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The Afterlife a poem by Billy Collins


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A recent post by TeaTea reminded me of this hopeful and maybe bittersweet poem. Students used to like to talk about it, so maybe you all will enjoy it, too.

The Afterlife

While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,

or riffling through a magazine in bed,

the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They're moving off in all imaginable directions,

each according to his own private belief,

and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:

that everyone is right, as it turns out.

you go to the place you always thought you would go,

The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors

into a zone of light, white as a January sun.

Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits

with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir

and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,

while the less inventive find themselves stuck

in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,

a woman in her forties with short wiry hair

and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.

With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies

of animals--eagles and leopards--and one trying on

the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,

ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,

little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld

by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.

He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave

guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins

wishing they could return so they could learn Italian

or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.

They wish they could wake in the morning like you

and stand at a window examining the winter trees,

every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

Billy Collins

Reprinted without permission but with no intent to profit

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