I’ve been reading Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins. Every time I read his work, I find myself wondering how in the world I can ever write a poem again when Billy (he lets me call him that) has already covered every subject, said everything there is to be said, and captured it all so perfectly? Each new page, I think, “Yes, that’s just how it is. You’re right.” Each new line feels like I thought it one half-second before he wrote it, except he got the wording right, found the adjective I’d been looking for or knew instinctively that no superfluous adjective was needed. Just like that. Superfluous was superfluous in that sentence. Billy would have known that.
For instance, in “The Straightener” Billy describes his obsessive ordering of things in flawless simplicity. Where I would have used 200 words to capture the same image, he writes:
Even as a boy I was a straightener.
On a long table near my window
I kept a lantern, a spyglass, and my tomahawk.
Never tomahawk, lantern, and spyglass.
Always lantern, spyglass, tomahawk.
You could never tell when you would need them,
but that was the order you would need them in.
I totally get that.
And I love how he can mix the serious with the joyful, how he says the things most of us are afraid to say in our poems or in our lives, and how he can make me chuckle by poking fun at his own choices as a writer. In “Good News”, he says:
For example (and that’s the first and last time
I will ever use those words in a poem),
I decided I should grate some cheese…
So below you will find a poem inspired by Billy Collins. And when I say “inspired by” I really mean “partially stolen from” since lines 19 and 20 are un-subtle revisions of a couple of lines from his poem “On Turning Ten”, one of my all-time favorites.
It’s a Rough Life
No one sighs like my dog.
Heavily flopping his 53 pounds on the hard tile,
thunking his head against the floor of the kitchen
where he has been banished for partaking
in the delicacies of the litterbox,
he huffs out a deliberately loud and drawn out sigh,
calling attention to my cruelty.
Prostrate on the cold stone
he lies motionless,
except for his eyes--
his ever-accusing eyes--
darting up to meet my own,
to hold my gaze for one elongated moment
condemning me for my torturous ways,
then focusing straight ahead again
still, staring, lifeless,
all his energetic puppy will
drained out of them.
If you met my dog in this moment
you would never know (how could you guess?)
that shelf space had to be made
for his abundance of toys,
his pillow cost more than my comforter,
and he has never spent one single night outdoors.