"The Quaintness of the Past"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
June 8 2010 6:51 AM

"The Quaintness of the Past"

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.

I turn the page of a magazine
and find a black-and-white photograph
of a roadhouse taken in the 1950s,
an old clapboard affair
with a car of that vintage,
maybe a Plymouth, parked in front.

It is almost enough to inspire me
to take a snapshot of something around here
first thing in the morning,
maybe the little bakery down the street
where I often go for coffee and a muffin
and the big city paper
and the French girls behind the counter.

Ideallythere would be a few modern cars
parked in front,
then all I would have to do
is walk back home and wait 50 or 100 years
for the photograph to become a thing of interest and value.

Of course, I will be long gone by then
and time will have marched on,
though I never think of time as marching
down a football field blowing a trumpet
or into a city square
with a rifle on its shoulder.

I picture time advancing more slowly
up a mountain, leaving
all the moments of history behind
like climbers who have to leave behind
one of their companions on a cold glacial slope.

And sometimes, decades later,
the body is discovered,
the ice is chipped away, and we get to see
a photograph of the remains—
the bones of the hands arthritically
fisted up, the jaw locked tight,
a skull wearing a woolen cap,
the man quaintly smiling out at us from the past
before we wet a finger and turn the page.


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.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.