Billy Collins

Top 10

#1 Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses good-bye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how
to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

from Questions About Angels (1991)

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#2 The Country

I wondered about you
when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice

might get into them and start a fire.
But your face was absolutely straight
when you twisted the lid down on the round tin
where the matches, you said, are always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?
Who could whisk away the thought
of the one unlikely mouse
padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wall paper
gripping a single wooden match
between the needles of his teeth?
Who could not see him rounding a corner,

the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam,
the sudden flare, and the creature
for one bright, shining moment
suddenly thrust ahead of his time -

now a fire-starter, now a torchbearer
in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid
illuminating some ancient night.
Who could fail to notice,

lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice, onetime inhabitants
of what once was your house in the country?

from Nine Horses (2002)

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#3 Earthling

You have probably come across
those scales in planetariums
that tell you how much you
would weigh on other planets.

You have noticed the fat ones
lingering on the Mars scale
and the emaciated slowing up
the line for Neptune.

As a creature of average weight,
I fail to see the attraction.

Imagine squatting in the wasteland
of Pluto, all five tons of you,
or wandering around Mercury
wondering what to do next with your ounce.

How much better to step onto
the simple bathroom scale,
a happy earthling feeling
the familiar ropes of gravity,

157 pounds standing soaking wet
a respectful distance from the sun.

from The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988)

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#4 Serpentine

This morning I saw suddenly
on the road ahead of me
the moving question mark of a snake,
black thumb of a head lifted,
some ancient node within the dark hood
urging the long thin body forward,
sensing its way
through its slippery existence
as it had been doing since birth,
slithering toward our moment of intersection,
its swishing passage no longer hidden by grass
or the wet cover of leaves,
but its entire length visible now
in the pure daylight of this dilated second,

just as I had been moving toward it, too,
all my life,
in my own upright, warm-blooded way,
walking the long sidewalks, riding trains,
leaning on the railing of a ferry,
or, as today, driving a country road,
which from the air would look like a snake itself
curling through the dense green woods.

No moment was given there
spacious enough
to brake or swerve within,
only time enough to keep my line,
hoping without hope,
knowing, as I needled through the instant,
that the two of us had always been meant to meet here,

my curved line crossing his
as on some unknowable graph
spread out on a vast table
under the glare of a hanging lamp -
a relentless diagram,
millions of faint red lines
forming millions of tiny squares.

from Picnic, Lightning (1998)

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#5 Flames

Smokey the Bear heads
into the autumn woods
with a red can of gasoline
and a box of wooden matches

His ranger's hat is cocked
at a disturbing angle.

His brown fur gleams
under the high sun
as his paws, the size
of catcher's mitts,
crackle into the distance.

He is sick of dispensing
warnings to the careless,
the half-wit camper,
the dumbbell hiker.

He is going to show them
how a professional does it.

from The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988)

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#6 Absence

This morning as low clouds
skidded over the spires of the city

I found next to a bench
in a park an ivory chess piece -

the white knight as it turned out -
and in the pigeon-ruffling wind

I wondered where all the others were,
lined up somewhere

on their red and black squares,
many of them feeling uneasy

about the saltshaker
that was taking his place,

and all of them secretly longing
for the moment

when the white horse
would reappear out of nowhere

and advance toward the board
with his distinctive motion,

stepping forward, then sideways
before advancing again -

the same move I was making him do
over and over in the sunny field of my palm.

from Nine Horses (2002)

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#7 The Introduction

I don't think this next poem
needs any introduction -
it's best to let the work speak for itself.

Maybe I should just mention
that whenever I use the word five,
I'm referring to that group of Russian composers
who came to be known as "The Five,"
Balakirev, Moussorgsky, Borodin - that crowd.

Oh - and Hysicles was a Greek astronomer.
He did something with the circle.

That's about it, but for the record,
"Grimke" is Angelina Emily Grimke, the abolitionist.
"Imroz" is that little island near the Dardanelles.
"Monad" - well, you all know what a monad is.

There could be a little problem
with mastaba, which is one of those Egyptian
above-ground sepulchers, sort of brick and limestone.

And you're all familiar with helminthology?
It's the science of worms.

Oh, and you will recall that Phoebe Mozee
is the real name of Annie Oakley.

Other than that, everything should be obvious.
Wagga Wagga is in New south Wales.
Rhyolite is that soft volcanic rock.
What else?
Yes, meranti is a type of timber, in tropical Asia I think,
and Rahway is just Rahway, New Jersey.

The rest of the poem should be clear.
I'll just read it and let it speak for itself.

It's about the time I went picking wild strawberries.

It's called "Picking Wild Strawberries."

from The Trouble With Poetry (2005)

(creativity)(Plagiarizing Billy Collins, Mostly)

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#8 The Lesson

In the morning when I found History
snoring heavily on the couch,
I took down his overcoat from the rack
and placed its weight over my shoulder blades.

It would protect me on the cold walk
into the village for milk and the paper
and I figured he would not mind,
not after our long conversation the night before.

How unexpected his blustering anger
when I returned covered with icicles,
the way he rummaged through the huge pockets
making sure no major battle or English queen
had fallen out and become lost in the deep snow.

from the Apple That Astonished Paris (1988)

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#9 I Go Back to the House for a Book


I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor's office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,

another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,

a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me -
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.

Sometimes I think I see him
a few people in front of me on a line
or getting up from a table
to leave the restaurant just before I do,
slipping into his coat on the way out the door.

But there is no catching him,
no way to slow him down
and put us back in sync,
unless one day he decides to go back
to the house for something,

but I cannot imagine
for the life of me what that might be.
He is out there always before me,
blazing my trail, invisible scout,
hound that pulls me along,

Shade I am doomed to follow,
my perfect double,
only bumped an inch into the future,
and not nearly as well-versed as I
in the love poems of Ovid -

I who went back to the house
that fateful winter morning and got the book.

from Picnic, Lightning (1998)

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#10 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.

from The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988)




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