The Country I wondered about you when you told me never to leave a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches lying around the house because the mice might get into them and start a fire. But your face was absolutely straight when you twisted the lid down on the round tin where the matches, you said, are always stowed. Who could sleep that night? Who could whisk away the thought of the one unlikely mouse padding along a cold water pipe behind the floral wallpaper gripping a single wooden match between the needles of his teeth? Who could not see him rounding a corner, the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam, the sudden flare, and the creature for one bright, shining moment suddenly thrust ahead of his time-- now a fire-starter, now a torch-bearer in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid illuminating some ancient night. Who could fail to notice, lit up in the blazing insulation, the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces of his fellow mice, one-time inhabitants of what once was your house in the country? Velocity In the club car that morning I had my notebook open on my lap and my pen uncapped, looking every inch the writer right down to the little writer's frown on my face, but there was nothing to write about except life and death and the low warning sound of the train whistle. I did not want to write about the scenery that was flashing past, cows spread over a pasture, hay rolled up meticulously-- things you see once and will never see again. But I kept my pen moving by drawing over and over again the face of a motorcyclist in profile-- for no reason I can think of-- a biker with sunglasses and a weak chin, leaning forward, helmetless, his long thin hair trailing behind him in the wind. I also drew many lines to indicate speed, to show the air becoming visible as it broke over the biker's face the way it was breaking over the face of the locomotive that was pulling me toward Omaha and whatever lay beyond Omaha for me, all the other stops to make before the time would arrive to stop for good. We must always look at things from the point of view of eternity, the college theologians used to insist, from which, I imagine, we would all appear to have speed lines trailing behind us as we rush along the road of the world, as we rush down the long tunnel of time-- the biker, of course, drunk on the wind, but also the man reading by a fire, speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book, and the woman standing on a beach studying the curve of horizon, even the child asleep on a summer night, speed lines flying from the posters of her bed, from the white tips of the pillow cases, and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body. "More Than a Woman" Ever since I woke up today, a song has been playing uncontrollably in my head--a tape looping over the spools of the brain, a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun, mad fan belt of a tune. It must have escaped from the radio last night on the drive home and tunneled while I slept from my ears to the center of my cortex. It is a song so cloying and vapid I won't even bother mentioning the title, but on it plays as if I were a turntable covered with dancing children and their spooky pantomimes, as if everything I had ever learned was being slowly replaced by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics. It played while I watered the plants and continued when I brought in the mail and fanned out the letters on a table. It repeated itself when I took a walk and watched from a bridge brown leaves floating in the channels of a current. Late in the afternoon it seemed to fade, but I heard it again at the restaurant when I peered in at the lobsters lying on the bottom of an illuminated tank which was filled to the brim with their copious tears. And now at this dark window in the middle of the night I am beginning to think I could be listening to music of the spheres, the sound no one ever hears because it has been playing forever, only the spheres are colored pool balls, and the music is oozing from a jukebox whose lights I can just make out through the clouds. Aimless Love This morning as I walked along the lakeshore, I fell in love with a wren and later in the day with a mouse the cat had dropped under the dining room table. In the shadows of an autumn evening, I fell for a seamstress still at her machine in the tailor's window, and later for a bowl of broth, steam rising like smoke from a naval battle. This is the best kind of love, I thought, without recompense, without gifts, or unkind words, without suspicion, or silence on the telephone. The love of the chestnut, the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel. No lust, no slam of the door-- the love of the miniature orange tree, the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower, the highway that cuts across Florida. No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor-- just a twinge every now and then for the wren who had built her nest on a low branch overhanging the water and for the dead mouse, still dressed in its light brown suit. But my heart is always propped up in a field on its tripod, ready for the next arrow. After I carried the mouse by the tail to a pile of leaves in the woods, I found myself standing at the bathroom sink gazing down affectionately at the soap, so patient and soluble, so at home in its pale green soap dish. I could feel myself falling again as I felt its turning in my wet hands and caught the scent of lavender and stone. Absence This morning as low clouds skidded over the spires of the city I found next to a bench in a park an ivory chess piece-- the white knight as it turned out-- and in the pigeon-ruffling wind I wondered where all the others were, lined up somewhere on their red and black squares, many of them feeling uneasy about the salt shaker that was taking his place, and all of them secretly longing for the moment when the white horse would reappear out of nowhere and advance toward the board with his distinctive motion, stepping forward, then sideways before advancing again, the same moves I was making him do over and over in the sunny field of my palm. Royal Aristocrat My old typewriter used to make so much noise I had to put a cushion of newspaper beneath it late at night so as not to wake the whole house. Even if I closed the study door and typed a few words at a time-- the best way to work anyway-- the clatter of keys was still so loud that the gray and yellow bird would wince in its cage. Some nights I could even see the moon frowning down at me through the winter trees. That was twenty years ago, yet as I write this with my soft lead pencil I can still hear that distinctive sound, like small arms fire across a border, one burst after another as my wife turned in her sleep. I was a single monkey trying to type the opening lines of my Hamlet, often doing nothing more than ironing pieces of paper in the platen then wrinkling them into balls to flick into the wicker basket. Still, at least I was making noise, adding to the great secretarial din, that chorus of clacking and bells, thousands of desks receding into the past. And that was more than can be said for the mute rooms of furniture, the speechless cruets of oil and vinegar, and the tall silent hedges surrounding the house. Such deep silence on those nights-- just the sound of my typing and a few stars singing a song their mother sang when they were mere babies in the sky. Paris In the apartment someone gave me, the bathroom looked out on a little garden at the bottom of an air shaft with a few barely sprouting trees, ivy clinging to the white cinder blocks, a blue metal table and a rusted chair where, it would seem, no one had ever sat. Every morning, a noisy bird would flutter down between the buildings, perch on a thin branch and yell at me in French bird-talk while I soaked in the tub under the light from the pale translucent ceiling. And while he carried on, I would lie there in the warm soapy water wondering what shirt I would put on that day, what zinc-covered bar I would stand at with my Herald-Tribune and a cup of strong coffee. After a lot of squawking, he would fly back into the sky leaving only the sound of a metal store-front being raised or a scooter zipping by outside, which was my signal to stand up in the cloudy water and reach for a towel, time to start concentrating on which way I would turn after I had locked the front door, what shop signs I would see, what bridges I would lean on to watch the broad river undulating like a long-playing record under the needle of my eye. Time to stand dripping wet and wonder about the hordes of people I would pass in the street, mostly people whose existence I did not believe in, but a few whom I would glance at and see my whole life the way you see the ocean from the shore. One morning after another, I would fan myself dry with a towel and wonder about what paintings I would stand before that day, looking forward to the usual-- the sumptuous reclining nudes, the knife next to a wedge of cheese, a landscape with pale blue mountains, the heads and shoulders of gods struggling with one another, a foot crushing a snake-- but always hopeful for something new like yesterday's white turkeys in a field or the single stalk of asparagus on a plate in a small gilded frame, always ready, now that I am dressed, to cheer the boats of the beautiful, the boats of the strange, as they float down the river of this momentous day. Istanbul It was a pleasure to enter by a side street in the center of the city a bathhouse said to be 300 years old, old enough to have opened the pores of Florence Nightingale and soaped the musical head of Franz Liszt. And it was a pleasure to drink cold wine by a low wood fire before being directed to a small room in an upper gallery, a room with a carpet and a narrow bed where I folded my clothes into a pile then came back down, naked except for a gauzy striped cloth tucked around my waist. It was an odd and eye-opening sensation to be led by a man with close-cropped hair and spaces between his teeth into a steamy marble rotunda and to lie there alone on the smooth marble watching the droplets fall through the beams of natural light in the high dome and later to hear the song I sang-- "She Thinks I Still Care"--echo up into the ceiling. I felt like the last of the sultans when the man returned and began to scrub me-- to lather and douse me, scour and shampoo me, and splash my drenched body with fresh warm water scooped from a marble basin. But it was not until he sudsed me behind my ears and between my toes that I felt myself filling with gratitude the way a cloud fills with rain, the way a glass pipe slowly fills with smoke. In silence I thanked the man who scrubbed the bottoms of my feet. I thanked the history of the Turkish bath and the long chain of bathmen standing unshaven, arms folded, waiting for the next customer to come through the swinging doors of frosted glass. I thanked everyone whose job it ever was to lay hands on the skin of strangers, and I gave general thanks that I was lying facedown in a warm puddle of soap and not a warm puddle of blood in some corner of this incomprehensible city. As one bucket after another of warm water was poured over my lowered head, I stopped thinking of who and what to thank and rode out on a boat of joy, a blue boat of marble and soap, rode out to the entrance of the harbor where I raised a finger of good-bye then felt the boat begin to rise and fall as it met the roll of the incoming waves, bearing my body, my clean, blessed body out to sea. Love The boy at the far end of the train car kept looking behind him as if he were afraid or expecting someone and then she appeared in the glass door of the forward car and he rose and opened the door and let her in and she entered the car carrying a large black case in the unmistakable shape of a cello. She looked like an angel with a high forehead and somber eyes and her hair was tied up behind her neck with a black bow. And because of all that, he seemed a little awkward in his happiness to see her, whereas she was simply there, perfectly existing as a creature with a soft face who played the cello. And the reason I am writing this on the back of a manila envelope now that they have left the train together is to tell you that when she turned to lift the large, delicate cello onto the overhead rack, I saw him looking up at her and what she was doing the way the eyes of saints are painted when they are looking up at God when he is doing something remarkable, something that identifies him as God. Obituaries These are no pages for the young, who are better off in one another's arms, nor for those who just need to know about the price of gold, or a hurricane that is ripping up the Keys. But eventually you may join the crowd who turn here first to see who has fallen in the night, who has left a shape of air walking in their place. Here is where the final cards are shown, the age, the cause, the plaque of deeds, and sometimes an odd scrap of news-- that she collected sugar bowls, that he played solitaire without any clothes. And all the survivors huddle at the end under the roof of a paragraph as if they had sidestepped the flame of death. What better way to place a thin black frame around the things of the morning-- the hand-painted cup, the hemispheres of a cut orange, the slant of sunlight on the table? And sometimes a most peculiar pair turns up, strange roommates lying there side by side upon the page-- Arthur Godfrey next to Man Ray, Ken Kesey by the side of Dale Evans. It is enough to bring to mind an ark of death, not the couples of the animal kingdom, but rather pairs of men and women ascending the gangplank two by two, a surgeon and a model, a balloonist and a metal worker, an archeologist and an authority on pain. Arm-in-arm, they get on board then join the others leaning on the rails, all saved at last from the awful flood of life-- so many of them every day there would have to be many arks, an armada to ferry the dead over the heavy waters that roll beyond the world, and many Noahs too, bearded and fiercely browed, vigilant up there at every prow. Excerpted from Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.