“The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich”
– Billy Collins
There’s a warming and deliberate naivety in Billy Collins’ poem The Dead in which he runs with the folkloric notion that the dead are watching us and pushes the image all the way to a reverie of the departed ‘rowing themselves slowly through eternity’ in glass-bottomed boats. Humorously, he invokes the mundane details of our lives, putting on shoes or making a sandwich, as something to still be significant within the larger sense of timelessness, then ends the poem on a hook of heart-rending poignancy—the silence of the parental quality of patient love with which they wait for us to eventually close our own eyes and join them.
The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
From: Sailing Alone Around the Room