Epiphanies on the First Cold Day by Robert Billings

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The cover of Before the Heart Went Down by Robert Billings

1
I thought there was nothing in the fields of light
that was not there in darkness

After breakfast in a quiet house
surrounded by pastures of new frost
my heart crouches believing
the next sound will be
something it can sing

2
This is my persistent nightmare

I jump into a shallow river
Hy feet sink in mud
to mid-calf, the top
of my head
just breaks the surface

It’s November:
too soon for ice
to preserve me

At noon I warm my hands at the apples
ripening on a window sill

3
The smell of cold through an open window

On the corner of my desk
is a print of a mother-goddess
in a black plastic frame:

Syria
Third century B.C.

The guide-book defines
Civilization
means living together

Sometimes a glancing blow
is the back of my wife’s hand
slowly down my thigh

4
And so it comes back to this

In Munich 1974
a man in a bar
said a cormorant
dropping from a cliff
is the soul of
whatever flung this
earth on the sea

Midnight on the highway through Perth County
wearing sunglasses against the headlights
I bite through the cold skin of an apple


Source: Waves vol 11, no 2 & 3, Winter 1983

Robert Billings, born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and raised Fort Erie, became well known in Canadian literary circles as a poet, critic, teacher,  and editor of Poetry Canada Review and Poetry Toronto.  In 1983 he penned the poem “Epiphanies of the First Cold Day.” Epiphany 2 foreshadowed his eventual fate. In 1986 after his marriage broke down and bouts of depression hit him, he threw himself into the Niagara River. His body was not recovered until six months later.

Fellow poet and editor Herb Barrett paid tribute to Billings in his poem For Robert Billings

Watch the video At the Brink: A Personal Look at Suicides Over Niagara Falls by Michael Clarkson. Clarkson was a long-time friend of Robert Billings, who is one of the people discussed in the video.

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