Posts Tagged ‘Billy Collins’

tulip hyacinth leaves spring

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.


I love Collins’ work, but had forgotten about this poem until my friend Louisa shared it at our book club last fall. Now that we are into spring (however fitful and rainy), it feels like the perfect time to share these lines with you.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry on Fridays here this month.



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billy collins books poetry

Questions About Angels

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

—Billy Collins

I love Collins’ luminous, whimsical poetry (witness my stack of his books, above). My favorite part of this poem is the image of that one lone, willowy angel, dancing alone in her stocking feet as the indigo night sky stretches overhead and the bassist checks his watch.

April is National Poetry Month, and I have been sharing poetry here on Fridays – I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

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boston common cherry blossoms

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.

—Billy Collins

(Sometimes I take this poem literally – I do everything else before sitting down to write. And sometimes I shake my head and smile at Collins’ tongue-in-cheek humor, grab a pen and start scribbling even though there is dust on the dining-room floor and dishes in the sink.)

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Troubling a Star, Madeleine L’Engle
I’d been saving this last book in the Austin series – and it was the perfect read for a warm, lazy Saturday. I curled up on the couch and read all about Vicky Austin’s trip to Antarctica. Not my favorite of the Austin books, but a good ending to the series, and a fun adventure for a character of whom I’ve grown fond.

Horoscopes for the Dead, Billy Collins
I took my time with Collins’ new collection, dipping into it before bed for several weeks. His sly, witty, thoughtful gift with words is still present; there are some gems here. I love him because he makes my husband laugh – and makes me laugh – and then makes me pause and reflect on life’s quiet beauty, found in the little everyday moments.

The Moffat Museum, Eleanor Estes
This last Moffat book was a treat – who else would think of making a museum out of the old barn in their backyard, complete with stardust, a rusted brown bike and Rufus the Waxworks Boy? Jane and Rufus are in fine form, loving childhood as much as they ever did – but Sylvie and Joey are growing up, which gives the book a tinge of poignancy. Sylvie’s wedding is lovely, but it was Joey getting his working papers and leaving school that choked me up. And the ending is just perfect.

Loose Diamonds…and other things I’ve lost and found along the way, Amy Ephron
A lighthearted, frothy, sometimes random collection of essays about life in L.A., motherhood, marriage, and occasionally jewelry. Ephron often hides behind her cynicism, but I prefer her writing when it’s honest and a bit nostalgic. To review for the Shelf.

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, Jennifer Reese
A cookbook-cum-memoir, born out of a desire to see whether making stuff from scratch is really worth it. Reese’s conclusions are always honest (each recipe carries a “Hassle” rating) and often hilarious. And some of these recipes (like the apricot-ginger bread!) look delicious. (Though I probably won’t be curing my own meat, or keeping chickens, any time soon.) To review for the Shelf.

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead
I picked this up at the Booksmith one night and spent the rest of the evening reading it. Such a fascinating story, with echoes of A Wrinkle in Time (the protagonist’s favorite book) and several interesting twists. The reader is just as puzzled as the characters for a while – and then, suddenly, beautifully, all the strange clues start to make sense.

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris, John Baxter
Baxter is a bookworm and an expat (he’s an Aussie) living in Paris, and his musings on the City of Light are erudite, thoughtful and often charming. He does relish shocking people with tales of the seedy side of Paris, but there’s plenty of variety here. (Of course, it makes me want to go back to Paris. Le sigh.)

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels, Ree Drummond
I love the Pioneer Woman’s blog and Twitter account – she’s hilarious – and I own her cookbook. (Yum.) So I loved her lighthearted, funny, romantic tale of falling in love with her husband, “Marlboro Man.” She pokes sly fun at herself and shares lots of embarrassing moments – no wonder she claims to “channel Lucille Ball” sometimes. But what I love most of all is her quiet commitment to love, honor and cherish her man forever. I’m working on that same commitment with my love.

31 Dates in 31 Days, Tamara Duricka Johnson
A funny, honest, refreshingly real account of one woman’s quest to revamp her dating habits – and learn to have fun again, instead of desperately clutching at each man as a potential mate. I liked her writing style, and appreciated her ingenuity – and energy! – in coming up with 31 dates. (To review for the Shelf.)

Theater Shoes, Noel Streatfeild
I loved Ballet Shoes, but hadn’t read this book till I found a lovely red vintage edition on Etsy. A wonderful tale of three half-orphaned children, who learn to sing, dance and act in wartime London. The details of theatrical life, the loving (but very human) siblings, the privations of wartime London – all are well rendered and come together to make a wonderful story.

Dancing Shoes, Noel Streatfeild
I liked this story too – though not quite as well as Ballet Shoes or Theater Shoes. Rachel and Hilary, sisters by adoption, have a deep and complex relationship that carries the book. Some of the other characters veer into stereotype at times, but there’s lots of dancing, some funny moments and a happy, if ambiguous, ending.

Oolong Dead, Laura Childs
It’s been a while since I picked up a Tea Shop Mystery. The writing is not brilliant, but the mysteries are intriguing, the characters comfortable and familiar, the tea shop itself a delightful spot. A fun bit of cozy mystery fluff.

Skating Shoes, Noel Streatfeild
Another lovely, hopeful story from the author of the Shoe Books. Harriet and Lalla bond through ice skating – and Harriet’s confidence begins to grow, and Lalla gradually learns she’s not the center of the universe. A sweet story (and Harriet’s brothers are wonderful supporting characters).

What are you reading lately?

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As an English major, I’ve read (and written) lots of poetry. I have a few favorites, though – some lines that are close to my heart, and float into my head once in a while. April is National Poetry Month, so I thought I’d share them with you. In no particular order:

1. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, from “The Summer Day”)

2. “She will look at me with her thin arms extended, / offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.” (Billy Collins, from “Tuesday, June 4, 1991.” I love pretty much everything Collins writes.)

3. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” (My friend Joy and I once climbed a hill in Salzburg, Austria, through a yellow-green spring wood, and recited this poem as we climbed. Yes, we were and are huge nerds. But now when I hear Frost’s lines, I remember our hike up the Kapuzinerberg.)

4. “In a house in Paris all covered in vines / lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. […] The smallest one was Madeline.” (No explanation needed – unless you’ve never heard of Madeline, whereupon I say, go find out about her right now!)

5. “All that is gold does not glitter, / Not all those who wander are lost…” (I love this poem from The Lord of the Rings…such deep truth here, and it fits into Tolkien’s magnificent mythology.)

6. “I am living. I remember you.” (the heartbreaking last lines from Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” – posted in its entirety on Sarah’s site)

7. “Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – At all” (Oh, how I love Dickinson. This one is my favorite.)

8. “I dwell in Possibility, / A fairer house than Prose – ” (More Dickinson. Love it.)

9. “Ricky was ‘L’ but he’s home with the flu…” (From “Love” by Shel Silverstein – see this post about fourth grade poetry.)

10. “You don’t own it – English majors!” (From a poem about poetry, by my friend Grant, who took creative writing classes even though he wasn’t an English major.)

What are the lines that have stayed with you?

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and somehow, the wine

Billy Collins is, probably, my very favourite poet. He has held that spot since I discovered his work in college – I’ve since read several volumes of his delightful, quirky, thoughtful, honest verse. While I was listening to this podcast of a reading he gave at the City university of New York, I heard him read this poem and though I’d share it with all of you.


by Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine . . .
Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.


However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way you are the pine-scented air.


It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.


And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.


It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.


I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley,
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.


I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I am not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.

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