What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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by Billy Collins

Field-Tested by Kirsten Giebutowski

in Plymouth, New Hampshire

If you ask me, time to read when things are slow more than compensates for the discontent begot by an undemanding job. If you ever work at a farm stand at the beginning of the season, say, when the vegetables are just starting to come in and it's slow enough that there's time to pick up a book between customers, I recommend Billy Collins' poems. I made my way through Picnic, Lightning when there was just lettuce, beet greens, and a few tomatoes for sale, and then Nine Horses when there was broccoli and the corn was in tassel.

Now that the broccoli's bolted and the corn's matured, I have had to put away my books, but the memory of those afternoons is sweet, of those moments I spent caught between reluctance to put down my book as a customer approached and the knowledge that putting down my book meant I could look forward to picking it up again. As I weighed the peas and rang them up, I had always just been laughing to myself over some poem and as I counted back the change I was always about to laugh over another. This, I'm sure, improved my customer service skills.

Not that Billy Collins' poems are merely funny; most that are funny have a dark underside and some aren't funny at all, but they're always clever. For Collins, flipping through a Victoria's Secret catalogue, staring at a ceiling crack, or looking at a bar of soap are all catalysts for reflection. The cumulative effect is the sense that there's nothing this guy can't make a poem out of, and the more poems of his I read, the more I started seeing poems around me when I wasn't reading.

As I was reading, I felt that kinship with a consciousness you sometimes feel in your favorite books, so that it seemed to me Collins had taken the thoughts out of my head and put them on the page. When I looked up from the page, the world looked unreal and diffuse until my vision sharpened again and I saw, not the world itself, but the world as a multiplying series of occasions for Billy Collins poems. Inchoate poems appeared in the vegetable bins, in the open purses of customers, in their gestures as they reached tenderly for summer squash and tentatively for cauliflower, in my own gesture as I caught myself standing with both hands on my hips, as I had never been wont to stand before.

I wondered whether the stance had been suggested to me by my surroundings, and I felt conscious of receiving communications from everywhere, from the cash register, even. When I looked down and saw the penny compartment empty, it seemed like that meant something, like some meaning was hovering around the absence of the pennies, hovering around their removal from the equation of my transactions, if I could just locate it, if I could just find it in the unwritten Billy Collins poem in my head, where it was probably hiding out.

Kirsten Giebutowski is a recentish graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa whose work has appeared in McSweeney's, Lost, the Boston Globe Magazine, and some other places. Having returned from a year teaching in Ukraine, she's now looking for a job to support her reading and writing habit somewhere in New England, where she was born and raised and feels fated to stay.

Buy Nine Horses and Picnic, Lightning