Geography Lesson – Brian Patten

Our teacher told us one day he would leave 

And sail across a warm blue sea 

To places he had only known from maps, 

And all his life had longed to be. 

The house he lived in was narrow and grey 

But in his mind’s eye he could see 

Sweet-scented jasmine clinging to the walls, 

And green leaves burning on an orange tree. 

He spoke of the lands he longed to visit, 

Where it was never drab or cold. 

I couldn’t understand why he never left, 

And shook off the school’s stranglehold. 

Then halfway through his final term 

He took ill and never returned, 

And he never got to that place on the map 

Where the green leaves of the orange trees burned. 

The maps were redrawn on the classroom wall; 

His name was forgotten, it faded away. 

But a lesson he never knew he taught 

Is with me to this day. 

I travel to where the green leaves burn 

To where the ocean’s glass-clear and blue, 

To all those places my teacher taught me to love 

But which he never knew.

The Newcomer – Brian Patten

‘There’s something new in the river,’ 

The fish said as it swam. 

‘It’s got no scales, no fins and no gills, 

And ignores the impassable dam.’ 
‘There’s something new in the trees.’ 

I heard a bloated thrush sing. 

‘It’s got no beak, no claws, and no feathers, 

And not even the ghost of a wing.’ 
‘There’s something new in the warren,’ 

Said the rabbit to the doe. 

‘It’s got no fur, no eyes and no paws, 

Yet digs further than we dare go.’ 
‘There’s something new in the whiteness,’ 

Said the snow-bright polar bear. 

‘I saw its shadow on a glacier, 

But it left no pawmarks there.’ 
Through the animal kingdom 

The news was spreading fast. 

No beak, no claws, no feather, 

No scales, no fur, no gills, 

It lives in the trees and the water, 

In the soil and the snow and the hills, 

And it kills and it kills and it kills.

Shoveling Snow With Buddha – Billy Collins

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok

you would never see him doing such a thing, 

tossing the dry snow over a mountain 

of his bare, round shoulder, 

his hair tied in a knot, 

a model of concentration. 
Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word 

for what he does, or does not do. 
Even the season is wrong for him. 

In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid? 

Is this not implied by his serene expression, 

that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe? 
But here we are, working our way down the driveway, 

one shovelful at a time. 

We toss the light powder into the clear air. 

We feel the cold mist on our faces. 

And with every heave we disappear 

and become lost to each other 

in these sudden clouds of our own making, 

these fountain-bursts of snow. 
This is so much better than a sermon in church, 

I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling. 

This is the true religion, the religion of snow, 

and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky, 

I say, but he is too busy to hear me. 
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow 

as if it were the purpose of existence, 

as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway 

you could back the car down easily 

and drive off into the vanities of the world 

with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio. 
All morning long we work side by side, 

me with my commentary 

and he inside his generous pocket of silence, 

until the hour is nearly noon 

and the snow is piled high all around us; 

then, I hear him speak. 
After this, he asks, 

can we go inside and play cards? 
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk 

and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table 

while you shuffle the deck. 

and our boots stand dripping by the door. 
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes 

and leaning for a moment on his shovel 

before he drives the thin blade again 

deep into the glittering white snow.

Snow Day – Billy Collins

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow, 

its white flag waving over everything, 

the landscape vanished, 

not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness, 

and beyond these windows 
the government buildings smothered, 

schools and libraries buried, the post office lost 

under the noiseless drift, 

the paths of trains softly blocked, 

the world fallen under this falling. 
In a while I will put on some boots 

and step out like someone walking in water, 

and the dog will porpoise through the drifts, 

and I will shake a laden branch, 

sending a cold shower down on us both. 
But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house, 

a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow. 

I will make a pot of tea 

and listen to the plastic radio on the counter, 

as glad as anyone to hear the news 
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed, 

the Ding-Dong School, closed, 

the All Aboard Children’s School, closed, 

the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed, 

along with – some will be delighted to hear – 
the Toadstool School, the Little School, 

Little Sparrows Nursery School, 

Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School, 

the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed, 

and – clap your hands – the Peanuts Play School. 
So this is where the children hide all day, 

These are the nests where they letter and draw, 

where they put on their bright miniature jackets, 

all darting and climbing and sliding, 

all but the few girls whispering by the fence. 
And now I am listening hard 

in the grandiose silence of the snow, 

trying to hear what those three girls are plotting, 

what riot is afoot, 

which small queen is about to be brought down.

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.