It’s hard to describe how that day in the park
was altered when I stopped to read
an official sign I came across near the great carousel,
my lips moving silently like the lips of Saint Ambrose.
As the carousel turned in the background,
all pinions and mirrors and the heads of horses
rising to the steam-blown notes of a calliope,
I was learning how the huge thing
was first designed to be powered
by a blind mule, as it turned out,
strapped to the oar of a wheel in an earthen
room directly below the merry turning of the carousel.
The sky did not darken with this news
nor did a general silence fall on the strollers
or the ball players on the green fields.
No one even paused to look my way,
though I must have looked terrible
as I stood there filling with sympathy
not so much for the harnessed beast
tediously making its rounds,
but instead of the blind mule within me
always circling in the dark —
the mule who makes me turn when my name is called
or causes me to nod with a wooden gaze
or sit doing nothing on a bench in the shape of a swan.
Somewhere, there must still be a door
to that underground room,
the lock rusted shut, the iron key misplaced,
last year’s leaves piled up against the sill,
and inside, a trance of straw on the floor,
a whiff of manure, and maybe a forgotten bit
or a bridle hanging from a hook in the dark.
Poor blind beast, I sang softly as I left the park,
poor blind me, poor blind earth turning blindly on its side.
The First Night
The worst thing about death must be
the first night.
—Juan Ramón Jiménez
Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,
but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set
then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,
a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.
This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.
The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.
Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me
into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,
and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.
Billy Collins is the author of 12 books of poetry: Pokerface, Kenmore Press, 1977; Video Poems, Applezaba, 1980; The Apple That Astonished Paris, University of Arkansas, 1988; Questions About Angels, University of Arkansas, 1991; The Art of Drowning, University of Pittsburgh, 1995; Picnic, Lightning, University of Pittsburgh, 1998; Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems, Random House, 2001; Nine Horses, Random House, 2002; The Trouble with Poetry, Random House, 2005; Ballistics: Poems, Random House, 2008; Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems, Random House, 2012; and Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, Random House, 2013.
His poems have been published in various periodicals such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Boulevard, Harper’s, Paris Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tri-Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. Among many of his recognitions, awards and honors, Collins also served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003 and as the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006.