House

I lie in a bedroom in a house
that was built in 1862, we were told—
the two windows still facing east
into the bright daily reveille of the sun.

 

The early birds are chirping,
and I think of those who have slept here before,
the family we bought the house from—
the five Hendersons—

and the engineer they told us about
who lived here alone before them,
the one who built onto the back
of the house a large glassy room with wood beams.

I have an old photograph of the house
in black and white, a few small trees,
and a curved dirt driveway,
but I do not know who lived here then.

So I go back to the Civil War
and to the farmer who built the house
and the rough stone walls
that encompass the house and run up into the woods,

he who mounted his thin wife in this room,
while the war raged to the south,
with the strength of a dairyman
or with the tenderness of a dairyman

or with both, alternating back and forth
so as to give his wife much pleasure
and possibly to call a son down to earth
to help with the cows and take over the little farm

when he no longer had the strength
after all the days and nights of toil and prayer—
the sun breaking over the horizon
and into these same windows

to light the same bed-space where I lie
with nothing to farm,
the dead farmer and his dead wife for company,
feeling better and worse by turns.

Presented by

Billy Collins's new collection, Horoscopes for the Dead, will be published early next year. He served as the U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003.

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