Billy Collins reading three poems and making people laugh.
January in Paris
‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned’ Paul Valery
That winter I had nothing to do
but tend the kettle in my shuttered room
on the top floor of a pensione near a cemetery,
but I would sometimes descend the stairs,
unlock my bicycle, and pedal along the cold city streets
often turning from a wide boulevard
down a narrow side street
bearing the name of an obscure patriot.
I followed a few private rules,
never crossing a bridge without stopping
mid-point to lean my bike on the railing.
and observe the flow of the river
as I tried to better understand the French.
In my pale coat and my Basque cap
I pedaled past the windows of a patisserie
or sat up tall in the seat, arms folded,
and clicked downhill filling my nose with winter air.
I would see beggars and street cleaners
in their bright uniforms, and sometimes
I would see the poems of Valery,
the ones he never finished but abandoned,
wandering the streets of the city half clothed.
Most of them needed only a final line
or two, a little verbal flourish at the end,
but whenever I approached,
they would retreat from their makeshift fires
into the shadows- thin specters of incompletion,
forsaken for so many long decades
how could they ever trust another man with a pen?
I came across the one I wanted to tell you about
sitting with a glass of rose’ at a cafe’ table-
beautiful, emaciated, unfinished,
cruelly abandoned with a flick of panache
by Monsieur Paul Valery himself,
big fish in the school of Symbolism
and for a time, president of the Committee of Arts and Letters
of the League of Nations if you please.
Never mind how I got her out of the cafe’,
past the concierge and up the flight of stairs-
remember that Paris is the capital of public kissing.
And never mind the holding and the pressing.
It is enough to know that I moved my pen
in such a way as to bring her to completion,
a simple, final stanza, which ended,
as this poem will, with the image
of a gorgeous orphan lying on a rumpled bed,
her large eyes closed,
a painting of cows in a valley over her head,
and off to the side, me in a window seat
blowing smoke from a cigarette at dawn.
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
When I came across the high—speed photograph
of a bullet that had just pierced a book —
the pages exploding with the velocity —
I forgot all about the marvels of photography
and began to wonder which book
the photographer had selected for the shot.
Many novels sprang to mind
including those of Raymond Chandler
where an extra bullet would hardly be noticed.
Nonfiction offered too many choices —
a history of Scottish lighthouses,
a biography of Joan of Arc and so forth.
Or it could be an anthology of medieval literature,
the bullet having just beheaded Sir Gawain
and scattered the band of assorted pilgrims.
But later, as I was drifting off to sleep,
I realized that the executed book
was a recent collection of poems written
by someone of whom I was not fond
and that the bullet must have passed through
his writing with little resistance
at twenty—eight hundred feet per second,
through the poems about his childhood
and the ones about the dreary state of the world,
and then through the author’s photograph,
through the beard, the round glasses,
and that special poet’s hat he loves to wear.