"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its green awning withdrawn,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.

.

Billy Collins's ninth collection of poems, Horoscopes for the Dead, will be published in March.  He is a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College (CUNY) and a distinguished fellow of the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College.

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