Wednesday, January 9, 2013

As Pigeons Float Down in the Evening

With this poem by Billy Collins, I'm reminded of a class in college I may have already mentioned, Oral Interpretation of Literature, in which we regularly read a prepared poem or piece of prose in front of our classmates. This would have been in the Before Time, way back in the '70's. On one such occasion, I chose Sylvia Plath's "Daddy." To call this poem dark would be an understatement. I read it with slightly restrained anger, taking it down just a notch from the venom with which it was conceived and written. I could see halfway through my reading that a classmate in the front row, whose eyes never left mine, was becoming particularly uncomfortable. When I reached the end and had closed the book, the room was very still. Our professor asked, with a wary smile, for reactions. Matt, in the front row, admitted to being extremely uncomfortable, so much so that he had wanted to bolt from the room. He registered it as a complaint. I, however, felt no remorse. It was how it should have been read. Matt, however, who had occasionally walked with me the two blocks to my house and then on to his own place, kept a distance for a while until time offered him emotional trust once again.

Anyway, this is not that poem. It's certainly worth a read, if you're so inclined, and can be found in myriad places here on the web. This is a poem of a different nature, another story of our lives, but told with the gentleness so often found in Billy Collins' poetry. Loving this poem as I do, I've decided to post it in its entirety. For those who might like to listen, I couldn't resist recording it. Either way, buckle up, here we go:

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes—
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

~ Billy Collins

Images taken from the third floor of my place at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, spring 2010.


  1. You know, you've certainly got me reading more poetry than I used to. What I like about this one is that it is so applicable to, well everything, in a life. Each tick of the clock contains one of the elements of a beginning, a middle, or an end. And at each moment I, too, am a beginning, a middle, or an end.

    As my life's "beginning" is over, and hopefully, I'm more in the "middle" part than the "ending" it comes as no surprise that the dropping of the curtain could be at the next breath. And that in itself creates a beginning of an even deeper mystery. All these circles are wondrous things.

    1. What an absolutely beautiful comment, Morgan. You have captured much of what I sensed when reading it. Each moment we are "a beginning, a middle, and an end." I love that thought. "And that in itself creates a beginning of an even deeper mystery," becomes ever more fascinating as I move through what I also hope is the middle. Wondrous, indeed.

  2. Replies
    1. Hurrah! :) Isn't it a wonderful look at the stages of life? Just amazing.

  3. Oh how I love this poem, Teresa. There it is—the beginning, the middle, the end—life in a nutshell, told truthfully and without flinching.

    1. Yes, "truthfully and without flinching." It's quite the poem.

  4. A blessing, Teresa, twice; once for the poem, twice for your reading it.

    I picked Collins up last week at the library, read through "Aristotle", then put it back, fumbled with Plath, but put her back on the shelf as well. I suppose I was just waiting, though I didn't know it, for you to read Aristotle to me. I'm so pleased that you did. Being just past the middle, not yet at the end, I'm rather enjoying this chapter, at least for the moment. . .

    1. Again, our lives dovetail beautifully and mysteriously... This late middle for me? Depends on the day you ask me, but overall, it's quite wonderful. :)

  5. One of the best lines ever "a river losing its name as it runs into the ocean"! Doesn't that happen to us all! Wonderful.

  6. If I was stuck on a desert island and could have only one blog, I'd pick yours.

    Thanks for making the world a better place.

    1. Oh, Bill, what a lovely thing to say. I can't tell you what your generous words mean to me...

      I so hope that's true. It is my one desire. Thank you so very much.

  7. There are so many picture painted in those lines.

    1. Every phrase, another picture painted. I like that we all share these references.

  8. As refreshing to the senses as a pint of real ale after a long walk on the moors. Lovely.

  9. I loved the "As Pigeons Float Down in the Evening" title for your post and could not pass by. The poem is wonderful, and I made my way through it living and re-living parts of life. As I neared the end I had just that same sad, raw, and beautiful feeling that can wash over when watching the sun slide into the sea at the end of a day. I was delighted to also listen to the recording you made, and the others that I found with it. You read beautifully, and I always enjoy listening to writing.

    I didn't realise that it was possible to share audio in that way through the blog, although I had long hoped that it could be done. I have often thought what a wonderful treasure it would be for the many people that blog around the world to record their voices. As much as I like photos and video, there is something even more profound about the human voice. For instance, when I think about it, it is the voice of my grandmother that comes back to me from 50 years ago, not her image.

    Anyway, Thank you!

    Must head away to my studio and think about making coffee mugs! P.

    1. Hi Peter. I would encourage you to explore the possibilities with soundcloud. It's a lot of fun. Voices still carry with them a audible residue after a long, long time. Thanks for the kind words about my reading.

      It's so fine to have a good cup of coffee in a mug that feels comforting to hold. You just know when it's right.

  10. Clap, clap, clap. I really like your presentation when you read. You are getting very proficient with recording and your voice is lovely. As I listen, I can hear a slight accent, the same as a girlfriend of mine who grew up with me in Mn. I say this as a compliment and I don't mean the Mn accent used in the movie, "Fargo." Ha I mean a bell-clear educated voice with a slight accent on certain words that probably only someone also raised in Mn could distinguish. Marge had a beautiful voice too but we don't talk on the phone anymore because she is a victim of alzheimers. I just remembered the gal in Fargo was Marge and so was my Mother's name. Must be a Mn name. :)
    Very good. I enjoy listening to you.

    1. And my sister in-law from MN, is also Marge. Thank you, Manzanita. I appreciate your comments and always love hearing from you. It feels like "home."

  11. What an eloquent and beautiful poem. Sometimes there is beauty to be found in melancholoy, as this poem is a fine example. Beautiful.

    1. Yes, those things tinged with melancholy are very beautiful in their own unique way. I'm so glad you visited my blog. I've enjoyed going over to acquaint myself with yours. Very nice.

  12. I read this poem first, and it was powerful. Then I listened, and it was doubly powerful and moving. I was resisting the end, which focuses on the actual end rather than the process of aging, and I was feeling - what? - doomed, threatened, sad. But in the context of this poem we seem to be in "the middle" until we hit the period and the book closes. When the end does come, I want to be that streak of light in the sky, but for those who remain there is in fact a hat on a peg and falling leaves. Yes, moving and powerful.

    1. Your comment is very moving, as well. Beautifully stated reading of those last lines....

  13. I was mesmerised by your reading of the poem. I am so glad I decided to listen as I read, it was a marvellous experience.

  14. Bloody Good Poem !!!!.Lots of Detail but lots of Open Spaces too.......( a hard balance to achieve).+Your Own Voice Magnifies !

    1. Isn't it??? Love it. Yes, great observation. thanks! It's fun to share our voices. I've so enjoyed hearing yours as well.

  15. Very interesting how we all wish to get to the end of things. I would like to grow to be more conscious feeling the preciousness of beginnings.

    I have missed you!

    So much love your BUDDY. I have a new dog in addition to MR PORTER, my Shih Tzu. She's SAGE, a black lab mix. Would love to get another as beautiful as yours.
    Sage is a puppy--eating everything, chewing all my stuff if I don't watch, peeing when she shouldn't, yet so sweeeeeet and pure and happy. I wish to cherish this part of her life more -- instead of wishing for the middle of her life to hurry up and get here!

    1. Michelle, dear soul sister, This is so wonderful, to hear from you again. I have missed you, too! Sometimes, I feel it's all beginnings, and the delineations come out of our human need to understand life. Yes, the "preciousness of beginnings," is a lovely thing.

      Do cherish these days of puppyhood, they are such good memories. Chewing and all. congrats on your new companionship, and your own home! I can't tell you how happy I am for you! I cherish our connection.

  16. I didn't know Billy Collins but I see now from Poetry Foundation website how gaping the gap in my awareness is! I'm so happy to have found your blog and to be initiated into worlds I should inhabit, if only I knew :)

    I continued my normal day after reading/hearing your post so it would settle a little in my mind and who should materialize while I was cooking dinner but Jim Morrison singing The End.

    I love this poem, particularly the end section because throughout my beginning and middle I have been sadly too acquainted with the *destination we cannot help imagining*. I love the understatedness of "It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen" It doesn't get much more chilling than that, and I feel like celebrating life asap.

    Enjoy hearing you read, glad you added that dimension. Really lovely.

    1. Thank you. What an interesting synchronicity. I found that line about Plath quietly devastating. It's the line that made me want to read this poem on soundcloud. Yes, life is to be celebrated, every moment. I love your comments, Jill.

  17. Hi Teresa,

    Excellent poem and reading. I really enjoyed it. From the set-up, "Almost anything can happen," through to the "falling leaves," I hung on every word.

    "Wow," is insufficient, but it's the first word that comes to mind. Thanks for introducing me to this wonderful poem.

    1. I'm so glad, Ray. It's such an amazing poem, isn't it?

  18. I loved the story preceding the poem as much as the poem itself. Thanks for the double inspiration today.