What Is a Lanyard, Anyway?
The only bad thing about learning Billy Collins’ poem “The Lanyard” by heart is that now I can read it without laughing. And for years I have enjoyed laughing my way through this poem. Because even before I get to Collins’ wry sense of humor that unspools so gradually in these lines, I have to admit the word lanyard is kinda funny, all by itself.
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
So, what is a lanyard, anyway? I looked it up: a piece of rope on a ship, a cord or strap used to hold something about the neck, a cord and symbol of military citation. In other words, the lanyard holds stuff together. Or simpler still, mother = lanyard.
She gives life, breast milk, medicine, coolness, light, walking and swimming lessons, meals by the thousands, strong legs, strong bones, strong teeth, and “two clear eyes.” Everything this boy needs.
But like other boys and girls, this boy doesn’t appreciate that the lanyard is what is holding him together. He’s admitted to boredom at summer camp by an Adirondack lake (another gift that doesn’t come cheap). We don’t know if the speaker in the poem now has children of his own. We don’t know anything about his relationship with his mother or even if she’s still alive. What we do know is that he finally knows “the worn truth that you can never repay your mother.”
A good poem would have stopped there. But this is a great poem. It goes on.
Collins makes the poem great when he goes on to say that the boy was convinced the lanyard, which he didn’t even make by himself and which he only made because he was bored, this gift for his mother “would be enough to make us even.”
Most kids think this way. Even after I became a mother, I still thought my mom and I were basically even, all things considered. It wasn’t until her cancer returned (again), and I poemed my way through her last three years that I understood. There is nothing even about this relationship. There never will be.
My whole life is “richocheting slowly” and “moving as if underwater.” Here, pencil. There, piano. Next, bookshelf or mailbox. My mother is the lanyard, strand crossed over strand.
P.S. On Wednesday, I’ll post my own version of this poem, which incorporates some of the lines from the song “Look at Us Now (Honeycomb)” from Daisy Jones and The Six.
I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro