Like just about everyone else, we lost power last week. The house grew cold and our lives ground to a virtual halt. It was all a rude awakening (once again) pulling the curtain back on how much we take for granted. Because we've grown accustomed to controlling our environment most of the time, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that our experience is very different from those who came before us. It's ironic that it took a hard freeze to thaw my mind out to this reality (again). Largely bereft of the technological conveniences and entertainments commonly at hand and as the collected snow began to melt, I picked up a book which began to thaw my soul out as well?an unpretentious collection of new poems by Billy Collins.
Poet Laureate of our country from 2001 to 2004, Collins? book entitled, Whale Days, trades in matters of love and loss, beauty and error, joy and grief, wit and sadness, the common and the sacred. And he does all this in such an unpredictable-yet-familiar, grounded-yet-imaginative, brilliant-yet-accessible way, that each offering somehow awakens, thaws, and quickens the heart all at once.
The first poem in the collection, called The Function of Poetry, reminded me ?that there is much more to life than what I?m usually doing.? In a week in which I wasn't able to do what I was usually doing (but rather reading some poems), this caught my attention. I turned the page to find another gem, both magical and mundane, in which Collins recalled the time he bought ?a small transistor radio in a junk shop run by a man as tall as a grandfather clock.? Settling in, I began to ask what it might take for me to remain thawed out to such a degree that I might not miss the soulful little episodes like this in my own life. Moments that surely occur routinely. Moments that a chilly soul can't absorb. Moments from which a slushy heart regularly fails to extract the enrichment on offer within its quiet, quirky beauty.
As I went deeper, the verses continued to defrost my senses. In A Sight, Collins exhorts us to notice ?a blue Corolla at the curb or a purple flower climbing a fence, one gift of sight after another.? In his hands, a simple description of a walk outside becomes sublime: ?It's Friday,? he writes, ?and the sun's all over everything after a long week of steady rain. The clouds have moved on to other countries?the bees are out again?the butterfly doesn't seem to know where it's going.?
In Life Expectancy, the poet observes a robin pursuing a worm in a garden. Noting his own age and the relevant data, Collins realizes it's possible the robin will outlive him; the worm might too, he writes, ?if he keeps his worm-head down.? A few pages later, the poet turns to the matter of Tennessee fainting goats (?Are they in love? Or is it all just too much??). Next, he climbs atop a kitchen chair (?for the sake of the view?), then it's on to enormous whales (?big blunt heads?cruising along at various speeds under the sea?some for the fun of it, others purposeful in their journeys.?)
Finally, in Terrible Beauty, referencing T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland in which April is called the cruelest month, Collins wistfully imagines a ?Cruelest Month Competition,? all twelve on stage together ?each dressed in outfits that sang of their personalities?:
Many wondered why April, a perennial loser,
would even bother to show up,
always smiling, daffodils
embroidered on her bodice.
Some blame it on a poem she?d read somewhere.
Others followed her early elimination?
August with zinc slathered on her nose,
December looking like the Mother of God.
February was the obvious choice
I mean the Super Bowl's over by then
and spring's a mile away?
There she stood, the only contestant on the stage,
crying a few chilly tears,
a thin smile frozen on her lips.
and some official placed on her head
her latest dripping, silvery crown of ice.
Things are hard right now. Tundra ground hard. There are pipes to fix. There are vaccines to track down and get in our arms. It's not surprising if you feel like you've been walking in circles in the arctic dark, but before the permafrost sets in, find what it is that de-ices your soul. Boil some water if you must. Enter the warming hut then look outside. Even February can be terribly beautiful.
God? Help my soul thaw out, open anew to an invasion of wonder. Amen.