My Big List of Everything That is Freaking Me Out


I made it today.  It is a long, scary list.  And I have decided that the only cure is poetry.  One of my favorite poets is Billy Collins.  So here are four poems from Billy Collins that always make me feel better.  During my last semester teaching at UT, I started something new called “Poem of The Day”.  I ended each class with a short poem from my long list of favorites.  UT students looked at me like I had three heads during “Poem of the Day”, so I stopped half way through the semester – maybe Rice students are more appreciative of poetry.  You will have to let me know. 


BIOE 301 student Ivy sent me a really interesting article about medical mistakes.  Check out the article at the link below:


BUSINESS   | February 22, 2006
Why Doctors So Often Get It Wrong

Ivy’s article reminded me of another great book about medical error.  I highly recommend Complications by Atul Gawande.


And now for four good poems.  I saved the best one for last.



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.


Child Development

As sure as prehistoric fish grew legs

and sauntered off the beaches into forests

working up some irregular verbs for their

first conversation, so three-year-old children

enter the phase of name-calling.


Every day a new one arrives and is added

to the repertoire. You Dumb Goopyhead,

You Big Sewerface, You Poop-on-the-Floor

(a kind of Navaho ring to that one)

they yell from knee level, their little mugs

flushed with challenge.

Nothing Samuel Johnson would bother tossing out

in a pub, but then the toddlers are not trying

to devastate some fatuous Enlightenment hack.


They are just tormenting their fellow squirts

or going after the attention of the giants

way up there with their cocktails and bad breath

talking baritone nonsense to other giants,

waiting to call them names after thanking

them for the lovely party and hearing the door close.


The mature save their hothead invective

for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,

or receding trains missed by seconds,

though they know in their adult hearts,

even as they threaten to banish Timmy to bed

for his appalling behavior,

that their bosses are Big Fatty Stupids,

their wives are Dopey Dopeheads

and that they themselves are Mr. Sillypants.



I Ask You

What scene would I want to be enveloped in

more than this one,

an ordinary night at the kitchen table,

floral wallpaper pressing in,

white cabinets full of glass,

the telephone silent,

a pen tilted back in my hand?


It gives me time to think

about all that is going on outside--

leaves gathering in corners,

lichen greening the high grey rocks,

while over the dunes the world sails on,

huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.


But beyond this table

there is nothing that I need,

not even a job that would allow me to row to work,

or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4

with cracked green leather seats.


No, it's all here,

the clear ovals of a glass of water,

a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,

not to mention the odd snarling fish

in a frame on the wall,

and the way these three candles--

each a different height--

are singing in perfect harmony.


So forgive me

if I lower my head now and listen

to the short bass candle as he takes a solo

while my heart

thrums under my shirt--

frog at the edge of a pond--

and my thoughts fly off to a province

made of one enormous sky

and about a million empty branches.



You are the bread and the knife,

The crystal goblet and the wine...

-Jacques Crickillon


You are the bread and the knife,

the crystal goblet and the wine.

You are the dew on the morning grass

and the burning wheel of the sun.

You are the white apron of the baker,

and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.


However, you are not the wind in the orchard,

the plums on the counter,

or the house of cards.

And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.

There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.


It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,

maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,

but you are not even close

to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.


And a quick look in the mirror will show

that you are neither the boots in the corner

nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.


It might interest you to know,

speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,

that I am the sound of rain on the roof.


I also happen to be the shooting star,

the evening paper blowing down an alley

and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.


I am also the moon in the trees

and the blind woman's tea cup.

But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.

You are still the bread and the knife.

You will always be the bread and the knife,

not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.