Chapter Excerpt

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 wallpaper

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 torch-bearer

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, one-time inhabitants

of what once was your house in the country?


In the club car that morning I had my notebook

open on my lap and my pen uncapped,

looking every inch the writer

right down to the little writer's frown on my face,

but there was nothing to write about

except life and death

and the low warning sound of the train whistle.

I did not want to write about the scenery

that was flashing past, cows spread over a pasture,

hay rolled up meticulously--

things you see once and will never see again.

But I kept my pen moving by drawing

over and over again

the face of a motorcyclist in profile--

for no reason I can think of--

a biker with sunglasses and a weak chin,

leaning forward, helmetless,

his long thin hair trailing behind him in the wind.

I also drew many lines to indicate speed,

to show the air becoming visible

as it broke over the biker's face

the way it was breaking over the face

of the locomotive that was pulling me

toward Omaha and whatever lay beyond Omaha

for me, all the other stops to make

before the time would arrive to stop for good.

We must always look at things

from the point of view of eternity,

the college theologians used to insist,

from which, I imagine, we would all

appear to have speed lines trailing behind us

as we rush along the road of the world,

as we rush down the long tunnel of time--

the biker, of course, drunk on the wind,

but also the man reading by a fire,

speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book,

and the woman standing on a beach

studying the curve of horizon,

even the child asleep on a summer night,

speed lines flying from the posters of her bed,

from the white tips of the pillow cases,

and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body.

"More Than a Woman"

Ever since I woke up today,

a song has been playing uncontrollably

in my head--a tape looping

over the spools of the brain,

a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,

mad fan belt of a tune.

It must have escaped from the radio

last night on the drive home

and tunneled while I slept

from my ears to the center of my cortex.

It is a song so cloying and vapid

I won't even bother mentioning the title,

but on it plays as if I were a turntable

covered with dancing children

and their spooky pantomimes,

as if everything I had ever learned

was being slowly replaced

by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics.

It played while I watered the plants

and continued when I brought in the mail

and fanned out the letters on a table.

It repeated itself when I took a walk

and watched from a bridge

brown leaves floating in the channels of a current.

Late in the afternoon it seemed to fade,

but I heard it again at the restaurant

when I peered in at the lobsters

lying on the bottom of an illuminated

tank which was filled to the brim

with their copious tears.

And now at this dark window

in the middle of the night

I am beginning to think

I could be listening to music of the spheres,

the sound no one ever hears

because it has been playing forever,

only the spheres are colored pool balls,

and the music is oozing from a jukebox

whose lights I can just make out through the clouds.

Aimless Love

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,

I fell in love with a wren

and later in the day with a mouse

the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,

I fell for a seamstress

still at her machine in the tailor's window,

and later for a bowl of broth,

steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,

without recompense, without gifts,

or unkind words, without suspicion,

or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,

the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door--

the love of the miniature orange tree,

the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,

the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor--

just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest

on a low branch overhanging the water

and for the dead mouse,

still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up

in a field on its tripod,

ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail

to a pile of leaves in the woods,

I found myself standing at the bathroom sink

gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,

so at home in its pale green soap dish.

I could feel myself falling again

as I felt its turning in my wet hands

and caught the scent of lavender and stone.


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 salt shaker

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 moves I was making him do

over and over in the sunny field of my palm.

Royal Aristocrat

My old typewriter used to make so much noise

I had to put a cushion of newspaper

beneath it late at night

so as not to wake the whole house.

Even if I closed the study door

and typed a few words at a time--

the best way to work anyway--

the clatter of keys was still so loud

that the gray and yellow bird

would wince in its cage.

Some nights I could even see the moon

frowning down at me through the winter trees.

That was twenty years ago,

yet as I write this with my soft lead pencil

I can still hear that distinctive sound,

like small arms fire across a border,

one burst after another

as my wife turned in her sleep.

I was a single monkey

trying to type the opening lines of my Hamlet,

often doing nothing more

than ironing pieces of paper in the platen

then wrinkling them into balls

to flick into the wicker basket.

Still, at least I was making noise,

adding to the great secretarial din,

that chorus of clacking and bells,

thousands of desks receding into the past.

And that was more than can be said

for the mute rooms of furniture,

the speechless cruets of oil and vinegar,

and the tall silent hedges surrounding the house.

Such deep silence on those nights--

just the sound of my typing

and a few stars singing a song their mother

sang when they were mere babies in the sky.


In the apartment someone gave me,

the bathroom looked out on a little garden

at the bottom of an air shaft

with a few barely sprouting trees,

ivy clinging to the white cinder blocks,

a blue metal table and a rusted chair

where, it would seem, no one had ever sat.

Every morning, a noisy bird

would flutter down between the buildings,

perch on a thin branch and yell at me

in French bird-talk

while I soaked in the tub

under the light from the pale translucent ceiling.

And while he carried on, I would lie there

in the warm soapy water

wondering what shirt I would put on that day,

what zinc-covered bar I would stand at

with my Herald-Tribune and a cup of strong coffee.

After a lot of squawking, he would fly

back into the sky leaving only the sound

of a metal store-front being raised

or a scooter zipping by outside,

which was my signal

to stand up in the cloudy water

and reach for a towel,

time to start concentrating on which way

I would turn after I had locked the front door,

what shop signs I would see,

what bridges I would lean on

to watch the broad river undulating

like a long-playing record under the needle of my eye.

Time to stand dripping wet and wonder

about the hordes of people

I would pass in the street, mostly people

whose existence I did not believe in,

but a few whom I would glance at

and see my whole life

the way you see the ocean from the shore.

One morning after another,

I would fan myself dry with a towel

and wonder about what paintings

I would stand before that day,

looking forward to the usual--

the sumptuous reclining nudes,

the knife next to a wedge of cheese,

a landscape with pale blue mountains,

the heads and shoulders of gods

struggling with one another,

a foot crushing a snake--

but always hopeful for something new

like yesterday's white turkeys in a field

or the single stalk of asparagus on a plate

in a small gilded frame,

always ready, now that I am dressed,

to cheer the boats of the beautiful,

the boats of the strange,

as they float down the river of this momentous day.


It was a pleasure to enter by a side street

in the center of the city

a bathhouse said to be 300 years old,

old enough to have opened the pores of Florence Nightingale

and soaped the musical head of Franz Liszt.

And it was a pleasure to drink

cold wine by a low wood fire

before being directed to a small room in an upper gallery,

a room with a carpet and a narrow bed

where I folded my clothes into a pile

then came back down, naked

except for a gauzy striped cloth tucked around my waist.

It was an odd and eye-opening sensation

to be led by a man with close-cropped hair

and spaces between his teeth

into a steamy marble rotunda

and to lie there alone on the smooth marble

watching the droplets fall through the beams

of natural light in the high dome

and later to hear the song I sang--

"She Thinks I Still Care"--echo up into the ceiling.

I felt like the last of the sultans

when the man returned and began to scrub me--

to lather and douse me, scour and shampoo me,

and splash my drenched body

with fresh warm water scooped from a marble basin.

But it was not until he sudsed me

behind my ears and between my toes

that I felt myself filling with gratitude

the way a cloud fills with rain,

the way a glass pipe slowly fills with smoke.

In silence I thanked the man

who scrubbed the bottoms of my feet.

I thanked the history of the Turkish bath

and the long chain of bathmen standing unshaven,

arms folded, waiting for the next customer

to come through the swinging doors of frosted glass.

I thanked everyone whose job

it ever was to lay hands on the skin of strangers,

and I gave general thanks that I was lying

facedown in a warm puddle of soap

and not a warm puddle of blood

in some corner of this incomprehensible city.

As one bucket after another

of warm water was poured over my lowered head,

I stopped thinking of who and what to thank

and rode out on a boat of joy,

a blue boat of marble and soap,

rode out to the entrance of the harbor

where I raised a finger of good-bye

then felt the boat begin to rise and fall

as it met the roll of the incoming waves,

bearing my body, my clean, blessed body out to sea.


The boy at the far end of the train car

kept looking behind him

as if he were afraid or expecting someone

and then she appeared in the glass door

of the forward car and he rose

and opened the door and let her in

and she entered the car carrying

a large black case

in the unmistakable shape of a cello.

She looked like an angel with a high forehead

and somber eyes and her hair

was tied up behind her neck with a black bow.

And because of all that,

he seemed a little awkward

in his happiness to see her,

whereas she was simply there,

perfectly existing as a creature

with a soft face who played the cello.

And the reason I am writing this

on the back of a manila envelope

now that they have left the train together

is to tell you that when she turned

to lift the large, delicate cello

onto the overhead rack,

I saw him looking up at her

and what she was doing

the way the eyes of saints are painted

when they are looking up at God

when he is doing something remarkable,

something that identifies him as God.


These are no pages for the young,

who are better off in one another's arms,

nor for those who just need to know

about the price of gold,

or a hurricane that is ripping up the Keys.

But eventually you may join

the crowd who turn here first to see

who has fallen in the night,

who has left a shape of air walking in their place.

Here is where the final cards are shown,

the age, the cause, the plaque of deeds,

and sometimes an odd scrap of news--

that she collected sugar bowls,

that he played solitaire without any clothes.

And all the survivors huddle at the end

under the roof of a paragraph

as if they had sidestepped the flame of death.

What better way to place a thin black frame

around the things of the morning--

the hand-painted cup,

the hemispheres of a cut orange,

the slant of sunlight on the table?

And sometimes a most peculiar pair turns up,

strange roommates lying there

side by side upon the page--

Arthur Godfrey next to Man Ray,

Ken Kesey by the side of Dale Evans.

It is enough to bring to mind an ark of death,

not the couples of the animal kingdom,

but rather pairs of men and women

ascending the gangplank two by two,

a surgeon and a model,

a balloonist and a metal worker,

an archeologist and an authority on pain.

Arm-in-arm, they get on board

then join the others leaning on the rails,

all saved at last from the awful flood of life--

so many of them every day

there would have to be many arks,

an armada to ferry the dead

over the heavy waters that roll beyond the world,

and many Noahs too,

bearded and fiercely browed, vigilant up there at every prow.

Excerpted from Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins
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