adage

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Adage
Billy Collins
When it’s late at night and branches
Are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s more like trading the two birds
who might be hiding in that bush
for the one you are not holding in your hand.

A wise man once said that love
was like forcing a horse to drink
but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.

Let us be clear about something.
Love is not as simple as getting up
on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor’s clothes.

No, it’s more like the way the pen
feels after it has defeated the sword.
It’s a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped
stitches.

You look at me through the halo of the last candle
and tell me love is an ill wind
that has no turning, a road that blows no good,

but I am here to remind you,
as our shadows tremble on the walls,
that love is the early bird who is better late than never.

Photo by Jeremy Allouche on Unsplash

jimenez

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The First Night
Billy Collins
“The worst thing about death must be the first night.” -Juan Ramón Jiménez

Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,

but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set

then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,

a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.

Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me

into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,

and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.

Photo by Joshua Harris on Unsplash

an onion and a knife

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In the Evening
Billy Collins
The heads of roses begin to droop.
The bee who has been hauling his gold
all day finds a hexagon in which to rest.

In the sky, traces of clouds,
the last few darting birds,
watercolours on the horizon.

The white cat sits facing a wall.
The horse in the field is asleep on its feet.

I light a candle on the wood table.
I take another sip of wine.
I pick up an onion and a knife.

And the past and the future?
Nothing but an only child with two different masks.

love is an ill wind

Standard

Adage
Billy Collins
When it’s late at night and branches
Are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s more like trading the two birds
who might be hiding in that bush
for the one you are not holding in your hand.

A wise man once said that love
was like forcing a horse to drink
but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.

Let us be clear about something.
Love is not as simple as getting up
on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor’s clothes.

No, it’s more like the way the pen
feels after it has defeated the sword.
It’s a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped
stitches.

You look at me through the halo of the last candle
and tell me love is an ill wind
that has no turning, a road that blows no good,

but I am here to remind you,
as our shadows tremble on the walls,
that love is the early bird who is better late than never.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

love for everyday things

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No Things
Billy Collins
This love for the everyday things,
part natural from the wide eye of infancy,
part a literary calculation,

this attention to the morning flower
and later to a fly strolling
along the rim of a wineglass —

are we just avoiding our one true destiny
when we do that, averting our glance
from Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker’s coat?

The leafless branches against the sky
will not save anyone from the void ahead,
nor will the sugar bowl or the sugar spoon on the table.

So why bother with the checkerboard lighthouse?
Why waste time on the sparrow,
or the wildflowers along the roadside

when we should all be alone in our rooms
throwing ourselves against the wall of life
and the opposite wall of death,

the door locked behind us
as we hurl ourselves at the question of meaning,
and the enigma of our origins?

What good is the firefly,
the droplet running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap sliding around the bathtub

when we are really meant to be
banging away on the mystery
as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?

banging away on nothingness itself,
some with their foreheads,
others with the maul of sense, the raised jawbone of poetry.

unsinkable

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Cheerios
Billy Collins
One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago
as I waited for my eggs and toast,
I opened the Tribune only to discover
that I was the same age as Cheerios.

Indeed, I was a few months older than Cheerios
for today, the newspaper announced,
was the seventieth birthday of Cheerios
whereas mine had occurred earlier in the year.

Already I could hear them whispering
behind my stooped and threadbare back,
Why that dude’s older than Cheerios
the way they used to say

Why that’s as old as the hills,
only the hills are much older than Cheerios
or any American breakfast cereal,
and more noble and enduring are the hills,

I surmised as a bar of sunlight illuminated my orange juice.

drunk on the wind

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Velocity
Billy Collins
In the club car that morning I had my notebook
open on my lap and my pen uncapped,
looking every inch the writer
right down to the little writer’s frown on my face,

but there was nothing to write
about except life and death
and the low warning sound of the train whistle.

I did not want to write about the scenery
that was flashing past, cows spread over a pasture,
hay rolled up meticulously—
things you see once and will never see again.

But I kept my pen moving by drawing
over and over again
the face of a motorcyclist in profile—

for no reason I can think of—
a biker with sunglasses and a weak chin,
leaning forward, helmetless,
his long thin hair trailing behind him in the wind.

I also drew many lines to indicate speed,
to show the air becoming visible
as it broke over the biker’s face

the way it was breaking over the face
of the locomotive that was pulling me
toward Omaha and whatever lay beyond Omaha
for me and all the other stops to make

before the time would arrive to stop for good.
We must always look at things
from the point of view of eternity,

the college theologians used to insist,
from which, I imagine, we would all
appear to have speed lines trailing behind us
as we rush along the road of the world,

as we rush down the long tunnel of time—
the biker, of course, drunk on the wind,
but also the man reading by a fire,

speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book,
and the woman standing on a beach
studying the curve of horizon,
even the child asleep on a summer night,

speed lines flying from the posters of her bed,
from the white tips of the pillowcases,
and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body.

already gone

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The Present
Billy Collins

Much has been said about being in the present.
It’s the place to be, according to the gurus,
like the latest club on the downtown scene,
but no one, it seems, is able to give you directions.

It doesn’t seem desirable or even possible
to wake up every morning and begin
leaping from one second into the next
until you fall exhausted back into bed.

Plus, there’d be no past
with so many scenes to savor and regret,
and no future, the place you will die
but not before flying around with a jet-pack.

The trouble with the present is
that it’s always in a state of vanishing.
Take the second it takes to end
this sentence with a period – already gone.

What about the moment that exists
between banging your thumb
with a hammer and realizing
you are in a whole lot of pain?

What about the one that occurs
after you hear the punch line
but before you get the joke?
Is that where the wise men want us to live

in that intervening tick, the tiny slot
that occurs after you have spent hours
searching downtown for that new club
and just before you give up and head back home?