’m sitting in front of my computer, surrounded by books I’ve yet to read, listening to some ominous music: With or Without You by Cellar 55. For lack of trying to be sentimental, I didn’t go to school. Instead I woke up late, hunted for leftovers in the fridge, tried to quell my desire to smoke.

There is a heavy rock lodged somewhere in my heart, but it’s not because of how things are ending. I feel that the past few days everything is beginning. I feel strangely light, like I’m at the edge of the cliff, about to jump off. Yet I also feel like I’m sinking, deep. Again I contradict myself. I walk in circles in my four-cornered room.

Or: I am standing with my eyes closed feeling my way around me. My fingers touch doors that have yet to be opened, and I could feel imminence vibrating from the other side. What is there?

It’s all I’m feeling now, this strangely fine, a bit bewildered dwelling. I’ve ceased to be curious as to what would happen tomorrow, I only know that things will happen, and that is that. Oh, the possibilities. Is this what Fr. Roche might have meant when he said, “Our finite conditioned human situatedness is the condition of possibility for our freedom”? Ah, but what of Theology. I didn’t even liked the subject.

Now: I marvel at how my playlist has been attuned to my emotions. Awhile ago, Frank Sinatra’s wobbling into I Could Have Danced All Night, and now, Gershwin’s Our Love is Here to Stay. Here: this is for myself. The time to finally settle is coming, and I walk around my room, listen to Charles Trenet sing La Mer, and wait.

As for those who have developed a love affair with books, with libraries, or with strangers, quite a wicked habit for me, most of the time:

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
who 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 singing 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.”

I couldn’t help but think that the rest of my life are scribbled somewhere by people I don’t know, in margins of books I’ve yet to open, in places that I’ve yet to go to. Lisa Ono shoots to Begin the Beguine, and I open and close my closet, lift and drop my pillows on the bed, looking for my heart.

From Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. ()

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