POEM OF THE WEEK

Aristotle

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

— Billy Collins

I chose this piece of poetry, excerpted from a larger piece entitled “Aristotle” by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, for two main reasons. The full poem is partitioned into three sections: Beginning, Middle, and End — each stanza opening with a line stating where it falls, as this section does, “This is the end.” I picked this section — the End — because December is upon us. It is the end of the year and the end of the first semester of my senior year here at Washington and Lee (so, technically, it is the beginning of the end). Being at the end encourages, nay demands!, reflection of the beginning and the middle in retrospect. So that’s what we’ll do this week – ruminate and reflect.

The entire stanza consists of a seemingly random list of images strung together: an empty wheelchair, St. Clement with an anchor around his neck, a stage littered with bodies. They all invoke feelings of melancholy, the sense of something that “once was” in the reader. The melancholic tone is understandable: the ultimate “end,” is, after all, death. Even for endings not quite as depressing (such as the end of a college career – which gets pretty close), there is something about the finality of endings that is inherently somber. My personal favorite lines are the ones that conjure up the literary endings: “the stage littered with bodies,” or the conclusion of each and every Shakespearean tragedy. And “the narrator leads the characters to their cells,” as their story has come to a close.

So, why the title “Aristotle”? For a poem so clearly delineated, it recalls the philosopher’s works on the art of persuasive writing. There are elements that correspond with each of his three appeals: ethos, logos, pathos. To start with ethos, or the establishment of credibility: the stanza is written in free verse, closely mirroring speech. There’s no metric, nor rhyme scheme, but at no point is the text mistakable for anything but poetry. The reader immediately trusts the skill of a writer who needs no typical poetic markers to delineate his work as poetry, not prose. Logos shines through in the references to St. Clement I, a Greek Pope during Emperor Trajan’s reign in the late 1st century. He was executed by the emperor (and subsequently martyred) for ministering to prisoners in a stone quarry by having an anchor fascinated around his neck before being thrown into the Black Sea. It’s an obscure reference, but no major consequences arise if the allusion is missed. Finally, pathos, or an emotional appeal, comes when the narrator aligns himself with his reader: when he uses the pronoun “we.” “What we have all been waiting for, what everything comes down to, the destination we cannot help imagining.” Characterizing the end as a “destination” offers an emotional 180-degree turn: an ending is sad, to be sure, but describing the end as a destination makes it sounds almost like vacation – a chance to take a break, or a rest.

The poem ends with two contrasted images: the first, “a streak of light in the sky,” is external, universal, spectacular. The final line, and final image, “a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves,” is domestic and comparatively plain. It’s an appropriate choice to end on the cabin, occupied by the wearer of the hat, rather than the ambiguous “streak of light.” It grounds us, brings us all home. Instead of being overwhelmingly somber or trying too hard to be cosmic, it is comforting and warm and protective. An image of home – where I can’t wait to be in just one short week. For now, we’re officially hitting the period and closing the book on this semester. See you all next time!

— Lilly Wimberly ’18

 

Collins, Billy.  “Aristotle.”  Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46706/aristotle

[ For more by Billy Collins, his 2017 book The Rain in Portugal can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Rain-Portugal-Poems-Billy-Collins/dp/0812982681/ref=la_B001LHV6DQ_1_1/136-0961145-7830754?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1512760823&sr=1-1 ]

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