carry

Standard

Carry
Billy Collins

I want to carry you
and for you to carry me
the way voices are said to carry over water.

Just this morning on the shore,
I could hear two people talking quietly in a row
boat on the far side of the lake.

They were talking about fishing,
then one changed the subject,
and, I swear, they began talking about you.

‘valentine of desire’

Standard

Not Touching
Billy Collins
The valentine of desire is pasted over my heart
and still we are not touching, like things

in a poorly done still life
where the knife appears to be floating over the plate
which is itself hovering above the table somehow,

the entire arrangement of apple, pear, and wineglass
having forgotten the law of gravity,
refusing to be still,

as if the painter had caught them all
in a rare moment of slow flight
just before they drifted out of the room
through a window of perfectly realistic sunlight.

eastern standard time

Standard

Eastern Standard Time
Billy Collins

Poetry speaks to all people, it is said,
but here I would like to address
only those in my own time zone,
this proper slice of longitude
that runs from pole to snowy pole
down the globe through Montreal to Bogota.

Oh, fellow inhabitants of this singular band,
sitting up in your many beds this morning—
the sun falling through the windows
and casting a shadow on the sundial—
consider those in other zones who cannot hear these words.

They are not slipping into a bathrobe as we are,
or following the smell of coffee in a timely fashion.

Rather, they are at work already,
leaning on copy machines,
hammering nails into a house-frame.

They are not swallowing a vitamin like us;
rather they are smoking a cigarette under a half moon,
even jumping around on a dance floor,
or just now sliding under the covers,
pulling down the little chains on their bed lamps.

But we are not like these others,
for at this very moment on the face of the earth,
we are standing under a hot shower,

or we are eating our breakfast,
considered by people of all zones
to be the most important meal of the day.

Later, when the time is right,
we might sit down with the boss,
wash the car, or linger at a candle-lit table,
but now is the hour for pouring the juice
and flipping the eggs with one eye on the toaster.

So let us slice a banana and uncap the jam,
lift our brimming spoons of milk,
and leave it to the others to lower a flag
or spin absurdly in a barber’s chair—
those antipodal oddballs, always early or late.

Let us praise Sir Stanford Fleming
the Canadian genius who first scored
with these lines the length of the spinning earth.

Let us move together through the rest of this day
passing in unison from light to shadow,
coasting over the crest of noon
into the valley of the evening
and then, holding hands, slip into the deeper valley of night.

 

breathless

Standard

Breathless
Billy Collins

Some like the mountains, some like the seashore,
Jean-Paul Belmondo says
to the camera in the opening scene.

Some like to sleep face up,
some like to sleep on their stomachs,
I am thinking here in bed–

some take the shape of murder victims
flat on their backs all night,
others float face down on the dark waters.

Then there are those like me
who prefer to sleep on their sides,
knees brought up to the chest,

head resting on a crooked arm
and a soft fist touching the chin,
which is the way I would like to be buried,

curled up in a coffin
in a fresh pair of cotton pajamas,
a down pillow under my weighty head.

After a lifetime of watchfulness
and nervous vigilance,
I will be more than ready for sleep,

so never mind the dark suit,
the ridiculous tie
and the pale limp hands crossed on the chest.

Lower me down in my slumber,
tucked into myself
like the oldest fetus on earth,

and while the cows look over the stone wall
of the cemetery, let me rest here
in my earthy little bedroom,

my lashes glazed with ice,
the roots of trees inching nearer,
and no dreams to frighten me anymore.

Image (c) S Donaghy

american sonnet

Standard

American Sonnet
Billy Collins
We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser
and it is not fourteen lines
like furrows in a small, carefully plowed field

but the picture postcard, a poem on vacation,
that forces us to sing our songs in little rooms
or pour our sentiments into measuring cups.

We write on the back of a waterfall or lake,
adding to the view a caption as conventional
as an Elizabethan woman’s heliocentric eyes.

We locate an adjective for the weather.
We announce that we are having a wonderful time.
We express the wish that you were here

and hide the wish that we were where you are,
walking back from the mailbox, your head lowered
as you read and turn the thin message in your hands.

A slice of this place, a length of white beach,
a piazza or carved spires of a cathedral
will pierce the familiar place where you remain,

and you will toss on the table this reversible display:
a few square inches of where we have strayed
and a compression of what we feel.

scissors

Standard

Vade Mecum
Billy Collins
I want the scissors to be sharp
and the table perfectly level
when you cut me out of my life
and paste me in that book you always carry.

endangered

Standard

Endangered
Billy Collins
It is so quiet on the shore of this motionless lake
you can hear the slow recessional of extinct animals
as they leave through a door at the back of the world,
disappearing like the verbs of a dead language:

the last troop of kangaroos hopping out of the picture,
the ultimate paddling of ducks and pitying of turtledoves
and, his bell tolling in the distance, the final goat.

adage

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 Jeremy Allouche on Unsplash

jimenez

Standard

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