JANUARY 2013, by Diederik Oostdijk
The first week of January is one of New Year resolutions, of looking forward rather than back. If you are prone to be wistful about the past (as I am), Billy Collins‘ “Nostalgia” is a witty antidote to counter it. Collins is one of the funniest poets out there, and I even suspect that he’s a stand-up comedian wannebe who has missed his callling. The deadpan opening of “Nostalgia” — “Remember the 1340s?” — is hilarious, and his timing is impeccable, especially when you hear him read “Nostalgia” out loud.
The way he can turn a cliché into something sarcastically original is remarkable: “It was a wonderful time to be alive,” he says about the Romantic age, “or even dead.” If Collins’ “Nostalgia” brings a smile on your face, do check him out on YouTube, and listen to “The Lanyard,” which mothers will adore, or “Forgetfulness,” which anyone with a senior moment will appreciate. The animation of “Forgetfulness” is breathtaking, by the way. Or listen to my personal favorite, “Litany,” which contains the most hackneyed metaphors you’ll ever find in a poem, but Collins pulls it off.
Even hearing the audience’s reaction to these videos makes me chuckle, as they seem initially hesitant about laughing. Can you laugh at a poetry reading, you can hear them think. Yes you can. For those who have just quit smoking as their New Year resolution, I forbid you to listen to “The Best Cigarette.” It will make you light up again, or worse: it’ll make you nosalgic.
Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.”
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.
Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent, a badly broken code.
The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.
I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.
Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.
As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.