Courtship; Proposal; On My Morning Walk It Occurs to Me that My Name is Similar to Billy Collins; Mr. Hollands Explains His Tattoo to His Students; The Great Poet Said


I gave you crabs and you let us
pretend that it might have been
you who gave them to me and that
was so lovely. On our first
proper date you wore penny loafers
and never wore them again and I
never thanked you for that. Second date
and I cried at dinner, just sobbed
and sobbed until my tears
became a stream with little fish
in it. On Fire Island that summer
we rented a small sailboat though
we didn’t really know how to sail
and as the ferry barreled down on us
I’m so glad we got the big fight
out of our system. And that night
as your friends and I played Trivial
Pursuit or Pictionary (who can remember
after all these years?) you sat
by yourself on the couch and read
How We Die and that, my love, that
is when I knew for sure. Let’s
not even talk about the cat.

Pauline Kael wrote that Divine’s performance
in Hairspray has a “what-the-hell quality”
the film needs. I feel the same way
about our marriage, don’t you? Here’s
our joke: When I said I was “ready to take
the next step” you thought I meant
marriage when what I really meant
was dessert. (Our son likes to tell
that one.) Is it true? Does it matter?
I can’t remember that far back
and we were probably drunk anyway.
But you know what they say –
in every joke there’s a grain of truth.

What did I mean? Nobody talked about
marriage in those days. Commitment,
I suppose – a willingness to stick with it.
But whatever it was I offered
you accepted, one link in a long
necklace of what-the-hells, Divine
as Edna Turnblad in her sleeveless
cotton dress, ironing and tutting and
calling out to her daughter, shaking
her head and ironing some more.
On My Morning Walk It Occurs to Me 
that My Name is Similar to Billy Collins

A man is doing lunges in the park
but I don’t even notice him until
I take a picture of the remarkable
sunrise and send it to the family
group chat (no response, still
asleep?) and there he is in the lower right
corner. I suppose he wants to make
efficient use of time, stuck as he is
flinging the dog ball over and over
and over again. And then it dawns
on me. How have I never thought of it
before? After all, I was Billy until
what, college? Despite the humiliating
songs, my burning fourth-grade face –
Can you bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy,
Billy Boy? Billy, don’t be a hero, don’t be
a fool with your life. And now here
is the part of the poem where you say
OK, Billy, but what about the last name?
Hear me out: Whenever I try to say it
and my throat closes up as it always does
and the thin sound threads its way out
people look at me, puzzled, and say
Collins? The man in the park
is still doing lunges as I head home,
take down a few books and study
the dust jackets. Not a bad looking guy
when he was younger, kind of sexy even
if you’re into imps. I read. You know,
I never gave my mother a lanyard
like Billy did, my mother who named me
though I did make her an ashtray once, blue
misshapen thing. It sat on her desk
for years collecting ashes from
the cigarettes that would have killed her
if the Alzheimer’s hadn’t gotten to her
first. Well. I see now that it’s time
for my own dog’s walk. He glances
over at me just once, his second-string
demigod, as he leads my husband
right out the front door.
Mr. Hollands Explains His Tattoo to His Students

Early October. I know it’s coming.

We’re discussing To Kill a Mockingbird
and a hand shoots up in the back:

Mr. Hollands, what does your tattoo mean?

The other students, previously semi-
comatose, perk up, grateful 
for their classmate’s audacity.

They wait.

I know what it means,
their question. It means
oh Mr. Hollands we like you
sort of, maybe, not completely
sure yet, please
be a little real with us, please
tell us something real.

Three black bars on my right forearm,
an early late middle age addition.
I don’t know what it means.

They wait.

So I lie to them. I say
This is my family.
One bar for my husband
One for our son
One for me.
Three individuals
making a whole.

They seem semi-satisfied.
One girl says Aw.

We return to the book.
Atticus tells his children it’s a sin
to kill a mockingbird and I explain
that the mockingbird
represents innocence

when probably it was just something
Harper Lee’s father said
and she remembered it because
she loved and hated her father
as so many of us do.

My students write
mockingbird = innocence.

And I stand in front of the class.
Like an idiot magician
I place my hand over the tattoo
and watch it disappear.
When I take my hand away
it reappears.

Next up: Macbeth
The Great Poet Said

I have a stack of unfinished
poems in my drawer – many there
for years, decades – some
missing just a word, one
perfect word. Nodding
undergraduate heads.
Thirty years go by. I’m eating
lunch outside, the construction workers
are glistening, and I think
Really? Just one word? How about
frisson? That’s a good word. I’ve been wanting
to put frisson into one of my poems
for a while now, but here
you take it. I’m just going to eat
my ham sandwich and look at
the scenery. Or maybe you need
a verb? What about eavesdrop? I like
eavesdrop because the more you stare at it
the weirder it gets: eavesdrop, eavesdrop, eaves-
drop – see what I mean? I’m almost done
with my Doritos. Shirts
are coming off. I assume you’re not looking
for an adjective or adverb, nobody
likes those anymore, but I recently
read a Denise Levertov poem
where she used pompously. It was
so great! I bet she wouldn’t mind
if you used it, too. She’s dead
anyway. Buried in a cemetery
near where I live, in fact. What
else? Pronouns, prepositions,
conjunctions, interjections (whew!) –
I mean, you’re the expert here but
there just aren’t that many of those so
I really don’t think it should take you 
decades. Alright, I’ve finished
my cookie, and the men
are singing now, can you
believe it? I can’t quite
make out the words, I’m not
even sure what language it is
but that’s ok, they sound
fantastic and I get
the gist.


Bill Hollands is a teacher and poet in Seattle, where he lives with his husband and their son. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, North American Review, The American Journal of Poetry, DIAGRAM, Hawai`i Pacific Review, The Account, The Summerset Review, and elsewhere. He was recently named a finalist for North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Prize.