Poetry takes a small shred of life and makes it important. Even if it is unimportant. Even if it is something we don’t know and still wonder about. That’s why I love the poems of Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.
In the last several weeks, I’ve given some thought to death and dying. No, no, nothing is wrong, but several of my friends have had friends die recently, or a spouse, or someone they loved. And while I conducted the memorial service, I thought how little we know about the dead and their lives.
I love the descriptions in David Brockmeir’s A Brief History of the Dead--that as long as someone tells stories about the dead, they live in a place much like earth, where they know they are remembered. And the day the last person who knew them dies, they move into a different dimension. And then there is Billy Collins’s take on death, one that is kind and funny. And that had to be hard to write:
The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.