Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Billy Collins on Death

The First Night
by Billy Collins

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.
Those of you who follow poetry will know that former poet laureate Billy Collins is somewhat of a controversial figure. (Those of you who don't follow poetry may not know who he is.) Collins' work is more transparent than that of most laudable poets. Critics say it lacks depth and the structural legs to stand the test of time. Supporters of his work say he makes it look easy because of his great skill, and he should not be faulted for having poems that are a pleasure to read.

However you feel about his work, I'm drawn to the depiction of death he creates here—inspired by a quote from Juan Ramón Jiménez

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