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.

Billy Collins

The Cast

The Cast

I lost the starring part in Our Town
To Linda, a girl not half as good as me,
Who kept her eyes down
For the whole tryout, and even stuttered.

When the cast was posted
And the high school drama coach
Saw me reading it through my tears,
He put an arm around me and said,
“Now, look—things are not always as they appear.
This is not Broadway;
It’s an educational institution.
We’re here for two reasons—to put on a show,
And, more important, to help people grow.
Someday you’ll see.”

So Linda played Emily,
And she didn’t even stutter.
And I was Third Woman at the Wedding,
Watching and wondering how he knew
What she could really do
If she had the chance.

Since then I have guessed that God,
Being a whole lot smarter
Than my high school drama coach, might be offstage sometimes
With an arm around a questioning cast:
“Now, don’t try to outguess me.
Sometimes the first shall be last
And the last shall be first,
And I’ve got my own reasons.
I need some strong ones to star
And some strong ones to stand back.
And I’m going to put out front
Some you might not choose,
But you’ll see what they can really do
When they have the chance.
Mortality is an educational institution.
We’ve got to put on the show,
And, too, we’ve got to help people grow.”

As I walk through the scenes,
Watch the costumes move,
And listen to the lines
Of the powerful, the weak,
The rich, the poor,
I look at the leads with less awe than most,
And at the spear-carriers with more.