12 September 2009

Jacques Crickillon, Billy Collins and Krishna

One of our best known American poets, Billy Collins, published his poem "Litany" in a 2002 issue of Poetry Magazine.  A quick internet search will reveal just how popular this often quoted poem has become over the years.  It begins with an epigraph, a translation of a French language poem by Belgian poet Jacques Crickillon, which reads "You are the bread and the knife/The crystal goblet and the wine."  Collins riffs off of these lines, continuing the list : "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 in flight."  The litany proceeds with a series of declarations about what the reader is or is not, what the speaker is or is not, enumerating a catalog of vibrant and delightful images:
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.
The poem reaches its conclusion with another declaration and an assurance:
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I am 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.
Not long ago, I was thumbing through Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Bhagavad Gita and discovered a passage that struck me as rhythmically and thematically similar to Collins's poem.  Krishna, assuring Arjuna of his omnipresence, says,
There is nothing more fundamental
than I, Arjuna:  all worlds
all beings, are strung upon me
like pearls on a single thread.
I am the taste in water,
the light in the moon and the sun,
the sacred syllable Om
in the Vedas, the sound in the air.
I am the fragrance in the earth,
the manliness in men, the brillance
 in fire, the life in the living,
and the abstinence in ascetics.
I am the primal seed
within all beings, Arjuna:
the widsom of those who know
the splendor of the high and the mighty.
I am the strength of the strong man
who is free of desire and attachment;
I am desire itself
when desire is consistent with duty.

A bit later, Krishna states:
I am the ritual and the worship,
the medicine and the mantra,
the butter burnt in the fire,
and I am the flames that consume it.

I am the father of the universe
and its mother, essence and goal
all of knowledge, the refiner, the scared
Om, and the threefold Vedas

I am the beginning and the end,
origin and dissolution
refuge, home, true lover,
womb and imperishable seed.
Now I can't say what Collins or Crickillon might know about the Bhagavad Gita, but it doesn't surprise me that in making assertions about the essence of being, a poem would assume the voice of a chant, a litany, a ceremonial list of declarations.  The rhythm of both texts sooths, each assurance easing through the line in a gentle wave, rising with the thought, ebbing with the breath, the pause, followed by another affirmation.  And while Collins is, as we often find him, a bit playful and wry, we find in his litany that same essential notion we find in Krishna's affirmations, that we are one and the same with some greater essence, that we live in the happy paradox of being many things at once, and one thing all the time.