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.
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.
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 by Billy Collins. Copyright © 2013 by Billy Collins. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.