Within the curiosity shop that is the January/February issue of The Atlantic (anesthesia, online dating, bad-boy bankers, the Cuban Missile Crisis, whiskey micro-distillers) is a single poem — “Orient” by Billy Collins, one of America’s marquee poets.
Many images came to mind as I read and reread this lovely and spare piece. The first lines (“You are turning me // like someone turning a globe in her hand,”) brought me sepia-toned images of vintage schoolrooms, faded spinning worlds with outdated boundaries, lost territories. It felt like a remembered absence — something was both there and not.
During the week, as I thought again of these fifteen lines, the poem’s images continued to tumble one over the other in smooth sequence: you, me, turning, globe, other side (of me, of the world), China (the mysterious Orient), the unseen side (of the moon, of me), closing eyes, mindful vision, rustic oxcarts and colorful flags, a rural village square, the saxophone’s reassuring brassiness, a voice, a secret, a revelation, and my receptive gratitude. The entire array begs for the rich textures and mellowed tones of a Merchant Ivory film.
I marveled, too, about the feelings raised up, of newness and discovery — deepening connection and relationship. “I love the sound of your voice // like a little saxophone // telling me what I could never know”. This poem soothed and challenged at the same time.
What we learn about ourselves from within — are those insights something different from what another observes from outside and gives to us? Can our identity be fashioned of many pieces? From the inner and the exotic parts, both, we are each our own undiscovered country.
Billy Collins was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003 and of the State of New York from 2004-2006. His next collection, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, 2003-2013, is expected out this coming fall. Poetry 180 (“a poem a day for american high schools”) is among his lasting achievements as US Poet Laureate.