Thursday, November 24, 2016

billy collins is what i am not

I have always wanted to be a poet.

To be the type of writer who could condense complexity into a few brief syllables. To capture philosophical ether in a bell jar.

To be frank, though, what I really want is to present my poetry at readings. I already have the outfit. Gray tweed jacket. Checked shirt in muted tones. Khaki Dockers. A cross between a history professor at a small midwestern college and a frustrated frat boy.

I have even tried my hand at the craft. Initially with sentimental rhymes in praise of my grandmother. The type of verse that never escapes the orbit of doggerel. Erato never smiled on me.

My other grandmother was a published poet. So, I come by the desire honestly.

I never knew her. She was the eldest of four sisters and one brother. My father's mother.

What I have been able to piece together from family lore and whispers is a tale that would suit any southern gothic writer. The cover story is that she was infected with encephalitis by a tsetse fly that had made its way from the wilds of Africa to Coos County in a box of bananas.

What I do know is that she died in the Oregon State Hospital. In the 1940s, it was where people were sent when they went nuts. Her poetry must have percolated through a fevered mind. And it may explain some of my darker depressive moods.

But that is not the type of poet I want to be. As I said, I want to give readings. And, even though you will need to imagine me dressed in my poetic garb, I can provide you with what I would read if we were all gathered together in some dimly-lit independent book store that makes most of its profit selling herbal teas and fuzzy kitten greeting cards.

I would read three poems. Since I tend to be the type of reader who extols the beauty of poetry, but the skips over the poetry sections in Lord of the Rings, I have no works of my own to read. Instead, I would read selections from my current contemporary poet -- Billy Collins.

I just completed his latest collection of poems: The Rain in Portugal. As always, the book is filled with memorable poems. Buy the book. You will enjoy it.

I have picked two of his better poems for this reading.

The first poem:


"The morning is expected to be cool and foggy." -- Wislawa Szymborska "The Day After -- Without Us."

Imagining what the weather will be like
on the day following your death
has a place on that list of things

that distinguish us from animals
as if walking around on two legs
laughing to ourselves were not enough to close the case.

In these forecasts, it's usually raining,
the way it would be in the movies.

but it could be sparkling clear
or grey and still with snow expected in the afternoon.

Much will continue to occur after I die
seems to be the message here,
The rose will nod its red or yellow head.
Sunbeams will break into the gloomy woods.

And that's what was on my mind
as I drove through a gauntlet of signs
on a road that passed through a small town in Ohio.

Bob's Transmissions,
The Hairport, The Bountiful Buffet,
Reggie's Bike Shop, Balloon Designs by Pauline,
and Majestic China Garden to name a few.

When I realized that all these places
could still be in business on the day after I die,
I vowed to drink more water,
to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables,
and to start going to the gym I never go to

if only to outlive
Balloon Designs by Pauline
and maybe even Pauline herself
though it would be enough if she simply
lost the business and left town for good.

And, here I would pause. Just long enough -- perhaps a five count -- to gather myself for the second poem:

One Leg of the Journey

From the back seat of an old Toyota
on a breakneck rush to the Mexico City airport
out of the city of Puebla to the southeast,

I could see in the rear-view mirror
the clenched face of the driver
as he pushed the car to 90 then 95 miles an hour.

The sun had yet to show its face
but already thin clouds were turning yellow.
and I was tired of thinking about death

in a country with its own day of the dead
featuring skeletons on horseback,
skeletons playing the trombone,

even bride and groom skeletons,
so I closed my eyes instead and pictured
a turtle climbing onto a log to sun herself there,

motionless and nearly invisible,
while the river flowed bubbling
around her on its journey to the east.

I was tempted to add some baby turtles
to form a kind of family,
but I decided to leave well enough alone.

Before too long, we ran into
the evacuation-scale traffic of the city
and inched along through the vendors

with their bottles of water and pink toys
and pinwheels that twirled in the wind,
until we pulled up to a curb at the airport

where we all parted company --
the driver heading back to Puebla,
me looking for the number of my gate,

and the turtle poking out her head
then sliding off the log and disappearing
into the less troubled waters by the shore.

Once the appreciative chuckles had died down, I would then share a poem that I often thought about while Barco lived here. I had even considered including it in his eulogy. But the time was not right.

It is now.

The Revenant

I am the dog you put to sleep,
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never like you -- not even one bit.

When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap up and unman you with one snap.

I resented the way you moved,
your lack of animal grace,
the way you would sit in a chair to eat,
a napkin in your lap, knife in your hand.

I would have run away,
but I was too weak, a trick you taught me
while I was learning to sit and heel,
and -- greatest of insults -- shake hands without a hand.

I admit the sight of the leash
would excite me
but only because it meant I was about
to smell things you had never touched.

You do not want to believe this,
but I have no reason to lie.
I hated the car, the rubber toys,
disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.

The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
You always scratched me in the wrong place.
All I ever wanted from you
was food and fresh water in my metal bowls.

While you slept, I watched you breathe
as the moon rose in the sky.
It took all of my strength
not to raise my head and howl.

Now I am free of the collar,
the yellow raincoat, the monogrammed sweater,
the absurdity of your lawn,
and that is all you need to know about this place

except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner --
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.

I would then thank you all for listening so politely and patiently. And I would profusely thank Billy Collins for the poems I love, but could not possibly have written.

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