Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Death and Billy Collins: two of his poems

We didn't have any Billy C at Trigonos, but we could well have done - e.g. "Picnic, Lightning," which is very much about the present moment.  On that slender excuse, I give you two poems you may or may not know, about death, just to make the point that Collins spends much attention on being right in the present moment of his life, the "drop running along the green leaf." Or as the New Yorker critic put it once, "What Collins does best is turn an apparently simple phrase into a numinous moment." Quite.

No Things

This love for the petty things,
part natural from the slow eye of childhood,
part literary affectation,

this attention to the morning flower
and later in the day to a fly
strolling along the rim of a wineglass - 

are we just avoiding the one true destiny,
when we do that? Averting our eyes from
Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker's coat?

The leafless branches against the sky
will not save anyone from the infinity of death,
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 wild flowers along the roadside

when we should be all 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 drop running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap spinning around the bathtub

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

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


My Number

Is Death miles away from this house,
reaching for a widow in Cincinnati
or breathing down the neck of a lost hiker
in British Columbia?

Is he too busy making arrangements,
tampering with air brakes,
scattering cancer cells like seeds,
loosening the wooden beams of roller-coasters

to bother with my hidden cottage
that visitors find so hard to find?

Or is he stepping from a black car
parked at the dark end of the lane,
shaking open the familiar cloak,
its hood raised like the head of a crow
and removing the scythe from the trunk?

Did you have any trouble with the directions?
I will ask, as I start talking my way out of this.

(He also has a lovely sly sense of humour.)

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