"The Quaintness of the Past"
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.
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