Between the Lines: Billy Collins
If you see a poem on the subway, you start reading it without realizing it’s a poem,” says Billy Collins, who helped launch Poetry in Motion, the Metropolitan Transit Authority program that places poems in advertising space on New York City buses and subways. “That suddenness is what makes it so powerful.”
Given the former U.S. poet laureate’s fondness for subway stanzas and, more broadly, for bringing poetry to the masses (since its inception in 1992, Poetry in Motion has expanded to transit systems across the country), we invited him to write an original poem for The National. The result is a blend of the intimate and cosmic: the story of his parents’ disparate lives and cross-country train rides, ultimately intersecting in New York City.
“Despite the randomness of their travels, they were destined to meet,” says Collins, who notes that both his parents’ sensibilities have shaped his poetry. “Recently, a friend pointed out that my early poems were like my father—light, joking—but it took a while to find my mother’s emotional sensitivity. I think that in my best poems you see them both.”
The Convergence of my Parents
This morning I am looking out my window
at a crowd of white irises,
imagining my Canadian mother in 1934
looking out her window on a train,
the one she rode from Toronto to Los Angeles
to work as a nurse at Queen of Angels Hospital,
only her train has stopped short of a little town
somewhere in the Midwest,
and she is looking out at the irises in someone’s garden.
And while that might have been occurring,
my Massachusetts-born father was riding
another train from Boston to Galveston
to work as an electrician on an off-shore oil rig,
a man who was more likely to be reading a newspaper
than admiring the blossoms in a stranger’s garden,
but who must have spent some time
looking out at the scenery, wondering about himself,
and maybe a field of wildflowers went flashing by.
Only years later did two other trains
carry the two of them east,
the tracks of their lives meeting in New York,
where I was born—because I wanted to be close
to my mother, my father liked to joke.
She was still a nurse, and he was her patient.
He had been struck on the head by a wrench
a co-worker had fumbled, and that is the story
of how I got here, how I pulled into the station of my life.