Poem of the Week

December 1st

by Billy Collins

Today is my mother’s birthday,
but she’s not here to celebrate
by opening a flowery card
or looking calmly out a window.

If my mother were alive,
she’d be 114 years old,
and I am guessing neither of us
would be enjoying her birthday very much.

Mother, I would love to see you again
to take you shopping or to sit
in your sunny apartment with a pot of tea,
but it wouldn’t be the same at 114.

And I’m no prize either,
almost 20 years older than the last time
you saw me sitting by your deathbed.
Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal.

Happy Birthday, anyway. Happy Birthday to you.
Here I am in a wallpapered room
raising a glass of birthday whiskey
and picturing your face, the brooch on your collar.

It must have been frigid that morning
in the hour just before dawn
on your first December 1st
at the family farm a hundred miles north of Toronto.

I imagine they had you wrapped up tight,
and there was your tiny pink face
sticking out of the bunting,
and all those McIsaacs getting used to saying your name.

 

Poem of the Week

Candle Hat

By Billy Collins

In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrant looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.

“Come in, ” he would say, “I was just painting myself,”
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

Poem of the Week

The BluesM

by Billy Collins
Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.

Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn’t even stop to say good-bye.
But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent and beseeching key,
people will not only listen;
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation
by that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar
and turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you’re a hard-hearted man
but that woman’s sure going to make you cry.

“The Blues” by Billy Collins from Sailing Alone Around the Room. © Random House, 2002.