Sunday

Oct. 5, 2003

Nostalgia

by Billy Collins

SUNDAY, 5 OCTOBER, 2003
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Poem: "Nostalgia," by Billy Collins, from Sailing Alone Around the Room (Random House).

Nostalgia

Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called "Find the Cow."
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.

Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent, a badly broken code.

The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.

I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.

Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.


Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Czech writer and President Václav Havel, who was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia (1936). When he was young, he worked as a stagehand and eventually began writing plays. His most famous play, The Memorandum (1965), was about an office that is forced to use a made-up language in all of their memos. Havel is also an outspoken political activist. He was one of the leaders of the movement for democratic reform in Czechoslovakia, and he became the first president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. After the country divided, he was elected President of the Czech Republic. He retired earlier this year.

It's the birthday of British screenwriter and novelist Clive Barker, born in Liverpool, England (1952). He has written many dark fantasy and horror short stories and novels, including his well-known series of story collections, Books of Blood (1984-1986). He has also written books for children. The Thief of Always (1993) is about a young boy who is unhappy, and wishes for the days to all go away. The boy is swept into a fantasy world where Christmas comes every night.

It's the birthday of French encyclopedist Denis Diderot, born in Langres, France (1713). Over the course of twenty years, he wrote the great Encyclopedia (vol. 1 1751). The book was banned after the seventh volume came out in 1759. Diderot not only wrote ten more volumes, but type-set them himself, by hand.

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