“The Names” by Billy Collins

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, here’s a poem (with some Lowell connections) by Billy Collins that we originally posted ten years ago on Sept 11, 2011. 

The Names

by Billy Collins

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

.

—Billy Collins (c) 2002

Note: Billy Collins was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. His poem “The Names” appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 6, 2002. Note that he mentions Patrick Quigley, who was married to a UMass Lowell alumna, Patricia Fleming. Some of our readers may know Billy Collins from his appearances on the radio show Prairie Home Companion. Billy Collins’s father, William Collins, was an electrician from Lowell, Mass., who married Katherine Collins. The future poet was born in New York City. Here’s what he told The Paris Review about his roots in an interview in 2001:

Both of my parents were born in 1901 and both lived into their nineties, the two of them just about straddling the century. My father was from a large Irish family from Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town, incidentally Kerouac’s birthplace and the site of his first novel. I’ve never been to Lowell, but I was just invited by an editor of a magazine to go up there and write about my father and look at the Jack Kerouac place. I have a poem called ‘Lowell,’ which is about the coincidence of my father being born in the same town as Jack Kerouac. You couldn’t find two more disparate characters. The end of the poem says something like, He would have told Neal Cassady to let him out at the next light.

My mother was born on a farm in Canada. She was the one who taught me to read by reading to me. I have a feeling that was one of the most important experiences of my life. …

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