"The Symbol"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
July 7 2009 6:57 AM

"The Symbol"

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Billy Collins read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.
.

Once upon a time there were two oval mirrors
which hung facing each other
on the walls of a local barbershop

in the middle of a kingdom, we should add,
which ran the length of a valley
lined with the molars of high mountains.

It's hard to say how the mirrors felt
about all the faces peering into them,
the unshorn, the clean-cut, and the bald,

for mirrors cannot help doubling
whatever stands or passes in front of them,
including the perfumed heads of customers.

And when business was slow
the mirrors would see the barbers themselves
glancing in to a run a comb quickly through their hair.

Every day except Sunday the mirrors
received the rounded heads
and gave back the news, good or bad.

And the reward for their patience
arrived by night in the empty shop
when they could look down the long

corridors of each other—
one looking at the dead mirrors of the past
the other looking into the unborn mirrors of the future,

which means that the barber shop
must symbolize the present, in case anyone asks you—
the present with its razors, towels, and chairs,

its green awning withdrawn,
its big window and motionless pole,
and the two mirrors who lived unhappily ever after.

.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They just aren’t ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

How Steven Moffat Made the Best Doctor Who Episode in Years

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 2:11 PM Spare the Rod What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.