Some Days – Billy Collins

Some days I put the people in their places at the table, 

bend their legs at the knees, 

if they come with that feature, 

and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs. 
All afternoon they face one another, 

the man in the brown suit, 

the woman in the blue dress, 

perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved. 
But other days, I am the one 

who is lifted up by the ribs, 

then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse 

to sit with the others at the long table. 
Very funny, 

but how would you like it 

if you never knew from one day to the next 

if you were going to spend it 
striding around like a vivid god, 

your shoulders in the clouds, 

or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper, 

staring straight ahead with your little plastic face?

The Best Cigarette – Billy Collins

There are many that I miss 

having sent my last one out a car window 

sparking along the road one night, years ago. 
The heralded one, of course: 

after sex, the two glowing tips 

now the lights of a single ship; 

at the end of a long dinner 

with more wine to come 

and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier; 

or on a white beach, 

holding one with fingers still wet from a swim. 
How bittersweet these punctuations 

of flame and gesture; 

but the best were on those mornings 

when I would have a little something going 

in the typewriter, 

the sun bright in the windows, 

maybe some Berlioz on in the background. 

I would go into the kitchen for coffee 

and on the way back to the page, 

curled in its roller, 

I would light one up and feel 

its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee. 
Then I would be my own locomotive, 

trailing behind me as I returned to work 

little puffs of smoke, 

indicators of progress, 

signs of industry and thought, 

the signal that told the nineteenth century 

it was moving forward. 

That was the best cigarette, 

when I would steam into the study 

full of vaporous hope 

and stand there, 

the big headlamp of my face 

pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

The First Night – Billy Collins

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.

Walking Across The Atlantic – Billy Collins

I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach 

before stepping onto the first wave. 
Soon I am walking across the Atlantic 

thinking about Spain, 

checking for whales, waterspouts. 

I feel the water holding up my shifting weight. 

Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface. 
But for now I try to imagine what 

this must look like to the fish below, 

the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

Workshop – Billy Collins

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.

It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now 

so immediately the poem has my attention, 

like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve. 
And I like the first couple of stanzas, 

the way they establish this mode of self-pointing 

that runs through the whole poem 

and tells us that words are food thrown down 

on the ground for other words to eat. 

I can almost taste the tail of the snake 

in its own mouth, 

if you know what I mean. 
But what I’m not sure about is the voice, 

which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans, 

but other times seems standoffish, 

professorial in the worst sense of the word 

like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face. 

But maybe that’s just what it wants to do. 
What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas, 

especially the fourth one. 

I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges 

which gives me a very clear picture. 

And I really like how this drawbridge operator 

just appears out of the blue 

with his feet up on the iron railing 

and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging— 

a hook in the slow industrial canal below. 

I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s. 
Maybe it’s just me, 

but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem. 

I mean how can the evening bump into the stars? 

And what’s an obbligato of snow? 

Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets. 

At that point I’m lost. I need help. 
The other thing that throws me off, 

and maybe this is just me, 

is the way the scene keeps shifting around. 

First, we’re in this big aerodrome 

and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles, 

which makes me think this could be a dream. 

Then he takes us into his garden, 

the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose, 

though that’s nice, the coiling hose, 

but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be. 

The rain and the mint green light, 

that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper? 

Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery? 

There’s something about death going on here. 
In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here 

is really two poems, or three, or four, 

or possibly none. 
But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite. 

This is where the poem wins me back, 

especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse. 

I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,

but I still love the details he uses 

when he’s describing where he lives. 

The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard, 

the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can, 

the spool of thread for a table. 

I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work 

night after night collecting all these things 

while the people in the house were fast asleep, 

and that gives me a very strong feeling, 

a very powerful sense of something. 

But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that. 

Maybe that was just me. 

Maybe that’s just the way I read it.