Poem – The First Dreams

The Wind is ghosting around the house tonight
and as I lean against the door of sleep
I begin to think about the first person to dream,
how quiet he must have seemed the next morning

as the others stood around the fire
draped in the skins of animals
talking to each other only in vowels,
for this was long before the invention of consonants.

He might have gone off by himself to sit
on a rock and look into the mist of a lake
as he tried to tell himself what had happened,
how he had gone somewhere without going,

how he had put his arms around the neck
of a beast that the others could touch
only after they had killed it with stones,
how he felt its breath on his bare neck.

Then again, the first dream could have come
to a woman, though she would behave,
I suppose, much the same way,
moving off by herself to be alone near water,

except that the curve of her young shoulders
and the tilt of her downcast head
would make her appear to be terribly alone,
and if you were there to notice this,

you might have gone down as the first person
to ever fall in love with the sadness of another.

Poem – Consolation

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hill towns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes or famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon’s
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.

How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyes camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?

Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.

And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car

as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.

Poem – Neither Snow

When all of a sudden the city air filled with snow,
the distinguishable flakes
blowing sideways,
looked like krill
fleeing the maw of an advancing whale.

At least they looked that way to me
from the taxi window,
and since I happened to be sitting
that fading Sunday afternoon
in the very center of the universe,
who was in a better position
to say what looked like what,
which thing resembled some other?

Yes, it was a run of white plankton
borne down the Avenue of the Americas
in the stream of the wind,
phosphorescent against the weighty buildings.

Which made the taxi itself,
yellow and slow-moving,
a kind of undersea creature,
I thought as I wiped the fog from the glass,

and me one of its protruding eyes,
an eye on a stem
swiveling this way and that
monitoring one side of its world,
observing tons of water
tons of people
colored signs and lights
and now a wildly blowing race of snow.

Poem – Embrace

You know the parlor trick.
wrap your arms around your own body
and from the back it looks like
someone is embracing you
her hands grasping your shirt
her fingernails teasing your neck
from the front it is another story
you never looked so alone
your crossed elbows and screwy grin
you could be waiting for a tailor
to fit you with a straight jacket
one that would hold you really tight.

Poem – Candle Hat

In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrant looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
“Come in, ” he would say, “I was just painting myself,”
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

Poem – Madmen

They say you can jinx a poem
if you talk about it before it is done.
If you let it out too early, they warn,
your poem will fly away,
and this time they are absolutely right.

Take the night I mentioned to you
I wanted to write about the madmen,
as the newspapers so blithely call them,
who attack art, not in reviews,
but with breadknives and hammers
in the quiet museums of Prague and Amsterdam.

Actually, they are the real artists,
you said, spinning the ice in your glass.
The screwdriver is their brush.
The real vandals are the restorers,
you went on, slowly turning me upside-down,
the ones in the white doctor’s smocks
who close the wound in the landscape,
and thus ruin the true art of the mad.

I watched my poem fly down to the front
of the bar and hover there
until the next customer walked in–
then I watched it fly out the open door into the night
and sail away, I could only imagine,
over the dark tenements of the city.

All I had wished to say
was that art was also short,
as a razor can teach with a slash or two,
that it only seems long compared to life,
but that night, I drove home alone
with nothing swinging in the cage of my heart
except the faint hope that I might
catch a glimpse of the thing
in the fan of my headlights,
maybe perched on a road sign or a street lamp,
poor unwritten bird, its wings folded,
staring down at me with tiny illuminated eyes.

Poem – The Iron Bridge

I am standing on a disused iron bridge
that was erected in 1902,
according to the iron plaque bolted into a beam,
the year my mother turned one.
Imagine–a mother in her infancy,
and she was a Canadian infant at that,
one of the great infants of the province of Ontario.

But here I am leaning on the rusted railing
looking at the water below,
which is flat and reflective this morning,
sky-blue and streaked with high clouds,
and the more I look at the water,
which is like a talking picture,
the more I think of 1902
when workmen in shirts and caps
riveted this iron bridge together
across a thin channel joining two lakes
where wildflowers blow along the shore now
and pairs of swans float in the leafy coves.

1902–my mother was so tiny
she could have fit into one of those oval
baskets for holding apples,
which her mother could have lined with a soft cloth
and placed on the kitchen table
so she could keep an eye on infant Katherine
while she scrubbed potatoes or shelled a bag of peas,

the way I am keeping an eye on that cormorant
who just broke the glassy surface
and is moving away from me and the iron bridge,
swiveling his curious head,
slipping out to where the sun rakes the water
and filters through the trees that crowd the shore.

And now he dives,
disappears below the surface,
and while I wait for him to pop up,
I picture him flying underwater with his strange wings,

as I picture you, my tiny mother,
who disappeared last year,
flying somewhere with your strange wings,
your wide eyes, and your heavy wet dress,
kicking deeper down into a lake
with no end or name, some boundless province of water.

Poem – The Names

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.

A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,

And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,

I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,

Then Baxter and Calabro,

Davis and Eberling, names falling into place

As droplets fell through the dark.

Names printed on the ceiling of the night.

Names slipping around a watery bend.

Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.

In the morning, I walked out barefoot

Among thousands of flowers

Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,

And each had a name —

Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal

Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.

Names written in the air

And stitched into the cloth of the day.

A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.

Monogram on a torn shirt,

I see you spelled out on storefront windows

And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.

I say the syllables as I turn a corner —

Kelly and Lee,

Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.

When I peer into the woods,

I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden

As in a puzzle concocted for children.

Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,

Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,

Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.

Names written in the pale sky.

Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.

Names silent in stone

Or cried out behind a door.

Names blown over the earth and out to sea.

In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.

A boy on a lake lifts his oars.

A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,

And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —

Vanacore and Wallace,

(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)

Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.

Names etched on the head of a pin.

One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.

A blue name needled into the skin.

Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,

The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.

Alphabet of names in a green field.

Names in the small tracks of birds.

Names lifted from a hat

Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.

Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.

So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

Poem – Night Golf

I remember the night I discovered,
lying in bed in the dark,
that a few imagined holes of golf
worked much better than a thousand sheep,

that the local links,
not the cloudy pasture with its easy fence,
was the greener path to sleep.

How soothing to stroll the shadowy fairways,
to skirt the moon-blanched bunkers
and hear the night owl in the woods.

Who cared about the score
when the club swung with the ease of air
and I glided from shot to shot
over the mown and rolling ground,
alone and drowsy with my weightless bag?

Eighteen small cups punched into the

bristling grass,
eighteen flags limp on their sticks
in the silent, windless dark,

but in the bedroom with its luminous clock
and propped-open windows,
I got only as far as the seventh hole
before I drifted easily away –

the difficult seventh, ‘The Tester’ they called it,
where, just as on the earlier holes,
I tapped in, dreamily, for birdie.

Poem – Silence

There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.

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.

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.

Poem – Man in Space – Billy Collins

All you have to do is listen to the way a man sometimes talks to his wife at a table of people 

and notice how intent he is on making his point 

even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver, 
and you will know why the women in science 

fiction movies who inhabit a planet of their own 

are not pictured making a salad or reading a magazine 

when the men from earth arrive in their rocket, 
why they are always standing in a semicircle 

with their arms folded, their bare legs set apart, 

their breasts protected by hard metal disks.

Poem – Japan – Billy Collins

Today I pass the time reading 

a favorite haiku, 

saying the few words over and over. 
It feels like eating 

the same small, perfect grape 

again and again. 
I walk through the house reciting it 

and leave its letters falling 

through the air of every room. 
I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it. 

I say it in front of a painting of the sea. 

I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf. 
I listen to myself saying it, 

then I say it without listening, 

then I hear it without saying it. 
And when the dog looks up at me, 

I kneel down on the floor 

and whisper it into each of his long white ears. 
It’s the one about the one-ton temple bell 

with the moth sleeping on its surface, 
and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating 

pressure of the moth 

on the surface of the iron bell. 
When I say it at the window, 

the bell is the world 

and I am the moth resting there. 
When I say it at the mirror, 

I am the heavy bell 

and the moth is life with its papery wings. 
And later, when I say it to you in the dark, 

you are the bell, 

and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you, 
and the moth has flown 

from its line 

and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.

Poem – Nightclub – Billy Collins

You are so beautiful and I am a fool to be in love with you 

is a theme that keeps coming up 

in songs and poems. 

There seems to be no room for variation. 

I have never heard anyone sing 

I am so beautiful 

and you are a fool to be in love with me, 

even though this notion has surely 

crossed the minds of women and men alike. 

You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool 

is another one you don’t hear. 

Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful. 

That one you will never hear, guaranteed. 
For no particular reason this afternoon 

I am listening to Johnny Hartman 

whose dark voice can curl around 

the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness 

like no one else’s can. 

It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette 

someone left burning on a baby grand piano 

around three o’clock in the morning; 

smoke that billows up into the bright lights 

while out there in the darkness 

some of the beautiful fools have gathered 

around little tables to listen, 

some with their eyes closed, 

others leaning forward into the music 

as if it were holding them up, 

or twirling the loose ice in a glass, 

slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream. 
Yes, there is all this foolish beauty, 

borne beyond midnight, 

that has no desire to go home, 

especially now when everyone in the room 

is watching the large man with the tenor sax 

that hangs from his neck like a golden fish. 

He moves forward to the edge of the stage 

and hands the instrument down to me 

and nods that I should play. 

So I put the mouthpiece to my lips 

and blow into it with all my living breath. 

We are all so foolish, 

my long bebop solo begins by saying, 

so damn foolish 

we have become beautiful without even knowing it.