Wednesday

Jan. 26, 2005

The Lanyard

by Billy Collins

WEDNESDAY, 26 JANUARY, 2005
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Poem: "The Lanyard" by Billy Collins. Reprinted with permission from author.

The Lanyard

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift-not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Australia Day, the day on which Australians celebrate the establishment of the first British settlement in that country in 1788. Captain James Cook had been the first European to discover the island continent in 1770, and he informed the British government that it might make a good place for a settlement. By 1780, Great Britain's prisons were growing overcrowded because they had lost their colonies in America, which was where they had been sending prisoners. So they decided to start sending convicts to Australia, which was then called New South Wales.

The first shipment consisted of about 730 convicts, among them highway robbers, jewel thieves, and a woman who had tried to steal 24 yards of black silk lace. The military guards carried no ammunition, so that their guns could not be used against them in a mutiny. Two attempted mutinies were put down during the voyage. Forty-eight people died before they reached their destination, which was considered a remarkably successful survival rate. They arrived on this day in 1788 and settled an area they called Sydney Cove, around which would grow the city of Sydney.


It's the birthday of cartoonist, novelist and playwright Jules Feiffer, born in the Bronx (1929). He said of his childhood, "The only thing I wanted to be was grown up. Because I was a terrible flop as a child. You cannot be a successful boy in America if you cannot throw or catch a ball." He decided early on that he wanted to be a comic strip artist, and when he was a teenager, he showed his work to the cartoonist Will Eisner, and Eisner gave him a job. Feiffer said, "[It was] ten dollars a week part-time—erasing pages, filling in blanks, and dreaming great dreams."

But he was drafted in 1951, and he did not take well to the army. He said, "I was treated with open contempt by one form of authority or the other in the army on a 24-hour basis." The experience inspired him to write a bitterly cynical cartoon strip about a four-year-old boy who is drafted by mistake. He tried to sell the strip to a variety of major newspapers, but nobody would buy it. So he finally turned to a new weekly newspaper in his neighborhood called The Village Voice. Over the next decade, the Village Voice became nationally prominent, and Feiffer's cartoons became nationally syndicated.

His strip in the Village Voice was one of the first cartoon strips to deal with adult themes such as sex, politics, and psychiatry. For most of his career, he has drawn and written all of his work in Central Park, which he considers his office. His cartoons collected in books such as Feiffer's Marriage Manual (1967) and Feiffer on Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency (1974). His most recent book is a book for children The Daddy Mountain (2004).


It's the birthday of children's book author and editor Mary Mapes Dodge, born Mary Mapes in New York City (1831). She was born into a prestigious New York family. Her grandfather was a personal friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. Her father was an inventor and an entrepreneur who planned to revolutionize the farming industry with new chemical fertilizers. One of the investors in his fertilizer idea was a man named William Dodge, who later married young Mary Mapes.

Mary Mapes Dodge lived with her husband in New York City for five years, and had two sons. Then one night in 1858, her husband left the house and never came back. It turned out that he had drowned, possibly of a suicide. She was devastated and took her sons to live on her father's farm. She moved into a room in the attic, which she decorated with moss, leaves, flowers, and a painting of the Rhine river on the ceiling. She spent many hours in the attic playing with her sons and telling them stories, and eventually she began to write the stories down and submit them to magazines.

She had long been interested in writing something about Holland, although she'd never been there. She had some Dutch friends who had emigrated from Amsterdam, and she asked them to tell her everything they knew about their home country, what things looked like and smelled like, and the things people did and the food they ate and the stories they told their children at night. She used all of these details to write a children's book called Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates (1865), which became a best-seller. In the fifteen years after it was published, it received more reviews than any other children's book in America.

Among the historical background of Holland that Mary Mapes Dodge wrote about in Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates , she included a story about a boy who saved Holland by sticking his finger in a dike. That story was her own invention, but it became so famous that many people believed it was an old Dutch folktale.

In 1872, Charles Scribner and two of his partners were thinking of developing a magazine for children, and they wrote to Dodge to ask for her advice. She replied, "The child's magazine, needs to be stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising than the [adult's]... Let there be no sermonizing either, no wearisome spinning out of facts, no rattling of the dry bones of history. A child's magazine is its pleasure ground."

They were impressed enough by her response that they asked her to edit the children's magazine, which became known as St. Nicholas. Dodge chose the name, because she said, "Is he not the boys' and girls' own Saint, the special friend of young Americans? That he is... And, what is more, isn't he the kindest, best, and jolliest old dear that ever was known? Certainly again."

St. Nicholas became one of the most successful children's publications of all time. It included work by writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Alfred Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain. The magazine also encouraged young people to submit stories and poems for publication. Among the writers who first published their work in St. Nicholas were Ring Lardner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eudora Welty, Edmund Wilson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.


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