|A Contemporary Face Without Any Direct Historical Antecedents|
from Billy Collins’ Nine Horses
I wondered where all the others were
and so I sat thinking of nothing.
I was as sour as Samuel Johnson.
I did not want to write about the scenery
and I thought I fell for a seamstress,
even though I managed to swerve around
the lump. I see these forms every day.
I was a single monkey and tunneled while I slept.
If I were younger I might be thinking for no reason
I can think of. I wondered, which must be the reason
I am thinking, that I am beginning to think,
and to think further that I have no idea. I felt like
David Hume or William James, as if everything
I had ever learned when I peered in at the lobsters
whose lights I can just make out through the clouds
quite bent over. I would imagine
I wondered, as I set the book
on the piano—make it Mrs. Dalloway,
which I have yet to read—I wondered
when the guide directed against my palms
as I wondered about (with affection, I should add)
where I folded my clothes in a pile.
I would choose, like the great Walter Pater
to stop to look at, as I do this morning,
this one I speak of, for example,
the one I will recite to the cheering throng
which I will fashion also from balsa
not to mention a kind of twisted beak, I said,
but as it is, I am simply conscious.
I knew James Whistler was part of the Paris scene.
I was unable to hide my wonderment. I fell in love
with a wren. This is the best kind of love, I thought
after I carried the mouse by the tail whose existence
I did not believe in. I felt like the last of the sultans.
I wondered about you but now I am wondering
if you are even listening and I thought to myself
I will begin inching toward the end
yet I cannot come up with anything
and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.
I also drew many lines to indicate speed.
I wondered as I rose.
I could think of nothing to do.
Note: One of the most obvious aspects of contemporary mainstream poetry is its unproblematic use of the first-person singular. This “I” is supposed to be absolutely unitary, providing a point of stability every bit as fixed as Descartes’ Cogito. This strikes me as essentially reactionary, as if these poets reject the uncertainty of living in a world in which we’re bombarded with information from a variety of different media, and in which various psychotherapies and psychoanalyses have shown just how irreducibly multiple identity really is. Of course, poets as diverse as Catullus, Shelley, and Dickinson (to name just a few) understood this centuries before the advent of cable television or the Internet.
Instead of merely kvetching about this reliance on the “I,” I decided to multiply it. To write (or assemble) these poems I went through books by Jack Gilbert (Monolithos) and Billy Collins (Nine Horses), and made a list of every line that contained the word “I.” I then arranged them, sometimes changing line breaks but preserving everything else.