Wednesday, October 27, 2004

“An Inadvertent Partner to America's Sworn Enemies”

“An Inadvertent Partner to America's Sworn Enemies”

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
October 27, 2004

“A new age of proliferation is just beginning, and George W. Bush is its father.” A new kind of brutal world is emerging, and George W. Bush is its executioner. These are not my words. And these are not election time hyperbole either.

With each blundering aggressions and stubbornness shown by this “God” toting administration, the rest of the world reacts accordingly. Bush’s preventive war doctrine which is softly called as the preemptive war just for making it more palatable, are raising the urgency among the nations around the world to adopt their own preventive / preemptive measures. And what can be more preventive than going nuclear like the big brother already had gone along with other open and covert members of growing nuclear club?

The debates between Kerry and Bush highlighted a few issues that generally do not get much attention in the press. One of them is the issue of North Korea. Bush repeatedly rejected bilateral talks between the United States and the North Korea stating that he preferred the six party talks already in existence. But in reality as James Carroll pointed out in his Boston Globe article, “six-party talks that had, in effect, already collapsed.”

During a joint press conference on October 27, 2004 at Seoul, the South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was blunt in his assessment of the grave situation in the Korean peninsula while Colin Powell looked on. Ban informed the press (despite the initial attempt of the translator in ignoring his translation duty) that he told Powell that North Korea's neighbors and the United States "must come up with a more creative and realistic proposal so that North Korea can come to the table as soon as possible. North Korea flatly refused coming to the fourth talks regarding its nuclear program, even the parties in this multilateral talk namely “South Korea, China and Russia have been frustrated with the U.S. position”.

What about Iran? What can Iran’s Mullah driven theocracy do when there is that comparable kind of “gathering storm” amassing, just like it did before the starting of Iraq war? Without taking the more sensible steps in improving bilateral relationship with Iran that could have strengthened the hands of the moderates, Bush’s aggressive policy has only infuriated the mass that in effect made the opposition to the “Mullah-o-Cracy” seemed synonymous to supporting the “Great Satan”. Like North Korea, Iran has flatly refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program, even after getting outwardly generous incentive offerings from the European nations, Britain, France and Germany that “offered civilian nuclear technology and a trade deal to the Iranians in a private meeting at the French mission to international organizations in Vienna. But Western diplomats said they doubt the Tehran regime will back down easily.”

And why would they? When “Bush keeps the nuclear future alive by devoting hundreds of millions of dollars - and precious political capital - to develop a new generation of nukes, so-called earth-penetrating nuclear weapons. As Kerry put it, "You talk about mixed messages. We're telling people, `You can't have nuclear weapons,' but we're pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using."

Bush and his “evangelical” neocon team has so far been successful spreading their fear of ghosts and gremlins among a large segment of American populace by repeating the magical mantra of 911 in almost every other sentence. Would it be possible for Kerry and his team to shed all pretenses and come really level to the American people, eye to eye, not only for political score, and tell them what this war and fear based politics are all about? America needs to know as the most of the world already knows the “TRUTH”, and Kerry can be the messenger.

What could happen if Kerry wins this election? Would that day ever come, however improbable to muse at this juncture of time, when Bush and his closed knit neocons are put into trial along with the despised Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden for their camouflaging, inciting more terror in the name of “crusade” and “jihad”? That would be a good start in achieving the world peace that Bush so eloquently talks about in his stump speeches. World peace could be achieved but not before voting out Bush from his throne, and not before fully realizing that the Bush administration has become an inadvertent (or premeditated) partner to America's sworn enemies. It has, indeed.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

New Holy Alliance -- How to Make New Enemies

When Zbigniew Brzezinski speaks his mind, many listens with respect. After all, he was the national security adviser in the Carter administration. Mr. Brzezinski is also one of the few prominent American citizens who dared to come forward a few years ago against the impending war when the American media and most liberal politicians had shown nothing but their cowardice and self-denial rhetorics.

There are many points one may not agree with Mr. Brzezinski, including his suggestion of solving Israel and Palestinian crisis in a way that would deprive many Palestinians of their basic rights, like return to their ancestral land from which they were evicted, even no formal planning of compensation or alternative arrangements for these distressed refugees scattered around in Jordan and other parts of Middle East was presented.

However, there are some critical points Mr. Brzezinski made that urge further exploration. Here is one of them: "President Bush's "global war on terror" is a politically expedient slogan without real substance, serving to distort rather than define. It obscures the central fact that a civil war within Islam is pitting zealous fanatics against increasingly intimidated moderates. The undiscriminating American rhetoric and actions increase the likelihood that the moderates will eventually unite with the jihadists in outraged anger and unite the world of Islam in a head-on collision with America."

That's what the extremists of both sides dearly wish to get. A final show down between Islam and America, a new "crusade" or "jihad" to fulfill extremists' dream of materializing prophecies from their respected religious scriptures so that they all could go to their "haeven" as quickly as possible.

On Iraq Mr. Brzezinski comments: "For a growing number of Iraqis, their "liberation" from Saddam Hussein is turning into a despised foreign occupation. Nationalism is blending with religious fanaticism into a potent brew of hatred. The rates of desertion from the American-trained new Iraqi security forces are dangerously high, while the likely escalation of United States military operations against insurgent towns will generate a new rash of civilian casualties and new recruits for the rebels."

Mr. Bush's deception filled journey is increasingly proving to be solitary one as more and more of his "allies" are withdrawing their supports from his "semicolonial" ventures in the Middle East. He and his administration have lost all the credibility around the world, from Europe to Asia to Latin America and Africa. Mr. Bush's policy is "caricatured as a crude reliance on power, semicolonial in its attitude, and driven by prejudice toward the Islamic world."

At this point Mr. Brzezinski made a startling pronouncement, a possible "Holy Alliance" in the model of historical past of early seventeenth century. Here is his comment on this in its entirety: "This global solitude might make a re-elected Bush administration more vulnerable to the temptation to embrace a new anti-Islamic alliance, one reminiscent of the Holy Alliance that emerged after 1815 to prevent revolutionary upheavals in Europe. The notion of a new Holy Alliance is already being promoted by those with a special interest in entangling the United States in a prolonged conflict with Islam. Vladimir Putin's endorsement of Mr. Bush immediately comes to mind; it also attracts some anti-Islamic Indian leaders hoping to prevent Pakistan from dominating Afghanistan; the Likud in Israel is also understandably tempted; even China might play along."

What would happen if that scenario indeed do materialize? "For the United States, however, a new Holy Alliance would mean growing isolation in an increasingly polarized world. That prospect may not faze the extremists in the Bush administration who are committed to an existential struggle against Islam and who would like America to attack Iran, but who otherwise lack any wider strategic conception of what America's role in the world ought to be. It is, however, of concern to moderate Republicans."

Mr. Brzezinski's article is attached below. Perhaps as Mr. Brzezinski ponted out that existing problems of terrorism could be "tackled effectively only if America and Europe cooperate and engage the more moderate Muslim states." And if they don't ignore the voice of moderate Muslims in those nations.

Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
October 24, 2004

How to Make New Enemies


It is striking that in spite of all the electoral fireworks over policy in Iraq, both presidential candidates offer basically similar solutions. Their programs stress intensified Iraqi self-help and more outside help in the quest for domestic stability. Unfortunately, these prescriptions by themselves are not likely to work.

Both candidates have become prisoners of a worldview that fundamentally misdiagnoses the central challenge of our time. President Bush's "global war on terror" is a politically expedient slogan without real substance, serving to distort rather than define. It obscures the central fact that a civil war within Islam is pitting zealous fanatics against increasingly intimidated moderates. The undiscriminating American rhetoric and actions increase the likelihood that the moderates will eventually unite with the jihadists in outraged anger and unite the world of Islam in a head-on collision with America.

After all, look what's happening in Iraq. For a growing number of Iraqis, their "liberation" from Saddam Hussein is turning into a despised foreign occupation. Nationalism is blending with religious fanaticism into a potent brew of hatred. The rates of desertion from the American-trained new Iraqi security forces are dangerously high, while the likely escalation of United States military operations against insurgent towns will generate a new rash of civilian casualties and new recruits for the rebels.

The situation is not going to get any easier. If President Bush is re-elected, our allies will not be providing more money or troops for the American occupation. Mr. Bush has lost credibility among other nations, which distrust his overall approach. Moreover, the British have been drawing down their troop strength in Iraq, the Poles will do the same, and the Pakistanis recently made it quite plain that they will not support a policy in the Middle East that they view as self-defeating.

In fact, in the Islamic world at large as well as in Europe, Mr. Bush's policy is becoming conflated in the public mind with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy in Gaza and the West Bank. Fueled by anti-American resentments, that policy is widely caricatured as a crude reliance on power, semicolonial in its attitude, and driven by prejudice toward the Islamic world. The likely effect is that staying on course under Mr. Bush will remain a largely solitary American adventure.

This global solitude might make a re-elected Bush administration more vulnerable to the temptation to embrace a new anti-Islamic alliance, one reminiscent of the Holy Alliance that emerged after 1815 to prevent revolutionary upheavals in Europe. The notion of a new Holy Alliance is already being promoted by those with a special interest in entangling the United States in a prolonged conflict with Islam. Vladimir Putin's endorsement of Mr. Bush immediately comes to mind; it also attracts some anti-Islamic Indian leaders hoping to prevent Pakistan from dominating Afghanistan; the Likud in Israel is also understandably tempted; even China might play along.

For the United States, however, a new Holy Alliance would mean growing isolation in an increasingly polarized world. That prospect may not faze the extremists in the Bush administration who are committed to an existential struggle against Islam and who would like America to attack Iran, but who otherwise lack any wider strategic conception of what America's role in the world ought to be. It is, however, of concern to moderate Republicans.

Unfortunately, the predicament faced by America in Iraq is also more complex than the solutions offered so far by the Democratic side in the presidential contest. Senator John Kerry would have the advantage of enjoying greater confidence among America's traditional allies, since he might be willing to re-examine a war that he himself had not initiated. But that alone will not produce German or French funds and soldiers. The self-serving culture of comfortable abstention from painful security responsibilities has made the major European leaders generous in offering criticism but reluctant to assume burdens.

To get the Europeans to act, any new administration will have to confront them with strategic options. The Europeans need to be convinced that the United States recognizes that the best way to influence the eventual outcome of the civil war within Islam is to shape an expanding Grand Alliance (as opposed to a polarizing Holy Alliance) that embraces the Middle East by taking on the region's three most inflammatory and explosive issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the mess in Iraq, and the challenge of a restless and potentially dangerous Iran.

While each issue is distinct and immensely complex, each affects the others. The three must be tackled simultaneously, and they can be tackled effectively only if America and Europe cooperate and engage the more moderate Muslim states.

A grand American-European strategy would have three major prongs. The first would be a joint statement by the United States and the European Union outlining the basic principles of a formula for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, with the details left to negotiations between the parties. Its key elements should include no right of return; no automatic acceptance of the 1967 lines but equivalent territorial compensation for any changes; suburban settlements on the edges of the 1967 lines incorporated into Israel, but those more than a few miles inside the West Bank vacated to make room for the resettlement of some of the Palestinian refugees; a united Jerusalem serving as the capitals of the two states; and a demilitarized Palestinian state with some international peacekeeping presence.

Such a joint statement, by providing the Israeli and Palestinian publics a more concrete vision of the future, would help to generate support for peace, even if the respective leaders and some of the citizens initially objected.

Secondly, the European Union would agree to make a substantial financial contribution to the recovery of Iraq, and to deploy a significant military force (including French and German contingents, as has been the case in Afghanistan) to reduce the American military presence. A serious parallel effort on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process might induce some Muslim states to come in, as was explicitly suggested recently by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. The effect would be to transform the occupation of Iraq into a transitional international presence while greatly increasing the legitimacy of the current puppet Iraqi regime. But without progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, any postoccupation regime in Iraq will be both anti-United States and anti-Israel.

In addition, the United States and the European Union would approach Iran for exploratory discussions on regional security issues like Iraq, Afghanistan and nuclear proliferation. The longer-term objective would be a mutually acceptable formula that forecloses the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran but furthers its moderation through an economically beneficial normalization of relations with the West.

A comprehensive initiative along these lines would force the European leaders to take a stand: not to join would run the risk of reinforcing and legitimating American unilateralism while pushing the Middle East into a deeper crisis. America might unilaterally attack Iran or unilaterally withdraw from Iraq. In either case, a sharing of burdens as well as of decisions should provide a better solution for all concerned.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, is the author of "The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership.''

Arab and Jewish Votes

There is no surprise in knowing that most Muslims in U.S. supports John Kerry over George W. Bush ( >90% ). Why? Here are the obvious reasons:

"Not only do they see Bush's Patriot Act as discriminatory, most of these Americans dislike the president's unwavering support of Israel - including his backing of Ariel Sharon's security fence and the diplomatic isolation of Yasir Arafat." William Safire could have added one more reason in his New York Times artice and that is the illegal war on Iraq that the Bush administration started based on deceptions and lies.

However, to many it may sounds surprising to know that evem most Jewish Americans are supporting Kerry over Bush (80%), even though Bush has purported himself as the Israel's "best friend in the White House". William Safire opines the reason as the following: "most Jewish Americans quite properly base their vote on issues like social justice, civil liberty, economic fairness and not primarily on what may be good for Israel."

No one knows what Kerry will bring on the table if he gets elected as the next American President, but his previous compassionate track record, especially his bold stance against the Vietnam war three decades ago and his overall liberal stance in most major political issues, could prove to be "most likely to help gain a secure peace in the Middle East". Bush's faith-based dogma and politics have much less chance in succeeding in this regard.

Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
October 24, 2004

Arab and Jewish Votes

Washington — You have to give credit to Arab-Americans, and to the overlapping category of American Muslims, for knowing what side they are on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and for voting for those they believe would address their concerns.

Four years ago, they voted almost two to one for George W. Bush, thinking he would act like his father. Today, according to the Zogby poll, American Muslim voters are going 10 to 1 in the opposite political direction - for John Kerry over Bush. Not only do they see Bush's Patriot Act as discriminatory, most of these Americans dislike the president's unwavering support of Israel - including his backing of Ariel Sharon's security fence and the diplomatic isolation of Yasir Arafat.

This stunning reversal of opinion within a growing voting bloc is having an impact. For example, about a half million Arab-Americans live in Michigan, according to the Arab American Institute; most have turned strongly anti-Bush. That's why pollsters are counting Michigan, with its 17 electoral votes, as "leaning toward Kerry."

What about the other voting group that has a special interest in ending the war launched against Israelis after Yasir Arafat turned down the offer brokered by President Clinton?

Jewish American voters who differ with their Arab and Muslim compatriots, one might logically conclude, would seriously consider supporting the candidate who many Israelis believe has been their best friend in the White House.

But such logic is misleading. Four years ago, candidate Bush received 20 percent of the "Jewish vote," about halfway between the low point for a Republican candidate (5 percent for Goldwater) and the high point (39 percent for Reagan). Today, it appears that Bush is getting only slightly more than the 20 percent of last time.

Despite the fact that this president has firmly backed Israel's vigorous self-defense - and time and again vetoed or denounced lopsided U.N. votes to ostracize Israel - 8 out of 10 Jewish American voters will still vote as a bloc to oust him.

Why? To hold the bloc's usual support, Kerry has me-tooed every policy decision Bush has made affecting Israel - finding old armistice lines "unrealistic," keeping Jerusalem undivided, favoring Arafat's isolation. Though at first he told an Arab-American audience that Israel's security fence was "a barrier to peace," Kerry changed his mind to comport with Bush's support of Ariel Sharon's plan.

Kerry can legitimately point to dozens of pro-Israel votes. But the essence of his foreign policy - to rely on alliances with France, Germany, Russia and the U.N. to combat terror and enforce the peace - requires accommodation with the central demand of these Arab-influenced entities to lean heavily on Israel to make the very concessions Kerry now says he's against. No Kerry heat on Israel, no grand new global alliance.

One answer to the "why?'' posed above is that most Jewish Americans quite properly base their vote on issues like social justice, civil liberty, economic fairness and not primarily on what may be good for Israel. That's been especially true when democratic Israel, like the U.S., has had a close hawk-dove split.

But now, the great majority of Israelis and Americans are behind Sharon's decision to pull 7,000 settlers out of Gaza. Because a zealous Jewish minority opposes giving up an inch of revered land, Israel is under great internal strain. Some rabbis are urging soldiers to disobey orders, tearing at the fabric of a Jewish state. Israel needs an ally, not a broker.

Kerry has lately echoed Bush's support of Sharon's daring plan of unilateral disengagement. But it is Bush who has the four-year record of standing up for Israel's right of self-defense. He has earned the trust of Israelis at a time when they most need a stalwart ally to make this plan succeed - and to help turn Palestine into a peaceful neighboring state.

Most Arab-Americans and U.S. Muslims, as is their right, disparage Sharon's plan. But in getting out of Gaza, the national interests of the U.S. and Israel are in accord.

As one who has all his life been a political minority within an ethnic minority, I hope that other longtime supporters of Israel will - at this moment of its political trial - allow themselves to give a little added weight in their voting decisions to candidates most likely to help gain a secure peace in the Middle East.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Legendary bandit buried in India

How convenient is it to kill a "bandit" rather than taking him to the due process of justice, unless there are reasons to worry for the law enforcement officials in India that a captured "bandit" might disclose the names of powerful boys high up involved in shady matters. Read the following from a BBC article: "A leading human rights group has called for an inquiry into Veerappan's killing.

The group, People's Watch, say the killing could have been avoided.

Its head, Henry Tiphagne, asked in an interview with the BBC Tamil Service: "Why could the 100 armed police officers who surrounded Veerappan not have forced him to surrender or simply wounded him?"

Tamil Nadu police say the killing of Veerappan and three associates was the result of months of planning.

Veerappan had many times told journalists how he had bribed police and politicians, and had made clear he would give details if he was ever tried.

Mr Tiphagne said, with Veerappan's death, the allegations of his links to leading figures in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka could not be examined. "

How convenient!

God & The Presidency: An In-Depth Examination Of Faith In The Bush White House

Here is a good piece from Democracy Now! on Bush's faith based politics.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Line of Beauty takes the Booker

The Guardian writes, "The chairman of judges, the former arts minister Chris Smith, said: "This was an incredibly difficult and close decision. It has resulted in a winning novel that is exciting, brilliantly written and gets deep under the skin of the Thatcherite 80s. The search for love, sex and beauty is rarely so exquisitely done".

The result was a split vote, with Hollinghurst, Mitchell and Colm Tóibin's The Master, a fictional portrait of the author Henry James, "all very close".

The Line of Beauty is a sumptuously written parable of the well-upholstered rise, decline and disgraceful fall of Nick Guest, an Oxford postgraduate who is a proud, detached connoisseur of literature, music and style. "

Here is a good source of information on Alan Hollinghurst.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

The Known World – a Book Review

The Known World – a Book Review

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)

October 9, 2004

The Known World


Does color of one’s skin matter in determining whether someone can be cruel? Does religion matter in one’s fallibility from the apex of compassions? What is it that makes us blind facing the oppressions committed by “our people”? What is it that provokes us castigating “others” from our benevolence that we solely reserve for the powerful and economic might or perhaps for our immediate family or friends?

In the time of slavery, possibly the most revolting part of American history, selling and buying the colored men, women and children in the broad daylight was just like any other exchanges of properties that had monetary value. Religious scriptures were interpreted such a literal way that these scriptures supposedly ordained a societal system where the slaves followed their masters to heaven or to hell. In the matter of all practicality for earthlings, it was the earthly hell that the slaves went living their lives in where the masters roaming around their heavenly world riding elegant horses, whipping and denigrating human beings to the standard of other tortured animals.

The history of slave has deep root, it did not begin in American shore. From the earliest human history that man can fathom to date, slavery was there with its entire brutish décor in more or less every culture, under the umbrellas of most known religions. Perhaps in some religions there were no direct references to slaves, but there were hierarchical societies working their own subjugation of people that they termed as “lower caste” or the “untouchables”, or in the form of harem extravaganza tucked away from windy desert.


Edward P. Jones’ The Known World is a masterfully written story, weaved like a long poem, with its elegance and pathos filled plots and subplots, twisting characters, the dilemmas that both the slaves and the slave-owners went through, especially, the lives of freed black families who owned slaves, a bizarre part of that undiluted history of American past was presented in uncompromising artistry.

Unlike most other contemporary writers, Edward P. Jones did not shut the door of truth. He did not craft masquerading pretensions that black men and women were incapable of adopting equal inhumanity displayed by their counterparts the white men and women of that time of slavery. With his magnetic prose he illustrated a shocking picture of reality where existed freed black families who had owned slaves. This was not Mr. Jones’ pure imagination. There were indeed black slave owners lived in the same counties with the white slave owners, proud of their plantations, proud of their precious “properties”.

Is this anything different than the Africans enslaving their fellow Africans centuries ago?

Still, it invokes a strange feeling. A known world where slavery’s all oppressions and cruelties were seen springing from the differences of races and ignorance, how could the freed blacks who were themselves slaves at some point of time of their lives, who and whose parents struggled hard to buy the freedom from their earthly white masters, who had witnessed and suffered all the agonies and humiliations of slavery, now turned around and enslaved the fellow black brethrens? That known world crumbles, and a world of strangeness with equal shame and pain of slavery raises its serpent like head in Edward P. Jones’ riveting novel.


The Known World does not have any central protagonist. Though the story circled around Henry Townsend, a freed black slave owner’s death and funeral in 1855, going back and forth in time and through various places in and around Virginia, even as far away as New York and Texas, it is a story told by multiple voices, their own stories branching out from the main story, but eventually pulled back to the central stage that a great writer knows how to do with precision. The literary technique that Edward P. Jones employed was simply brilliant. It was like reading someone’s mind in real time bioscope. In reality, even during the grim moment of a person’s life, mind strays to various other issues from the current moment’s vicinity. Most writers ignore it. But Mr. Jones sprinkled it from time to time. It made the story more momentous to read.

When Henry Townsend bought his first slave, he was hesitant to inform his father, Augustus, and mother, Mildred. And when he did, he was confronted by his parents who had suffered so much from an abysmal system of slavery; who had never thought that their only son, who had witnessed their sufferings, could ever take that fateful step of becoming a slave-owner himself.

Here is a memorable scene:

“No, Papa. I got my own man. I bought my own man. Bought him cheap from Master Robbins. Moses.” The pie had made him drowsy and he was thinking how good it would be to go upstairs and fall asleep. “He a good worker. Lotta years in him. And Mr. Robbins lend me the rest of the men for the work.”

Mildred and Augustus looked at each other and Mildred lowered her head.

Augustus stood up so quickly his chair tilted back and he reached around to catch it without taking his eyes from Henry. “You mean tell me you bought a man and he yours now? You done bought him and you didn’t free that man? You own a man, Henry?”

“Yes. Well, yes, Papa,” Henry looked from his father to his mother.

Mildred stood up, too. “Henry, why?” she said. “Why would you do that?” She went through her memory for the time, for the day, she and her husband told him all about what he should and should not do. No goin out into them woods without Papa or me knowin about it. No stepping foot out this house without them free papers, not even to go to the well or the privy. Say your prayers every night.

“Do what, Mama? What is it?”

Pick the blueberries close to the ground, son. Them the sweetest, I find. If a white man say the trees can talk, can dance, you just say yes right along, that you done seen em do it plenty of times. Don’t look them people in the eye. You see a white woman ridin toward you, get way off the road and go stand behind a tree. The uglier the white woman, the farther you go and the broader the tree. But where, in all she taught her son, was it about thou shall own no one, havin been owned once your own self. Don’t go back to Egypt after God done took you outta there.

“Don’t you know the wrong of that, Henry?” Augustus said.

“Nobody never told me the wrong of that.”

“Why should anybody haveta teach you the wrong, son?” Augustus said. “Ain’t you got eyes to see it without me telling you?”

“Henry,” Mildred said, “why do things the same old bad way?”

“I ain’t, Mama. I ain’t.”

Augustus said quietly, “I promised myself when I got this little bit of land that I would never suffer a slaveowner to set foot on it. Never.” He put his hand momentarily to his mouth and then tugged at his beard. “Of all the human beins on God’s earth I never once thought the first slaveowner I would tell to leave my place would be my own child. I never thought it would be you. Why did we ever buy you offa Robbins if you gon do this? Why trouble ourselves with you bein free, Henry? You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and my legs.” Augustus walked out the room to the front door, meaning for Henry to follow. Mildred sat back down but soon stood up again.

“Papa, I ain’t done nothing I ain’t a right to. I ain’t done nothing no white man wouldn’t do. Papa, wait.”

Mildred went to her son and put her hand to the back of his neck and rubbed it. “Augustus …. ?” Henry followed his father and Mildred followed her son. “Papa. Papa, now wait now.” In the front room, Augustus turned to Henry. “You best leave, and you best leave now,” Augustus said. He opened the door.

“I ain’t done nothing that any white man wouldn’t do. I ain’t broke no law. I ain’t. You listen here.” Beside the door, Augustus had several racks of walking sticks, one under the other, about ten in all. “Papa, just cause you didn’t, that don’t mean …” Augustus took down a stick, one with an array of squirrels chasing one another, head to tail, tail to head, a line of sleek creatures going around and around the stick all the way to the top where a perfect acorn was waiting, stem and all. Augustus slammed the stick down across Henry’s shoulder and Henry crumpled to the floor. “Augustus, stop now!” Mildred shouted and knelt to her son. “Thas how a slave feel!” Augustus called down to him. “Thas just how every slave every day be feelin.

Henry squirmed out of his mother’s arms and managed to get to his feet. He took the stick from his father. “Henry, no!” Mildred said. Henry, with two tries, broke the stick over his knee. “Thas how a master feels,” he said and went out the door.

To Henry Townsend’s mind, he did not do anything wrong. He thought that he was just a law-abiding citizen like the rest of them slave-owners, white and black. It was this established system of those gory days and nights, that made a sordid system like slavery to go on for years and years, protected by “laws”, lawmakers and law enforcers. There were sympathizers amid the white folks, especially those who had had exposure to free north. John and Winifred Skiffington were two of them. John was the chief law enforcer in the Manchester County where this story is mostly based. A thoughtful man who did feel anguished in witnessing the rawness of slavery everywhere where eyes could meet, but still he was steadfast in upholding the “law”, even witnessing severing parts of ear from an apprehended “slave” who had dared to escape for freedom.


There was William Robbins, the richest slave owner in that Manchester County. He was a strange character. He had fallen in love with his own slave, had two children from her, wanted so dearly that his white wife’s daughter and his black mistress’ daughter and son should meet each other and live in a harmonious life. He was the one who had inspired Henry Townsend becoming a slave owner like him.

Here is one extract where Robbins was teaching Henry about the “law”:

“Henry,” Robbins said, looking not at him but out to the other side of the road, “the law will protect you as a master to your slave, and it will not flinch when it protects you. That protection lasts from here” --- and he pointed to an imaginary place in the road --- “all the way to the death of that property” --- and he pointed to a place a few feet from the first place. “But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much more darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns round and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed that you will need. You will have failed in your part of the bargain. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter.” Henry pulled his hand down from the horse’s forehead. “You are rollin round now, today, with property you have a slip of paper on. How will you act when you have ten slips of paper, fifty slips of paper? How will you act, Henry, when you have a hundred slips of paper? Will you still be rollin in the dirt with them?”

Henry took his former master Robbins’ advice to his heart. He went back to his first slave that he had ever bought, Moses, and slapped him twice.

“Why don’t you never do what I tell you to do? Why is that, Moses?”

“I do. I always do what you tell me to do, Massa.”

“Nigger, you don’t. You never do.”

Thus begins master Henry’s triumphant slave-owner life. He bought more slaves, dozens of them, had built cabins for them, wanted to be a different kind of master who cared for his slaves. But is it possible to become a caring master? Edward P. Jones observed the following, “He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master." Whatever good intentions Henry possibly had, it was not materialized, slaves had their lives in gloomy cabins, malnourished from lack of enough food whereas the master was having his life of luxury, entertaining guests with expensive food, buying more land, etc., the typical story of exploitations, told and retold so many times from time immemorial.


When Henry died in 1855 at a young age, living his widowed wife Caldonia, and parents Augustus and Mildred to grief, slowly but surely a process of degradation started in his plantation, starting with Moses, the very first slave that Henry bought. Moses was the overseer, and he wanted to be free and respected like his “massa” Henry. He worked hard in the field, and was unpitying in his treatments of subordinate slaves that he supposed to oversee. When Henry bought Moses, he thought perhaps somebody was “fiddling” with him.

“It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn't fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Sleeping in a cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore?"

After Henry’s funeral, fights broke out among the slaves, lust and power struggles crept in, and undeniably “Missus” Caldonia though grimacing for being the new “master” of her “legacies”, began a physical affair with her “legacy” Moses that eventually led to “disappearances” of slaves, a process of disintegration that went on further in antebellum South, creating more tensions among the slave owners, white and black, who regarded the escapes of slaves a sign of more bad things to come from those “damn abolitionists” of the North. Perhaps they feared another rebellion like Nat Turner’s episode in making.


John Skiffington felt more pressure, he felt sure that William Robbins would put blame on his inability in enforcing “law” in the county. But this law was to be selective. When one of his patrollers, Barnum informed him that Augustus was sold, though he was a “free” black man, he did not take any punitive steps on the culprits, Harvey and Oden Peoples, even after confronting them on this issue. He just gave them a mere warning. But his treatment of Mildred was inconsistent, slicing her heart with bullet, in his fervent pursuance of escaped slave Moses.

When Mildred refused to give up the escaped slave, John said, “I have not come all this way to be denied by a … by a nigger. Do you hear me, Mildred? No nigger will stand between me and my duty…. I have a right to do what is right, and no nigger can stand and oppose that right….I have a duty to uphold…That’s all there is to it.” Like many other well-intentioned white folks of that time of antebellum in South, John had contradictory feelings regarding slavery. He did not wish to live in that desolate place where his adopted daughter, Minerva, was not permitted to live a free life; he wanted to move to Philadelphia with his wife and family where “Benjamin Franklin had lived. He should have been on the bank of a nice river, showing his son how to make a living just from God’s bounty. And Minerva should have been out, out with some Pennsylvania Negro.”

John Skiffington did put efforts finding Augustus, knowing fully well that he was working against a system that did not treat the selling of a free black man as a high crime. When he was sending “urgent” telegram to various states regarding Augustus, he pondered the following: “When he started writing, there had been certainty that selling Augustus Townsend was a crime, but he became less certain not long before he had to sign his name under all the answers. Had Virginia, in fact, declared such a sale a crime? Could the cord of a man born into slavery ever be cut forever and completely, even if he had been free for some years? Was he not doomed by virtue of the color of his skin?”


Barnum, a drunken patroller, a poor white man, disclosed the unlawful selling of Augustus by Harvey and Oden Peoples, but he was struggling in his mind, he was struggling to make sure that he was not perceived as taking a “nigger side”. Here is his response to one of John Skiffington’s question:

“Now I don’t want you to take me telling you all this as my becoming a nigger kisser or something like that. It ain’t that. You know me, John. But they sold that Augustus and they sold his mule……But he was a free and clear man, and the law said so. Augustus never hurt me, never said bad to me. What Harvey done was wrong. But telling you don’t put me on the nigger side. I’m still on the white man side, John. I’m still standin with the white. God help me if you believe something else about me……It’s just that there should be a way for a body to say what is without somebody sayin he standin on the nigger side. A body should be able to stand under some … some kinda light and declare what he knows without retribution. There should be some kinda lantern, John, that we can stand under and say, ‘I know what I know and what I know is God’s truth,’ and then come from under the light and nobody make any big commotion bout what he said. He could say it and just get on about his business, and nobody would say, ‘He be stickin up for the nigger, he be stickin up for them Indians.’ The lantern of truth wouldn’t low them to say that. There should be that kinda light, John. I regret what happened to Augustus.”

The Known World has uncovered paradoxical characters of men and women, masters and slaves, not through simple black and white lenses. There were contradictory feelings. There were love and anger, loyalties and betrayals. Through its resolute portrayal of oddities in free black owning black slaves, and the overall putrid surrounding of a system of slavery, it is successful in revealing the contradictions and hypocrisy filled world that we all live and breathe in, in a state of stupendous self-denial. It was same before, centuries and millenniums ago.


A few more reviews on "The Known World" that the readers may wish to read are the following::

  • 1. Gone with the Wind. By Darryl Pinckney. The New York Review of Books. Volume 51, Number 16.

  • (This is a very well written and comprehensive review available in the web to this date.)

Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) is a freelance writer. His email address is:

Friday, October 08, 2004

First Reader -- 24 Poems of Billy Collins

First Reader

By Billy Collins

I can see them standing politely on the wide pages
that I was still learning to turn,
Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,
playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos
of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,
the boy and girl who begin fiction.

Beyond the simple illustration of their neighborhood
the other protagonists were waiting in a huddle:
frightening Heathcliff, frightened Pip, Nick Adams
carrying a fishing rod, Emma Bovary riding into Rouen.

But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister
even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate,
and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type
of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes.

It was always Saturday and he and she
were always pointing at something and shouting "Look!"
pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father
as he pushed a hand mower over the lawn,
waving at aproned mother framed in the kitchen doorway,
pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.

They wanted us to look but we had looked already
and seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman.
We had seen the dog, walked, watered and fed the animal,
and now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking
permutations of the alphabet's small and capital letters.
Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.



By Billy Collins

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
or 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

on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a

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.



By Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive ---
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!" ---
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest,
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page ---
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
a few greasy-looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil ---
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet ---
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."



By Billy Collins

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this next one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.


Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

By Billy Collins

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna

or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure--if it is a pleasure--
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one--
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table--
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandanna

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.


I Ask You
By Billy Collins

What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside—
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.

No, it's all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles—
each a different height—
are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt—
frog at the edge of a pond—
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.


Neither Snow

By Billy Collins

When all of a sudden the city air filled with snow,
the distinguishable flakes
blowing sideways,
looked like krill
fleeing the maw of an advancing whale.

At least they looked that way to me
from the taxi window,
and since I happened to be sitting
that fading Sunday afternoon
in the very center of the universe,
who was in a better position
to say what looked like what,
which thing resembled some other?

Yes, it was a run of white plankton
borne down the Avenue of the Americas
in the stream of the wind,
phosphorescent against the weighty buildings.

Which made the taxi itself,
yellow and slow-moving,
a kind of undersea creature,
I thought as I wiped the fog from the glass,

and me one of its protruding eyes,
an eye on a stem
swiveling this way and that
monitoring one side of its world,
observing tons of water
tons of people
colored signs and lights
and now a wildly blowing race of snow.


Dear Reader

By Billy Collins

Baudelaire considers you his brother,
and Fielding calls out to you every few paragraphs
as if to make sure you have not closed the book,
and now I am summoning you up again,
attentive ghost, dark silent figure standing
in the doorway of these words.

Pope welcomes you into the glow of his study,
takes down a leather-bound Ovid to show you.
Tennyson lifts the latch to a moated garden,
and with Yeats you lean against a broken pear tree,
the day hooded by low clouds.

But now you are here with me,
composed in the open field of this page,
no room or manicured garden to enclose us,
no Zeitgeist marching in the background,
no heavy ethos thrown over us like a cloak.

Instead, our meeting is so brief and accidental,
unnoticed by the monocled eye of History,
you could be the man I held the door for
this morning at the bank or post office
or the one who wrapped my speckled fish.
You could be someone I passed on the street
or the face behind the wheel of an oncoming car.

The sunlight flashes off your windshield,
and when I look up into the small, posted mirror,
I watch you diminish—my echo, my twin—
and vanish around a curve in this whip
of a road we can't help traveling together.


Introduction to Poetry

By Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


Reading an Anthology of
Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty,
I Pause To Admire the Length
and Clarity of Their Titles
By Billy Collins
It seems these poets have nothing
up their ample sleeves
they turn over so many cards so early,
telling us before the first line
whether it is wet or dry,
night or day, the season the man is standing in,
even how much he has had to drink.
Maybe it is autumn and he is looking at a sparrow.
Maybe it is snowing on a town with a beautiful name.
"Viewing Peonies at the Temple of Good Fortune
on a Cloudy Afternoon" is one of Sun Tung Po's.
"Dipping Water from the River and Simmering Tea"
is another one, or just
"On a Boat, Awake at Night."
And Lu Yu takes the simple rice cake with
"In a Boat on a Summer Evening
I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird.
It Was Very Sad and Seemed To Be Saying
My Woman Is Cruel--Moved, I Wrote This Poem."
There is no iron turnstile to push against here
as with headings like "Vortex on a String,"
"The Horn of Neurosis," or whatever.
No confusingly inscribed welcome mat to puzzle over.
Instead, "I Walk Out on a Summer Morning
to the Sound of Birds and a Waterfall"
is a beaded curtain brushing over my shoulders.
And "Ten Days of Spring Rain Have Kept Me Indoors"
is a servant who shows me into the room
where a poet with a thin beard
is sitting on a mat with a jug of wine
whispering something about clouds and cold wind,
about sickness and the loss of friends.
How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner,
cross my legs like his, and listen.

Picnic, Lightning

By Billy Collins

It is possible to be struck by a
meteor or a single-engine plane while
reading in a chair at home. Pedestrians
are flattened by safes falling from
rooftops mostly within the panels of
the comics, but still, we know it is
possible, as well as the flash of
summer lightning, the thermos toppling
over, spilling out on the grass.
And we know the message can be
delivered from within. The heart, no
valentine, decides to quit after
lunch, the power shut off like a
switch, or a tiny dark ship is
unmoored into the flow of the body's
rivers, the brain a monastery,
defenseless on the shore. This is
what I think about when I shovel
compost into a wheelbarrow, and when
I fill the long flower boxes, then
press into rows the limp roots of red
impatiens -- the instant hand of Death
always ready to burst forth from the
sleeve of his voluminous cloak. Then
the soil is full of marvels, bits of
leaf like flakes off a fresco,
red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick
to burrow back under the loam. Then
the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the
clouds a brighter white, and all I
hear is the rasp of the steel edge
against a round stone, the small
plants singing with lifted faces, and
the click of the sundial as one hour
sweeps into the next.


Jazz and Nature

By Billy Collins

It was another clear sunny morning,
a dry breeze agitating the trees around the house,
and I had nothing on tap--
my usual scene in late August.

I was reading the autobiography
of Art Pepper, so I put on an Art Pepper album
and switched on the outdoor speakers
so I could sit outside in the hot sun,

and read more about his life of junk and prison
while I listened to his speedy, mellow alto
pouring out of two big maples
as if West Coast jazz were the music of Nature itself.

In this way, I drew a kind of box
around the morning,
in three dimensions and in pencil,
with me inside it holding a ruler in my hand.

I listened and read
and sometimes flipped to the photographs
to check the face of the man
who told me he once drove a greenish-gold Cadillac

that you could see forever into, like looking into a lake;
the man who said he composed
a ballad called "Diane" for his second wife
only to realize later

that the tune was way too beautiful for her.
The fellow who admitted to selling
his dog, a champagne poodle named Bijou,
for a twenty-dollar score

and who mentioned that men in prison
who were trying to kick would tuck
their pant legs into their socks
so the slightest breeze would not touch their skin.

Behind where I was sitting in the sun
was an outbreak of wild pink flox,
and some of the bees nuzzling there
started to hum around my head.

One bee in particular seemed so curious
about me I took a swipe at him,
stood up suddenly, and said "Don't mess with me
and I won't mess with you, you little punk,"

a remark no doubt the result
of my reading about California lowlife
in nineteen fifty-seven,
my all-time favorite year for jazz, as it happens.

But he persisted, this bee, and finally
drove me inside to the cool, dark study
where a cat was sleeping on a chair,
a good place to write these things down

and wonder what the rest of the day would hold--
maybe hanging a print on the wall
or getting a surprise phone call
from someone I used to love.

How about some Dexter Gordon
around the cocktail hour,
and who knows?
perhaps an encounter with a vicious ant--

all likely parts of my own autobiography,
a more cautious tale, told in the present tense,
with a few crude illustrations
and a diagram of a small family tree,

the work whose pages are turned
every day like a wheel that is turned by water,
the thing I can never stop writing,
the only book I can never put down.


Candle Hat

By Billy Collins

In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrandt looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
"Come in, " he would say, "I was just painting myself,"
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.



By Billy Collins

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes or famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon's
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.

How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyes camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?

Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.

And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car

as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.



By Billy Collins

Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It's the one about the one-ton temple bell
with the moth sleeping on its surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it at the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.



By Billy Collins

Remember the 1340's? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called "Find the Cow."
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.

Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent a badly broken code.

The 1790's will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.

I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.

Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.



By Billy Collins

It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.

It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs,
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile
standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph.

Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.

I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.

I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.


One Self

By Billy Collins

I am trying to imagine that I am someone else,
a grocer, an aerialist,
a young viola player who travels
around the country in a bus full of musicians,

but difficulty lurks at every turn.
I am not really sure what a viola looks like,
plus, I have become so used to being me
that I have become an assistant professor of myself.

By the time I have learned to play
the viola, even badly,
I would be close to death at best.
And I am so happy when I can stay home

and pass the time in a leather armchair,
volumes of Diderot on the shelf above me,
some jazz low on the radio,
slow waves of memory washing over me

and desire passing through me
like the tiny amount of electricity
that flows through the night-light in a bathroom.
So maybe the way to overcome the ego

is to start small, to imagine that I am still me
only I was born in Columbus, Ohio,
and I go to the gym three times a week.
Or, better still, I do not go to the gym at all—

it is up to me after all.
Maybe I stay home and listen to the news.
with an uncooperative look on my face,
a smoker who likes to look out the front window

as I do, or to sit in a leather chair
under a long shelf of French literature,
a fellow who gets tearful
whenever the wind stirs up the leaves,

who gets tearful thinking about his parents
buried under tall drifts of snow
in a large municipal cemetery
somewhere on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio.


The Art of Drowning

By Billy Collins

I wonder how it all got started, this business
about seeing your life flash before your eyes
while you drown, as if panic, or the act of submergence,
could startle time into such compression, crushing
decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds.

After falling off a steamship or being swept away
in a rush of floodwaters, wouldn't you hope
for a more leisurely review, an invisible hand
turning the pages of an album of photographs-
you up on a pony or blowing out candles in a conic hat.

How about a short animated film, a slide presentation?
Your life expressed in an essay, or in one model photograph?
Wouldn't any form be better than this sudden flash?
Your whole existence going off in your face
in an eyebrow-singeing explosion of biography-
nothing like the three large volumes you envisioned.

Survivors would have us believe in a brilliance
here, some bolt of truth forking across the water,
an ultimate Light before all the lights go out,
dawning on you with all its megalithic tonnage.
But if something does flash before your eyes
as you go under, it will probably be a fish,

a quick blur of curved silver darting away,
having nothing to do with your life or your death.
The tide will take you, or the lake will accept it all
as you sink toward the weedy disarray of the bottom,
leaving behind what you have already forgotten,
the surface, now overrun with the high travel of clouds.


Another reason why I don't keep a gun in the house

By Billy Collins

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.


The First Dream

By Billy Collins

The Wind is ghosting around the house tonight
and as I lean against the door of sleep
I begin to think about the first person to dream,
how quiet he must have seemed the next morning

as the others stood around the fire
draped in the skins of animals
talking to each other only in vowels,
for this was long before the invention of consonants.

He might have gone off by himself to sit
on a rock and look into the mist of a lake
as he tried to tell himself what had happened,
how he had gone somewhere without going,

how he had put his arms around the neck
of a beast that the others could touch
only after they had killed it with stones,
how he felt its breath on his bare neck.

Then again, the first dream could have come
to a woman, though she would behave,
I suppose, much the same way,
moving off by herself to be alone near water,

except that the curve of her young shoulders
and the tilt of her downcast head
would make her appear to be terribly alone,
and if you were there to notice this,

you might have gone down as the first person
to ever fall in love with the sadness of another.



By Billy Collins

Smokey the Bear heads
into the autumn woods
with a red can of gasoline
and a box of wooden matches.

His ranger's hat is cocked
at a disturbing angle.

His brown fur gleams
under the high sun
as his paws, the size
of catcher's mitts,
crackle into the distance.

He is sick of dispensing
warnings to the careless,
the half-wit camper,
the dumbbell hiker.

He is going to show them
how a professional does it.



By Billy Collins

The murkiness of the local garage is not so dense
that you cannot make out the calendar of pinup
drawings on the wall above a bench of tools.
Your ears are ringing with the sound of
the mechanic hammering on your exhaust pipe,
and as you look closer you notice that this month's
is not the one pushing the lawn mower, wearing
a straw hat and very short blue shorts,
her shirt tied in a knot just below her breasts.
Nor is it the one in the admiral's cap, bending
forward, resting her hands on a wharf piling,
glancing over the tiny anchors on her shoulders.
No, this is March, the month of great winds,
so appropriately it is the one walking her dog
along a city sidewalk on a very blustery day.
One hand is busy keeping her hat down on her head
and the other is grasping the little dog's leash,
so of course there is no hand left to push down
her dress which is billowing up around her waist
exposing her long stockinged legs and yes the secret
apparatus of her garter belt. Needless to say,
in the confusion of wind and excited dog
the leash has wrapped itself around her ankles
several times giving her a rather bridled
and helpless appearance which is added to
by the impossibly high heels she is teetering on.
You would like to come to her rescue,
gather up the little dog in your arms,
untangle the leash, lead her to safety,
and receive her bottomless gratitude, but
the mechanic is calling you over to look
at something under your car. It seems that he has
run into a problem and the job is going
to cost more than he had said and take
much longer than he had thought.
Well, it can't be helped, you hear yourself say
as you return to your place by the workbench,
knowing that as soon as the hammering resumes
you will slowly lift the bottom of the calendar
just enough to reveal a glimpse of what
the future holds in store: ah,
the red polka dot umbrella of April and her
upturned palm extended coyly into the rain.


Study in Orange and White
By Billy Collins
I knew that James Whistler was part of the Paris scene,
but I was still surprised when I found the painting
of his mother at the Musée d'Orsay
among all the colored dots and mobile brushstrokes
of the French Impressionists.
And I was surprised to notice
after a few minutes of benign staring,
how that woman, stark in profile
and fixed forever in her chair,
began to resemble my own ancient mother
who was now fixed forever in the stars, the air, the earth.
You can understand why he titled the painting
"Arrangement in Gray and Black"
instead of what everyone naturally calls it,
but afterward, as I walked along the river bank,
I imagined how it might have broken
the woman's heart to be demoted from mother
to a mere composition, a study in colorlessness.
As the summer couples leaned into each other
along the quay and the wide, low-slung boats
full of spectators slid up and down the Seine
between the carved stone bridges
and their watery reflections,
I thought: how ridiculous, how off-base.
It would be like Botticelli calling "The Birth of Venus"
"Composition in Blue, Ochre, Green, and Pink,"
or the other way around
like Rothko titling one of his sandwiches of color
"Fishing Boats Leaving Falmouth Harbor at Dawn."
Or, as I scanned the menu at the cafe
where I now had come to rest,
it would be like painting something laughable,
like a chef turning on a spit
over a blazing fire in front of an audience of ducks
and calling it "Study in Orange and White."
But by that time, a waiter had appeared
with my glass of Pernod and a clear pitcher of water,
and I sat there thinking of nothing
but the women and men passing by--
mothers and sons walking their small fragile dogs--
and about myself,
a kind of composition in blue and khaki,
and, now that I had poured
some water into the glass, milky-green.

A Brief Biography of the Poet
Billy Collins

Billy Collins is an American phenomenon. No poet since Robert Frost has managed to combine high critical acclaim with such broad popular appeal. His last three collections of poems have broken sales records for poetry. His readings are usually standing room only, and his audience — enhanced tremendously by his appearances on National Public Radio — includes people of all back-grounds and age groups. The poems themselves best explain this phenomenon. The typical Collins poem opens on a clear and hospitable note but soon takes an unexpected turn; poems that begin in irony may end in a moment of lyric surprise. No wonder Billy Collins sees his poetry as “a form of travel writing” and considers humor “a door into the serious.”

Billy Collins has published seven collections of poetry, including Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, Picnic, Lightning, Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes, Sailing Alone Around the Room: New & Selected Poems, and Nine Horses. In the book he edited, Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, Collins beckons readers to return to poetry with an anthology of poems that exposes the richness and diversity of the form. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The American Scholar.

Included among the honors Billy Collins has received are fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has also been awarded the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize, and the Levinson Prize — all awarded by Poetry magazine. He has been a writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College, and served as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library. He is a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College, City University of New York, where he has taught for the past 30 years. In June 2001, Billy Collins was appointed United States Poet Laureate (2001-2003). In January 2004, Mr. Collins was named New York State Poet Laureate 2004-06.

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