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Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Chairs That No One Sits In - Billy Collins

You see them on porches and on lawns
down by the lakeside,
usually arranged in pairs implying a couple

who might sit there and look out
at the water or the big shade trees.
The trouble is you never see anyone

sitting in these forlorn chairs
though at one time it must have seemed
a good place to stop and do nothing for a while.

Sometimes there is a little table
between the chairs where no one
is resting a glass or placing a book facedown.

It might be none of my business,
but it might be a good idea one day
for everyone who placed those vacant chairs

on a veranda or a dock to sit down in them
for the sake of remembering
whatever it was they thought deserved

to be viewed from two chairs
side by side with a table in between.
The clouds are high and massive that day.

The woman looks up from her book.
The man takes a sip of his drink.
Then there is nothing but the sound of their looking,

the lapping of lake water, and a call of one bird
then another, cries of joy or warning-
it passes the time to wonder which.


Above all, this poem is about how our best laid plans can easily be forgotten.  The chairs in the poem serve as a visual reminder of all the things we think would be nice to do, that perhaps we take for granted.  "I can sit in those chairs any time" one might think, and as a result, never sit in the chairs.

What Collins does so nicely here is portray, with a bit of humor, what might be seen from those chairs.  "...there is nothing but the sound of their looking" brings to mind all the calm and peace I can imagine of simply sitting and looking out over a beautiful scene.  For me, that mental picture would have to be Lake George up in the Adirondack mountains.  That is a place where I have just sat, with a book facedown next to me, enjoying the quiet lapping of lake water against the shore.

Poetically, the feature I most enjoy in this poem are the small enjambments that Collins uses to create a sense of motion.  My favorite instances is "a call of one bird/then another."  Visually, our eyes are drawn from one bird's call down to the next line, where it is greeted by another.  It's easy to imagine a lone bird's cry, answered shortly thereafter by another.  I also like the "nothing but the sound of their looking,/the lapping of lake water" which precedes the bird line.  An image first of silence is created, and then as if painting another layer on, Collins introduced the background noise of quiet water movement.  It's like a time-lapse painting, with the scene slowly coming to life.

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