Poetry of Clouds

The Biography of a Cloud
by Billy Collins

It would have been easier to follow Johnson
from pub to pub with a notebook and pen
or sift through cardboard boxes
crammed with Trollopiana
than to tell the story of this anonymous mass.

It is hard to say even where it was born,
though considering its think, whipped texture
and its lofty, processional manner,
I have it somewhere over a large warm body of water,
fathered by heat, mothered by humidity.

We do know this much:
that it billowed white at the mountainous top
and its flat underside was the gray of headstones;
that slid onto the land and felt its way
over the contours of several western states,
always moving eastward, from left to right
the way the eyes move over print
as if it were reading the earth with its blind shadow.

Otherwise, it did nothing
but allow itself to be blown through the high, cold atmosphere,
though it was always changing shape,
and assumed in its lifetime the form
of Australia, the head of an enormous dog,
a sheep on the run, a hippo with its mouth agape,
and even the camel that passed through the eye of Hamlet.

As usual, its existence was noted by only a few;
a workman eating lunch on a girder,
a woman on a terrace watering plants,
and a large number of people named Riley,
all supine in hammocks or on blankets spread for picnics.

Ordinarily it traveled in a convoy
or pedaled along with one or two companions,
but early one morning over Arizona
it held the distinction of being the only one in the sky.

In the end, it died as all clouds do,
in an obscurity befitting one of the minor English poets,
the son of a London hatter or an Essex clergyman,
sent down from Oxford for heresy or gambling,
soon addicted to laudanum, then the slide into destitution,
for their stories, too, begin to sound alike,

But I would rather track the life of a cloud
than labor over packets of letters
written in a crabbed hand
or explicate the four sorry volumes of verse
he would have left when he died,
gout ridden on a cot in Wembley.

I prefer a wayside bench, ensnared by vines,
to the dark aisles of a library,
a place to watch them inch across the sky,
caravans plying their ancient trade routes.
I want to train my scholar’s eye
on the bright shifting edges
where the weightless tongues of clouds lick the air.
I want to remove my hat, close my eyes,
and feel the sun, warm and intermittent, on my face.