A book haven of any kind–independent, corporate, a local library, or the one in your home, carrying spines and pages of any kind–used and tattered, new and pristine, is like walking into a rainbow garden of blooming roses, enthralling, intoxicating, and potentially dangerous if my wits aren’t about me. Easily sucked into the undertow of titles, cover art, and synopses, I could submerge for hours and inevitably re-emerge with an armful of life-preserving stories, adding buoyancy to my own library at home. You do know what I mean :)?
Well, I have to tell you that on one of these excursions, a shorter one than most since I had the boy with me, I met Billy Collins. That’s right, the poet. Okay, well, I’m not sure exactly he was Billy Collins. But it only takes a speck of a moment for imagination to leap to possibility, all hope bolstered by infinite excitment. Could it really be?
The boy wanted a book, that’s how it all started and who am I to hinder a budding reader’s new found joy and eventual addiction (or so I hope). He found this one by the way, though that’s not part of this story.
“Do you mind if I stop in the Poetry section?” I asked him.
“I’ll only be a few minutes.” Yes, I fibbed.
And so a few minutes turned into another few minutes and eventually I just plopped down on the floor within arm’s reach of a treasure trove of untraversed poetry. I love exploring new (to me) poets this way. Just reach, read, and fall in love. Soon, the boy joined me on the floor with his new book, patient as ever…. what a love.
A man walking in a manner where his shoulders seemed to pull the rest of his body along sped behind us on the floor. Shoulder-length, wavy, white and gray hair, cargo pants, Columbia vest, hiking shoes, and simple wire frame glasses on an unshaven face. He looked like he could be a sociology professor at CU, a scruffy, yet sophisticated, hippie type. If he wasn’t gazing at us so intently as he whisked by, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed him. His gaze didn’t slow his pace though and soon he was around the corner and gone.
Or so I thought as he returned within seconds, as if he had forgotten something very important on the other end of the store, rushing, rushing, like the white rabbit in Alice and Wonderland. He stopped abruptly where we sat, as if a Stop sign was posted in lights above our heads.
“Which poet do you like to read?” he asked.
It was such an obvious yet unexpected question that I fumbled over my words–first in surprise, and second because I didn’t know who to answer! I had so many favorites, where do I begin?
“Mary Oliver is wonderful, but then so is Charles Bukowski, but wow they are very different. I like Yeats, and David Whyte too, but there aren’t any David Whyte books here. ”
I felt like I was a college student trying to impress my professor. Who was this guy?
“Oh? Well, I like Billy Collins myself. He is just great.” He reached into the sea of poetry and grabbed one of Collins’ books. “Do you read Billy Collins?”
I shook my head and slumped inside a smidge for not being able to meet his enthusiasm and familiarity.
“There is one poem that is absolutely my favorite of his. I can’t remember the name of it….(long pause)…Mary Oliver, huh?” He returned the Collins book, then grabbed one of her many volumes lined on the shelf and thumbed through it.
“You can’t go wrong with any of her books, she writes such beautiful poetry, and is quite prolific, too,” I said in a rambly sort of way, happy to have introduced someone to her natural magic.
“Yeah, well prolific is a very good thing” he said absentmindedly, then turned and walked off as abruptly as he had joined us. I can’t remember if he kept the book or not.
I couldn’t help but smirk a little. What a strange, interesting, delightful man. Quirky and unique, I liked him for his oddity and social ineptitude. As the shadow of his presence began to mingle with my imagination, I thought, entertainingly, how wonderful would it be if that was Billy Collins himself. And from there the thought grew like a weed on a rainy day.
Yes! Billy Collins might be that kind of writer, casing poetry sections in bookstores searching, observing, tinkering with the minds of readers, sniffing for new material and new ideas, or just for the fun and hell of it because he can.
No, I had never read any of Billy Collins’ work, but because the seed was planted that he might be ambling around the store, and because I suddenly realized his new book was everywhere on the shelves (oh my god, “he’s” there to promote his new book!!), as improbable as it sounded, I urgently felt the need to read his poetry, get to know him quick, before “he” comes back and wonders if our little interlude had any impact at all!
Too late. Within minutes, he was back. Billy Collins moonlighting as a sociology professor at CU?
“I just remembered what my favorite poem of his is.” He reached for a book called Nine Horses, opened it, and began to read aloud to me right there.
“It’s called Love,
‘The boy at the far end of the train car
kept looking behind him
as if he were afraid or expecting someone
and then she appeared in the glass door
of the forward car and he rose
and opened the door and let her in
and she entered the car carrying
a large black case
in the unmistakable shape of a cello.
She looked like an angel with a high forehead
and somber eyes and her hair
was tied up behind her neck with a black bow.
And because of all that,
he seemed a little awkward
in his happiness to see her,
whereas she was simply there,
perfectly existing as a creature
with a soft face who played the cello.
And the reason I am writing this
on the back of a manila envelope
now that they have left the train together
is to tell you that when she turned
to lift the large, delicate cello
onto the overhead rack,
I saw him looking up at her
and what she was doing
the way the eyes of saints are painted
when they are looking up at God
when he is doing something remarkable,
something that identifies him as God‘.”
He closed the book then looked at me, “Isn’t it beautiful, I love that, just the way he was looking at her on the train.”
I was moved and speechless, and feeling very awkward and unknowing in how to respond to this complete stranger. I think I said “thank you”, but honestly I don’t remember, I hope I did. My son, who had wandered off to the atlases in between this man’s appearances, had returned and broke the quiet awkwardness, “Can we go now?”
Sensing his cue, “Well, it was nice talking to you, I’m meeting someone for lunch but had time to kill. It’s nice to meet someone else who likes poetry.” And with that final word he was off again in a flash, following his shoulders to his lunch date on the other side of the world.
Despite how fantastical it would have been to actually meet Mr. Collins, I didn’t, at least not in the traditional face to face sense. Thanks to that strange, scruffy man at the bookstore, instead I was introduced to a brand new poet, as well as the wonderful drift my imagination can take when I am surrounded in a sea of stories :).