“It is possible to be struck by a meteor
or a single-engine plane
while reading in a chair at home….”
Those are the opening lines of Billy Collins’ poem “Picnic, Lightning,” part of an exhibition of public literature at the New York Botanical Garden. Throughout the garden this holiday season one finds Collins’ evocative poems, printed on large signs that also include an etching of a locomotive from New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, bellowing smoke as it chuffs along. I went there yesterday to see the famous holiday train show and the new Native Plant Garden, which opened in May. Trains and gardens: my favorite combination. With a heavy heart after Sunday’s devastating derailment on the Hudson Line, the visit was comforting in surprising ways.
Last week I wrote about the El Anatsui’s magical artwork on the High Line, Broken Bridge II, a site-specific piece that inspired not just because it was beautiful but because it so perfectly belonged in — and to — its landscape. In the Bronx today there is literature in the garden, and it brightens and informs everything you see around you. Another poem on the winding path, “Winter Syntax,” equates the mechanics of language — its units of grammar and sound — to the elements found in nature: “Bare branches in winter are a form of writing….Every lake is a vowel, every island a noun.”
But on this day, it is Collins’ poem about being suddenly struck down that resonates most. Its power comes from the setting — a winter landscape filled with plants that are dying or going dormant — and the poet’s contemplation of time slowly, but inexorably, passing in his garden. He fills his wheelbarrow with compost, the gradually decomposing remnants of plants, flowers and other organic material, all the while contemplating another possibility: “the instant hand of Death / always ready to burst forth / from the sleeve of his voluminous cloak.” The locomotive is a spooky accompaniment in the wake of Sunday’s tragedy, but it makes a strong evocation of time marching on. It also powerfully contrasts with the poem’s quieter, more meditative ending, which recalls “the click / of the sundial / as one hour sweeps into the next.”
If you are also feeling sad, I recommend a visit to the Bronx. Take the train from Grand Central Terminal, that uplifting palace that should — if only we were so lucky — be the start of every journey we take. And while you’re there, before you board your train, here are a few more lines from Billy Collins to guide your way. These come from his poem “Grand Central,” and are used — as are all the quotations in this piece — by permission of the Chris Calhoun Agency:
“Lift up your eyes from the moving hive
and you will see time circling
under a vault of stars and know
just when and where you are.”
Note: all quotations from Billy Collins’ poems are used by permission of the Chris Calhoun Agency, with gratitude. To read and download all of Collins’ poems in the “Poetry for Every Season” exhibit visit the New York Botanical Garden’s website. To learn more about Billy Collins and his work, visit the poet’s website.