Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Unfortunate Traveler - Billy Collins

Because I was off to France, I packed
my camera along with my shaving kit,
some colorful boxer shorts, and a sweater with a zipper,

but every time I tried to take a picture
of a bridge, a famous plaza,
or the bronze equestrian statue of a general,

there was a woman standing in front of me
taking a picture of the very same thing,
or the odd pedestrian blocked my view,

someone or something always getting between me
and the flying buttress, the river boat,
a bright café awning, an unexpected pillar.

So into the little door of the lens
came not the kiosk or the altarpiece.
No fresco or baptistry slipped by the quick shutter.

Instead, my memories of that glorious summer
of my youth are awakened now,
like an ember fanned into brightness,

by a shoulder, the back of a raincoat,
a wide hat or towering hairdo -
lost time miraculously recovered

by the buttons on a gendarme's coat
and my favorite,
the palm of the vigilant guard at the Louvre.

As regular readers of this blog know, Billy Collins is my favorite poet writing today.  I admire the effortless way in which he makes the every day into absurdity, the natural strength of his tone shifts, and the clear way in which he expresses what seem to me to be universal truths.  This poem is no exception to that trend, as it recounts his failed attempts to take pictures of famous objects on a youthful vacation in France.  Instead of capturing pristine photos of famous architecture, he has a series of amusing failures (if one can call them that) which become triggers to his treasured memories, everyday portals into his past.

This experience of travel is near universal, I'd wager.  I know that in my travels, I often took great pains to take "good" pictures, well-framed, clean shots, etc etc, but despite my best efforts, oftentimes, humorous little quirks would work their way in.  And certainly, our memory of places and people is more triggered by "a wide hat or towering hairdo" than by a perfect picture of a bit of architecture.  After all, which are you more likely to see day to day?

My favorite thing to do with this poem is imagine the scenario in which each described photo was taken.  It's pretty easy to imagine the scene with the guard at the Louvre blocking his photo, but a towering hairdo?  Maybe some tourist with an impressively tall coiffed head stepped in front of him as he lined up a shot of Notre Dame cathedral.  It doesn't much matter the scenario, but it's fun to imagine, and I think also to compare to our own failed vacation photos.

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