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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Report from the Subtropics - Billy Collins

For one thing, there's no more snow
to watch from an evening window,
and no armfuls of logs to carry into the house
so cumbersome you have to touch the latch with an elbow,

and once inside, no iron stove waiting like an old woman
for her early dinner of wood.

No hexagrams of frost to study carefully
on the cold glass pages of the bathroom.

And there's no black sweater to pull over my head
while I wait for the coffee to brew.

Instead, I walk around in children's clothes-
shorts and a T-shirt with the name of a band
lettered on the front, announcing me to nobody.

The sun never fails to arrive early
and refuses to leave the party
even after I go from room to room,
turning out all the lights, and making a face.

And the birds with those long white necks?
All they do is swivel their heads
to look at me as I walk past
as if they all knew my password
and the name of the city where I was born.


Billy Collins, with his signature humor, touches on something serious.  For as much as we complain about our situation, when confronted with a new environment, we often miss the old.  Written as a report, presumably to a loved one still in the place the narrator has left behind for the subtropics, the poem takes the form of a long complaint.  For as much as Collins complains about his cold winter clime, and all the work it entails, it's not like he has much positive to say about the tropics.

In fact, I'd say he dislikes the tropics more than he dislikes his cold winter home.  In the tropics, he says he's dressed "in children's clothes."  He's invisible, announced to nobody.  The sun is out all day and lingers, or as Collins puts it, "refuses to leave the party."  Even after he's put out the lights, the sun is still stubbornly up, causing him to "make a face," presumably a grimace or frown.  He complains about the birds, too, who give him a weirdly knowing, invasive look on their swivel heads.

This poem is like a long complaint from a grandparent, and that's part of what makes it so endearing.  It's easy to tell that despite the laundry list of inconveniences the place the narrator left behind, he really does love and miss that place.  Indeed, some of his "complaints" are so delicately worded.  "Hexagrams of frost" on the "cold glass pages of the bathroom" are there for study, and like a patient old woman, the wood stove waits for its supper of wood.  Enchanting images of a somewhat rustic life characterize the first few stanzas, and despite the cold outside, they're described with a real warmth, unlike the sweaty tropics, which sound cold and impersonal.

As always, Collins wraps real sentiment and easily digested truths in humor, making it easy for his message to work its way into your head and heart.  He's probably my favorite contemporary poet (along with much of the world, I imagine) and I hope you enjoy his humor, and find the somewhat more serious morsel at the core of the poem.

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