Poetry: Genuflection


The moment I was told about the Irish habit
of tipping the cap to the first magpie
one encounters in the course of a day
and saying to him “Good morning, sir,”
I knew I would be in for the long haul.

No one should be made to count
the number of magpies I have treated
with such deference, such magpie protocol,

the latest being today when I spotted one
perched on the railing of a fence
along the crooked road from the house.

This was a bird well out of its usual climate
according to the map in my bird book-
a stray, a rebel-rebel if you will,
not flocking with birds of its feather,

rather flying to a different drummer
who beats his drum with the tiny bones of birds.

But why wouldn’t every bird merit a greeting?
a nod or at least a blink to clear the eyes –
a wave to the geese overhead,
maybe an inquiry of a nervous chickadee,
a salute in the dark to the hoot of an owl.

And as for the great blue heron,
as motionless in profile by the shore
as a drawing on papyrus by a Delphic priest,
will anything serve, short of a genuflection?

As a boy, I worked on that move,
gliding in a black cassock and white surplice
inside the boundary of the altar rail
then stopping to descend,
one knee touching the cool marble floor
palms pressed together in prayer,
right thumb crossed over left, and never the other way around.

Billy Collins is a former US poet laureate. His most recent collection is Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Picador)