Traveling Alone


by Billy Collins
in “The Trouble With Poetry” 2005

At the hotel coffee shop that morning,
the waitress was wearing a pink uniform
with “Florence” written in script over her heart.

And the man who checked my bag
had a badge that said “Ben.”
Behind him was a long row of royal palms.

On the plane, two women poured drinks
from a cart they rolled down the narrow aisle –
“Debbie” and “Lynn” according to their winged tags.

And such was my company
as I arced from coast to coast,
and so I seldom spoke, and then only
of the coffee, the bag, the tiny bottles of vodka.
I said little more than “Thank you”
and “Can you take this from me, please?”

Yet I began to sense that all of them
were ready to open up,
to get to know me better, perhaps begin a friendship.

Florence looked irritated
as she shuffled from table to table,
but was she just hiding her need
to know about my early years –
the ball I would toss and catch in my hands
the times I hid behind my mother’s dress?

And was I so wrong in catching in Ben’s eyes
a glimmer of interest in my theories
and habits – my view of the Enlightenment,
my love of cards, the hours I tended to keep?

And what about Debbie and Lynn?
Did they not look eager to ask about my writing process,
my way of composing in the morning
by a window, which I would have admitted
if they had just had the courage to ask.

And strangely enough – I would have continued,
as they stopped pouring drinks
and the other passengers turned to listen –
the only emotion I ever feel, Debbie and Lynn,
is what the beaver must feel,
as he bears each stick to his hidden construction,

which creates the tranquil pond
and gives the mallards somewhere to paddle,
the pair of swans a place to conceal their young.

Adolescence


To My Favorite 17-year-old High School Girl
By Billy Collins

Do you realize that if you had started building the Parthenon
on the day you were born,
you would be all done in only one more year?
Of course, you couldn’t have done that all alone.
So never mind;
you’re fine just being yourself.
You’re loved for just being you.

But did you know that at your age
Judy Garland was pulling down 150,000 dollars a picture,
Joan of Arc was leading the French army to victory
and Blaise Pascal had cleaned up his room –
no wait, I mean he had invented the calculator?
Of course, there will be time for all that
later in your life, after you come out of your room
and begin to blossom,
or at least pick up all your socks.
For some reason I keep remembering
that Lady Jane Grey was queen of England
when she was only 15.
But then she was beheaded, so never mind her as a role model.
A few centuries later,
when he was your age,
Franz Schubert was doing the dishes for his family,
but that did not keep him from composing two symphonies, four operas
and two complete masses as a youngster.
But of course, that was in Austria
at the height of Romantic lyricism,
not here in the suburbs of Cleveland.
Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you’re special just being you –
playing with your food and staring into space.
By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.