"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's a Rough Life

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.


  1. Love it! Have you ever read Art of Racing In The Rain? I have a copy if you haven't...

    1. Thank you! And no, I haven't read that. Read this synopsis and thought it would be too sad for me. No? BTW, is this Sarah H? I know oh so many Sarahs, but this sounds like Sarah H. :)

  2. I always feel a little intimidated after reading great works by Billy Collins. :) And I LOVE your poem... our dogs are so spoiled!

    1. :) Your dogs are going to have to share their spoils soon!

  3. So... does this mean your new blog title is "The Yellow Dog Diaries"?

  4. No, there will always be the black cat. I think maybe I am the black cat.

  5. Carie,

    I, too, am in awe of Billy Collins's effortlessness. It is like he stole your genuine feeling right out of you and displayed it for you like a magic trick. I haven't read this collection yet but I should.

    Have you read Kay Ryan? I adore her work and she shares some similarities with Collins. Niagara River is a masterful book.

    1. No, I had never heard of Kay Ryan, but I just looked her up and read some of her work. Beautiful! Are you a fan of Naomi Shihab Nye? She is another writer who constantly inspires me.

  6. Favorite line? "...the delicacies of the litterbox" Made me chuckle out loud. :)
    -Jessica G

    1. Hee hee. Thank you. Cat poop is to Uno what chocolate-covered doughnuts are to you.