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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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harvard yard autumn light leaves

Villanelle for an Anniversary

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the Yard,
The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The maps dreamt on like moondust. Nothing stirred.
The future was a verb in hibernation.
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Before the classic style, before the clapboard,
All through the small hours of an origin,
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Night passage of a migratory bird.
Wingflap. Gownflap. Like a homing pigeon
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Was that his soul (look) sped to its reward
By grace or works? A shooting star? An omen?
The books stood open and the gate unbarred.

Begin again where frosts and tests were hard.
Find yourself or founder. Here, imagine
A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the yard,
The books stand open and the gates unbarred.

—Seamus Heaney

I’ve loved Seamus Heaney’s work since my undergrad days, when I discovered him in an Irish literature course. My favorite poems of his include “Song” and “Postscript,” which I’ve shared here before.

I did not know, when I came to work at Harvard, that Heaney also had a strong connection to this place. But he spent considerable time here, and he composed the poem above for the university’s 350th anniversary, in 1986.

After Heaney’s death in August 2013, a colleague clipped “Postscript” for me from his copy of the Financial Times. I still have it pinned on my bulletin board at work. A few weeks later, I heard President Faust quote the villanelle above at Memorial Church, during Morning Prayers. This spring, I heard her (again at Morning Prayers) quote from Heaney’s poem “The Cure at Troy.” (Clearly she’s a fellow fan.)

I love Heaney’s villanelle for its quiet, spare imagery; for the sense it evokes of Harvard’s history; for its bell-like rhythm, as clear as an autumn night in Cambridge. Most of all, I love the repeated line that captures what a university should be: a place where “the books stand open and the gates unbarred.”

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

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robin redbreast bird spring

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

–Emily Dickinson

I have adored Miss Emily for a long time, but I love this poem more every year.

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

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windy willows

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, – but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, –
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay

I came across this poem last month, about a week after Jeff’s passing. Heather Lende quotes from it in the last chapter of her first memoir, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.

Lende writes obituaries for her small-town Alaska newspaper, and I write obituaries for the alumni magazine of my West Texas alma mater. A couple of days after Jeff died, I sent what details I had (name, age, birthdate) to my editor (who is also my former boss, and a friend).

It isn’t much, these few lines in a college magazine, especially in light of such a loss. But it is what I can do to mark the passing of someone I loved.

I am in charge of the honoree list for the Easter lilies at church. Every year, we fill the altar with flowers, and publish a list in the bulletin of those we would like to remember and honor. The list is long this year, for some reason; we have twice as many names as last year. It isn’t much, but I understand why we do it. This, too, is a small but important way of remembering our dead.

Earlier this week, I heard about the passing of Susan, a family friend whom I hadn’t seen for many years. She fought the cancer longer than anyone expected she would, but she is gone now, and I know her children – including her three eldest daughters, whom I used to baby-sit in the summers – are grieving.

Like Millay, I do not approve, and I am not resigned. But her eloquent words have helped sustain me as I think about death and loss and grief. I share them, on this Good Friday, hoping that perhaps, when you are faced with a loss, they might do the same for you.

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

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poetry books

No poet ever wrote a poem to dishonor life, to compromise high ideals, to scorn religious views, to demean hope or gratitude, to argue against tenderness, to place rancor before love, or to praise littleness of soul. Not one. Not ever.

On the contrary, poets have, in freedom and in prison, in health and in misery, with listeners and without listeners, spent their lives examining and glorifying life, meditation, thoughtfulness, devoutness, and human love. They have done this wildly, serenely, rhetorically, lyrically, without hope of answer or reward. They have done this grudgingly, willingly, patiently, and in the steams of impatience.

They have done it for all and any of the gods of life, and the record of their so doing belongs to each one of us.

Including you.

—Mary Oliver, Rules for the Dance

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tulips table book bowl curry lunch

It is bleak (snowy) midwinter over here – the season for strong cups of tea and lots of books. Here’s what I’ve been reading so far this month:

The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy
This poetry collection was a Secret Santa gift from a colleague. Duffy’s language is stunning and often highly political. Poems about bees are woven throughout. Lovely.

Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Reading and Writing Metrical Verse, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s poetry and found much to ponder in this exploration of metrical verse. She explains the technical terms but also drops in some beautiful words about why poetry matters.

Recipes for a Beautiful Life, Rebecca Barry
A wry, insightful, often hilarious memoir of marriage, home renovation, life with young children, and the slow realization that chasing your dreams is hard work. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 7).

Mrs. Tim Carries On, D.E. Stevenson
World War II has broken out, and Mrs. Tim is bravely carrying on, despite having to manage her own troubles and everyone else’s. I loved this second installment of her adventures – witty, amusing, occasionally poignant.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I’ve never seen anything like the snow we’re getting this winter – but at least I’m not stuck in a tiny, isolated prairie town, living on wheat. I love every page of the Ingalls family’s adventures, and the ending makes me cry.

Murder at the Brightwell, Ashley Weaver
Unhappy in her marriage, socialite Amory Ames agrees to go on a seaside holiday with an old friend – only to encounter a web of murders and lies. A sparkling, witty 1930s mystery with a wonderful narrator. A perfect snow day read.

Salt & Storm, Kendall Kulper
Avery Roe has always believed it’s her destiny to become the sea witch of Prince Island. But when a troubling dream shows her another fate, she must figure out how to stop it – if she can. Fierce, luminous and gorgeously written.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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Poem for January

winter sunset gold

Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter
by Robert Frost

The west was getting out of gold,
The breath of air had died of cold,
When shoeing home across the white,
I thought I saw a bird alight.

In summer when I passed the place,
I had to stop and lift my face;
A bird with an angelic gift
Was singing in it sweet and swift.

No bird was singing in it now.
A single leaf was on a bough,
And that was all there was to see
In going twice around the tree.

From my advantage on a hill
I judged that such a crystal chill
Was only adding frost to snow
As gilt to gold that wouldn’t show.

A brush had left a crooked stroke
Of what was either cloud or smoke
From north to south across the blue;
A piercing little star was through.

(Photo: the view from my front porch at sunset, in December.)

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