“Writing in the Afterlife” by Billy Collins

I imagined the atmosphere would be clear,
shot with pristine light,
not this sulphurous haze,
the air ionized as before a thunderstorm.

Many have pictured a river here,
but no one mentioned all the boats,
their benches crowded with naked passengers,
each bent over a writing tablet.

I knew I would not always be a child
with a model train and a model tunnel,
and I knew I would not live forever,
jumping all day through the hoop of myself.

I had heard about the journey to the other side
and the clink of the final coin
in the leather purse of the man holding the oar,
but how could anyone have guessed

that as soon as we arrived
we would be asked to describe this place
and to include as much detail as possible—
not just the water, he insists,

rather the oily, fathomless, rat-happy water,
not simply the shackles, but the rusty,
iron, ankle-shredding shackles—
and that our next assignment would be

to jot down, off the tops of our heads,
our thoughts and feelings about being dead,
not really an assignment,
the man rotating the oar keeps telling us—

think of it more as an exercise, he groans,
think of writing as a process,
a never-ending, infernal process,
and now the boats have become jammed together,

bow against stern, stern locked to bow,
and not a thing is moving, only our diligent pens.

~ Billy Collins

Source: Poetry (October 2002).

5 thoughts on ““Writing in the Afterlife” by Billy Collins

    1. Haha! Interpret away, D. I usually present without commentary so as to not project my emotions or thoughts onto others’ interpretations–plus time doesn’t allow me daily dissection–but I love hearing readers’ ideas in the comments.

      Did you ever see What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams? This poem feels like a scene out of that movie when Williams is taken down river to search for his wife in purgatory. Same imagery.

      Sometimes writing feels a bit like purgatory:
      “think of writing as a process,
      a never-ending, infernal process”

      Other times it feels heavenly and promoted by the gods.

      Other times? Well let’s just say the inferno burns the words before they can even be written and we are left to scrawl on the walls with our own blood.

      On that note…Happy Wednesday. 🙂


      1. And I swear I didn’t mean to pull interpretive comments out of you! 😉 Happy Wednesday to you as well. Lots of deadlines at the library and in my writing this week so I can’t talk long either. BUT, amazingly, or simpatically, you and I were thinking of the same movie.

        Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.