What do you think of my new glasses
I asked as I stood under a shade tree
before the joined grave of my parents,
and what followed was a long silence
that descended on the rows of the dead
and on the fields and the woods beyond,
one of the one hundred kinds of silence
according to the Chinese belief,
each one distinct from the others,
and the differences being so faint
that only a few special monks
were able to tell one from another.
They make you look very scholarly,
I heard my mother say
once I lay down on the ground
and pressed an ear into the soft grass.
Then I rolled over and pressed
my other ear to the ground,
the ear my father likes to speak into,
but he would say nothing,
and I could not find a silence
among the 100 Chinese silences
that would fit the one that he created
even though I was the one
who had just made up the business
of the 100 Chinese silences—
the Silence of the Night Boat
and the Silence of the Lotus,
cousin to the Silence of the Temple Bell
only deeper and softer, like petals, at its farthest edges.
Even as a boy I was a straightener.
On a long table near my window
I kept a lantern, a spyglass, and my tomahawk.
Never tomahawk, lantern, and spyglass.
Always lantern, spyglass, tomahawk.
You could never tell when you would need them,
but that was the order you would need them in.
On my desk: pencils at attention in a cup,
foreign coins stacked by size,
a photograph of my parents,
and under the heavy green blotter,
a note from a girl I was fond of.
These days I like to stack in pyramids
the cans of soup in the pantry
and I keep the white candles in rows like logs of wax.
And if I can avoid doing my taxes
or phoning my talkative aunt
on her eighty-something birthday,
I will use a ruler to measure the space
between the comb and brush on the dresser,
the distance between shakers of salt and pepper.
Today, for example, I will devote my time
to lining up my shoes in the closet,
pair by pair in chronological order
and lining up my shirts on the rack by color
to put off having to tell you, dear,
what I really think and what I now am bound to do.
It was foolish of us to leave our room.
The empty plaza was shimmering.
The clock looked ready to melt.
The heat was a mallet striking a ball
and sending it bouncing into the nettles of summer.
Even the bees had knocked off for the day.
The only thing moving besides us
(and we had since stopped under an awning)
was a squirrel who was darting this way and that
as if he were having second thoughts
about crossing the street,
his head and tail twitching with indecision.
You were looking in a shop window
but I was watching the squirrel
who now rose up on his hind legs,
and after pausing to look in all directions,
began to sing in a beautiful voice
a melancholy aria about life and death,
his forepaws clutched against his chest,
his face full of longing and hope,
as the sun beat down
on the roofs and awnings of the city,
and the earth continued to turn
and hold in position the moon
which would appear later that night
as we sat in a café
and I stood up on the table
with the encouragement of the owner
and sang for you and the others
the song the squirrel had taught me how to sing.
He considers the boulevards ideal for thinking,
so he takes the air on a weekday evening
to best appreciate the crisis of modern life.
I thought I would try this for a while,
but instead of being in Paris, I was in Florida,
so the time-honored sights were not available to me
despite my regimen of aimless strolling—
no kiosks or glass-roofed arcades,
no beggar with a kerchief covering her hair,
no woman holding her hat down as she crossed a street,
no Victor Hugo look-alike scowling in a greatcoat,
no girls selling fruit or sweets from a cart,
no prostitutes circled under a streetlamp,
no solitude of the moving crowd
where I could find the dream of refuge.
I did notice a man looking at his watch
and I reflected briefly on the passage of time,
then I saw two ladies dressed in lime-green and pink
and I pondered the fate of the sister arts,
as they stepped into the street arm in arm.
Who needs Europe? I muttered into my scarf
as a boy flew by on a skateboard
and I fell into a reverie on the folly of youth
and the tender, distressing estrangement of my life.
The only time I found myself at all interested
in the concept of a time machine
was when I first heard that baldness in a man
was traceable to his maternal grandfather.
I pictured myself stepping into the odd craft
with a vial of poison tucked into a pocket
and, just in case, a newly sharpened kitchen knife.
Of course, I had not thought this through very carefully.
But even after I realized the drawback
of eradicating my own existence
not to mention the possible existence of my mother,
I came up with a better reason to travel back in time.
I pictured myself now setting the coordinates
for late 19th century County Waterford, where,
after I had hidden the machine behind a hedge
and located himself, the man I never knew,
we would enjoy several whiskeys and some talk
about the hard times and my strange-looking clothes,
after which, with his permission of course,
I would climb into his lap
and rest my hand on the slope of his head,
that dome, which covered the troubled church of his mind
and was often covered in turn
by the dusty black hat he had earlier hung from a peg in the wall.
It doesn’t take much to remind me
what a mayfly I am,
what a soap bubble floating over the children’s party.
Standing under the bones of a dinosaur
in a museum does the trick every time
or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon.
Even the Church of St. Anne will do,
a structure I just noticed in a magazine—
built in 1722 of sandstone and limestone in the city of Cork.
And the realization that no one
who ever breasted the waters of time
has figured out a way to avoid dying
always pulls me up by the reins and settles me down
by a roadside, grateful for the sweet weeds
and the mouthfuls of colorful wildflowers.
So many reminders of my mortality
here, there, and elsewhere, visible at every hour,
pretty much everything I can think of except you,
sign over the door of this bar in Cocoa Beach
proclaiming that it was established—
though established does not sound right—in 1996.
After we have parted, the boats
will continue to leave the harbor at dawn.
The salmon will struggle up to the pools,
one month following the other on the wall.
The magnolia will flower,
and the bee, the noble bee—
I saw one earlier on my walk—
will shoulder his way into the bud.
I considered myself lucky to notice
on my walk a mouse ducking like a culprit
into an opening in a stone wall,
a bit of fern draped over his disappearance,
for I was a fellow thief
having stolen for myself this hour,
lifting the wedge of it from my daily clock
so I could walk up a wooded hillside
and sit for a while on a rock the size of a car.
Give us this day our daily clock
I started to chant
as I sat on the hood of this Volkswagen of stone,
and give us our daily blood
and our daily patience and some extra patience
until we cannot stand to live any longer.
And there on that granite automobile,
which once moved along
in the monstrous glacial traffic of the ice age
then came to a halt at last on this very spot,
I felt the motion of thought run out to its edges
then the counter motion of its
tightening on a thing small as a mouse
caught darting into a wall of fieldstones
on what once was a farm north of New York,
my wee, timorous mind darting in after him,
escaping the hawk-prowling sunlight
for a shadowy cave of stone
and the comings and goings of mice—
all that scurrying and the secretive brushing of whiskers.
I know the reason you placed nine white tulips
in a glass vase with water
here in this room a few days ago
was not to mark the passage of time
as a fish would have if nailed by the tail
to the wall above the bed of a guest.
But early this morning I did notice
their lowered heads
in the gray light,
two of them even touching the glass
table top near the window,
the blossoms falling open
as they lost their grip on themselves,
and my suitcase only half unpacked by the door.
I don’t want to make too much of this,
but because the bedroom faces east
across a lake here in Florida,
when the sun begins to rise
and reflects off the water,
the whole room is suffused with the kind
of golden light that might travel
at dawn on the summer solstice
the length of a passageway in a megalithic tomb.
Again, I don’t want to exaggerate,
but it reminds me of a brand of light
that could illuminate the walls
of a hidden chamber full of treasure,
pearls and gold coins overflowing the silver platters.
I feel like comparing it to the fire
that Aphrodite lit in the human eye
so as to make it possible for us to perceive
the other three elements,
but the last thing I want to do
is risk losing your confidence
by appearing to lay it on too thick.
Let’s just say that the morning light here
would bring to any person’s mind
the rings of light that Dante
deploys in the final cantos of the Paradiso
to convey the presence of God,
while bringing the Divine Comedy
to a stunning climax and leave it at that.
When the news came in over the phone
that you did not have cancer, as they first thought,
I was in the kitchen trying to follow a recipe,
glancing from cookbook to stove,
shifting my glasses from my nose to my forehead and back,
a recipe, as it turned out, for ratatouille,
a complicated vegetable dish
which you or any other dog would turn up your nose at.
If you had been here, I imagine
you would have been curled up by the door
sleeping with your head resting on your tail.
And after I learned that you were not sick,
everything took on a different look
and appeared to be better than it usually is.
For example (and that’s the first and last time
I will ever use those words in a poem),
I decided I should grate some cheese,
not even knowing if it was right for ratatouille,
and the sight of the cheese grater
with its red handle lying in the drawer
with all the other utensils made me marvel
at how this thing was so perfectly able and ready
to grate cheese just as you with your long smile
and your brown and white coat
are perfectly designed to be the dog you perfectly are.
It was late, of course,
just the two of us still at the table
working on a second bottle of wine
when you speculated that maybe Eve came first
and Adam began as a rib
that leaped out of her side one paradisal afternoon.
Maybe, I remember saying,
because much was possible back then,
and I mentioned the talking snake
and the giraffes sticking their necks out of the ark,
their noses up in the pouring Old Testament rain.
I like a man with a flexible mind, you said then,
lifting your candlelit glass to me
and I raised mine to you and began to wonder
what life would be like as one of your ribs—
to be with you all the time,
riding under your blouse and skin,
caged under the soft weight of your breasts,
your favorite rib, I am assuming,
if you ever bothered to stop and count them
which is just what I did later that night
after you had fallen asleep
and we were fitted tightly back to front,
your long legs against the length of mine,
my fingers doing the crazy numbering that comes of love.
Horoscopes for the Dead
Every morning since you disappeared for good,
I read about you in the newspaper
along with the box scores, the weather, and all the bad news.
Some days I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you,
nor will you be challenged by educational goals,
nor will you need to be circumspect at the workplace.
Another day, I learn that you should not miss
an opportunity to travel and make new friends
though you never cared much about either.
I can’t imagine you ever facing a new problem
with a positive attitude, but you will definitely not
be doing that, or anything like that, on this weekday in March.
And the same goes for the fun
you might have gotten from group activities,
a likelihood attributed to everyone under your sign.
A dramatic rise in income may be a reason
to treat yourself, but that would apply
more to all the Pisces who are still alive,
still swimming up and down the stream of life
or suspended in a pool in the shade of an overhanging tree.
But you will be relieved to learn
that you no longer need to reflect carefully before acting
nor do you have to think more of others,
and never again will creative work take a back seat
to the business responsibilities that you never really had.
And don’t worry today or any day
about problems caused by your unwillingness
to interact rationally with your many associates.
No more goals for you, no more romance,
no more money or children, jobs or important tasks,
but then again, you were never thus encumbered.
So leave it up to me now
to plan carefully for success and the wealth it may bring,
to value the dear ones close to my heart,
and to welcome any intellectual stimulation that comes my way
though that sounds like a lot to get done on a Tuesday.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins. Copyright © 2011 by Billy Collins. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, 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.