April 21st

By: Billy Collins

Featured art: A Pond Near Rousillon by Adolphe Appian

It’s the birthday of John Muir and Charlotte Brontë,
born just 18 years apart,
she in Yorkshire and he somewhere in Scotland,
both in their basinets under the same gray clouds,
but then their lives diverge so radically
you might begin to question the claims of astrologers,
if you haven’t had the sense to do that already.

Muir heads off to Wisconsin (with his parents I guess),
whereas Charlotte is placed in a nearby boarding school.
Muir then stomps all over North America,
exulting in Nature and writing it all down,
while Charlotte stays mostly indoors composing poems
with her sisters, Emily and Anne.
He leaves us Picturesque California, she Jane Eyre.

I don’t have much on my calendar for today,
another April 21st featuring a walk around the lake,
then boxing up the cat and driving her to the vet.
It’s overwhelming to think of all the things
I’m not doing today, including being born.
But I will say that my life, maybe like yours,
falls somewhere between John Muir’s and Charlotte Brontë’s.

My morning walk takes under an hour,
but I do pay attention to the water and the birds,
and here I am writing a poem, just like the Brontë sisters. Muir was blinded for a spell,
Charlotte married then died still pregnant,
and I’ve had the same headache for more than a month.
And if that’s what ends up killing me,

would someone please slide this poem
into a side pocket of the coat they bury me in?
Until then, let us picture John Muir
on a windy mountaintop in Oregon
waving in the direction of the coastal dunes,
while Charlotte Brontë lifts her head
from her morning prayers, recalling that it’s her birthday.


Billy Collins’s latest collection is Whale Day (Random House, 2020). He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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