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On Turning Ten -- Billy Collins

Guest poem sent in by Gregory Marton
(Poem #1096) On Turning Ten
 The whole idea of it makes me feel
 like I'm coming down with something,
 something worse than any stomach ache
 or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
 a kind of measles of the spirit,
 a mumps of the psyche,
 a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

 You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
 but that is because you have forgotten
 the perfect simplicity of being one
 and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
 But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
 At four I was an Arabian wizard.
 I could make myself invisible
 by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
 At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

 But now I am mostly at the window
 watching the late afternoon light.
 Back then it never fell so solemnly
 against the side of my tree house,
 and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
 as it does today,
 all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

 This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
 as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
 It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
 time to turn the first big number.

 It seems only yesterday I used to believe
 there was nothing under my skin but light.
 If you cut me I could shine.
 But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
 I skin my knees. I bleed.
-- Billy Collins
A very new friend, quickly becoming someone I feel like I've known my whole
life, sent me yesterday's poem, Litany in one of our first exchanges of
email, and so introduced me to our poet laureate.  I laughed and enjoyed it
and started to explore his other work online.  I found his imagined children
comforting, and his flawed adults familiar.  On Turning Ten was my favorite
and with it I replied.

Where Litany had beautifully caricatured beauty (of which Atwood's
'Variations on the word "sleep"'[Poem #1093] was a delightful example), On
Turning Ten reminds us that we each have it inside.  We sat on a sailboat
yesterday immersed in wonder, and she said if you would cut her today, she'd
shine.  So, indeed, would I.

Warmest wishes,

30 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

John Burstow said...

Comment by John B: In Eden nothing is banal, and no one there is to be
patronized. I like Collins' poem when it remembers this, and don't like
it when it forgets. I like the serious respect with which the boy looks
back at his former selves, capturing One, Two, and Four especially well,
and I imagine the adult poet is attempting the same seriousness when he
tries to "catch" the Boy at Ten. But there are a few places where the
banal and the patronizing come through, especially the last two lines. I
find skinning one's knees on "the sidewalks of life" self-demeaning and
life-demeaning in a way that particular ten-year-old would never be.
They are lines that play for the adult's indulgent smile-it's not like
you're going to die from skinned knees, eh?--and this wonderfully
visual, almost-good laureate should regret them

As for the not easily forgotten image of the preceding three lines,

It seems only yesterday I used to believe

there was nothing under my skin but light.

If you cut me I could shine.

do they not remind you of certain Salvador Dali paintings? (The line
between Dali and Norman Rockwell can sometimes be thin.)

Peter Henderson SNL Financial said...

1) Mr. Burstow calls the poet "almost-good." Get back!
2) I agree with Mr. Burstow on there being a certain slackness -- my words,
not his -- to the characterizations of ages seven and nine.
3) The knee skinning image must be taken together with "if you cut me I
would shine." Perhaps the real defect is the insertion of the words "of
life" after sidewalks. Would it read better that way? After all, we don't
want to oppose light to warey-gorey either.

Peter Henderson

RubinS said...

In my high school English class, we just read the Shelley Poem "Ode to the
West Wind" (#329), in which appears the line: "I fall upon the thorns of
life! I bleed! "
Does anyone think that the end of this poem is a reference to Shelley?

Lynnette Dixon said...

Maybe this poem is meant for ordinary people like me, who are not clever enough to analyse and dissect the work of others, and are unfortunate enough to take things at face value. As one of them I love it. I also love the simplistic joy that comes from being one of them.


Scott Nicolson said...

I had the delightful experience of hearing the poet read this work
on the air during a lecture series broadcast by the local NPR station.
Therefore, I 've got a leg up on you fine cultural interpreters.
This was not primarily a reflection of losing the magic of youth, although
that feeling is certainly captured. It is the artist's parody of a work he
something along the lines of "Reflections On Turning 80" or some such;
self-serious reflections placed in the mouth of the world-weary 10-year
old, mourning
his lost youth, regretting the harsh coldness of the coming world he will
be powerless
to stave off. Satire, people!

If you cut me, it takes me quite awhile to notice.


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