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Poetry Friday: Three Poems, One Cow Umbrella

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U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has a unique writing habit…sometimes, he takes two lines from another author’s poem and uses them to start a poem of his own.  That is the case with his 2002 poem Litany. It starts with these words from a poem by Belgian artist and writer Jacques Crickillon: “You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine…” A KNAU listener from Sedona was intrigued by Collins’ style, so she decided to play along and write her own response poem. Here is Nancy Melmon, first reading Billy Collins’ Litany, followed by a reading of her original poem You Are the Umbrella With the Jersey Cows Grazing On It Written After Reading Litany by Billy Collins. 

LITANY

You are the bread and the knife,

          The crystal goblet and the wine...

                -Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,

the crystal goblet and the wine.

You are the dew on the morning grass

and the burning wheel of the sun.

You are the white apron of the baker,

and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,

the plums on the counter,

or the house of cards.

And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.

There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,

maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,

but you are not even close

to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show

that you are neither the boots in the corner

nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,

speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,

that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,

the evening paper blowing down an alley

and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees

and the blind woman's tea cup.

But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.

You are still the bread and the knife.

You will always be the bread and the knife,

not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.

Nancy Melmon: He (Collins) just took two lines and wrote this amazing poem about it! And I thought, ‘How much fun to do that. How much fun to play with that.’

How did I get to my poem? I thought, ‘I can do that.’ And I have this great umbrella that my older sister gave me, and it has cows all over it. I pulled it out of my closet and I said, ‘I’m going to write about something with that. I have no idea what is going to come out, but I’m going to play with that just like Billy Collins did.’

I have the poem that I wrote, and it’s titled You Are the Umbrella With the Jersey Cows Grazing On It (Written After Reading “Litany” by Billy Collins):

You are not fond of mud,

except when it rains.

You are my umbrella.

Not my morning news and coffee

or the black mailbox.

The day is daring you

to leap out of our front door closet,

and start chasing the clouds as if they were foxes.

But my dear friend, you and I,

are content to walk and talk of life and love

with the meadows, oaks trees,

and country lanes.

You are my happy dance,

that huge patch of blue sky only an umbrella can see.

You’ve never been my gold L.L. Bean rain jacket.

Or the size ten purple ankle length Forecaster.

You have never been

a sissy, rusty front door cow foot scraper.

You are a shady landscape

of red barns,

white picket fences, sweet strawberry patches,

and wide-eyed daisies

a cluster of Jersey cows are munching.

You are sleepy stone walls.

And hundreds of Sunflowers.

You could be the Sun. I wonder.

“Slow down”, my cow umbrella says.

Taste the raindrops.

I love when my umbrella opens,

that soft milk smell of Jersey cows contentedly grazing.

And me?

I am the winding dirt roads that lead to the red barns,

and the tan silos

behind the red barns.

I am the dark, dark earth under all rain puddles.

The quiet of stacked hay.

I have never been two red maples by the swimming hole.

I am a stone fence,

and fields of clover where deer graze.

I am the apple grove

where the Jersey cows huddle when it storms.

I am the wild carrots,

the turnips, sage, parsley and cucumbers.

And I am the earthworms that break down the grasses.

I am the yellow towel that dries the dog

after his long swim

in the lake,

the large white dog bed

in the living room,

the leather leash hanging by the front door,

and the round blue collar

with the yellow hearts.

Fact: I am absolutely sure of this one:

“you and me”.

A girl and her umbrella.

Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a segment, drop her an email at Gillian.Ferris@nau.edu. 

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Gillian came to KNAU in 2001 as a freelance reporter. Her first story won an Arizona Associated Press Award. Since then, Gillian has won more than a dozen Edward R. Murrow Awards for feature reporting, writing, editing and documentary work. She served as KNAU’s local Morning Edition anchor for many years before becoming News Director and Managing editor in 2013. When she’s not working, Gillian likes to spend time in the natural world with her dog, Gertie. She is an avid hiker, skier, swimmer, and reader.