“Litany,” by Billy Collins

A favorite poem of mine, “Litany,” by Billy Collins

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.

I love the way that this poem reframes ideas of self-importance, the way we try to explain ourselves with metaphors. It challenges the idea of “you are my everything,” placing a very specific vision on how the speaker in the poem sees the person they are addressing, while giving themselves a grandiose picture. Of course, watching a three year old recite this poem only adds to the mock self importance of the poem.

This poem also makes me think about the many metaphors that show up all throughout the Bible, and the confusion that they can bring in a contemporary context, or even in the confusion they brought to the disciples. At the same time, I appreciate the fact that though Billy Collins doesn’t quite describe the emotions present between the speaker and the subject, the use of (albeit sarcastic) metaphors allows him to convey a very specific love and playfulness of relationship. And, I appreciate the fact that though Jesus doesn’t give us a completely clear picture of the Kingdom of Heaven, or give us an exact date of His return, he does describe the Kingdom of Heaven through metaphor, conveying a very specific love and intention for the world.

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