Each one is a gift, no doubt,
mysteriously placed in your waking hand
or set upon your forehead
moments before you open your eyes.
Today begins cold and bright,
the ground heavy with snow
and the thick masonry of ice,
the sun glinting off the turrets of clouds.
Through the calm eye of the window
everything is in its place
but so precariously
this day might be resting somehow
on the one before it,
all the days of the past stacked high
like the impossible tower of dishes
entertainers used to build on stage.
No wonder you find yourself
perched on the top of a tall ladder
hoping to add one more.
Just another Wednesday
then holding your breath,
place this cup on yesterday’s saucer
without the slightest clink.
Billy Collins, from The Art of Drowning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995)
I first came across the work of Billy Collins thanks to the recommendation of Naomi Jaffa. As I have said before, we were sitting in a car park, about to go to a thing, when Naomi politely enquired what I had been doing with my life, exactly, to have somehow not read the marvellous work of Mr Collins?
Naturally, I proceeded to get my hands on as much of his work as possible, and at the next opportunity. The Art of Drowning was the first of his books to come into my hands, and for that reason alone it is still my favourite. When I want to be reminded of what I think Collins is up to, and of why I first fell for him, this is the one I turn to, water damaged and cracked from falling in the bath though it is.
Lawrence Sail once said to me that he thought of Carol Ann Duffy as, essentially, a ‘slow, lyric’ poet. I tend to think of Collins in much the same way. Please don’t misunderstand me: I love the comic timing of poems like ‘Workshop’, ‘Consolation’ and ‘Forgetfulness’ as much as the next person. Secretly, though, I like to think of him less as Groucho Marx and more an ancient Chinese scribe notating the subtle shifts of light ‘that would quickly be forgotten’ across the arc of an afternoon, ‘an unpaid but contented amanuensis’ ’empty-headed/ at the typewriter’ (‘Tuesday, June 4, 1991’) whose only job is to notice what the rest of us are too busy to apprehend.
‘Days’ is a poem where these gifts of observation come to the fore. Nevertheless, I have often wondered how he gets away with beginning the poem in such a declarative mode, almost inveigling the reader to his way of thinking before we have even got going. I forgive him for the lines which follow, describing the days of the poem’s title as ‘mysteriously placed in your waking hand/ or set upon your forehead/ moments before you open your eyes’. This seems to me superbly imagined and delicately realised, as tender a succession of brush strokes as anything he has written.
We are lucky to have them. Many a workshop advises poets to lose their first and last four lines. (I should know: I’ve suggested it often enough). Part of me still thinks the poem would work just as well if it began in media res at ‘Today begins cold and bright’. We would lose, however, the satisfactory sense of completion that arrives in the poem’s second, and final image of ‘setting down’, a cup placed ‘on yesterday’s saucer/ without the slightest clink’. The poem comes full circle as it were, in soundless slow motion.
This is set up with what is my favourite line of the poem, and perhaps its most ordinary. Whenever I come back to the poem I always remember it saying the more immediately pleading ‘Just one more Wednesday’. ‘Just another Wednesday’ sounds both pleading and a statement of fact, exactly the kind of thing we ‘whisper’ on the out-breath, waiting to see what will happen, already looking back.