Traditionally, poets are expected to be familiar with the fauna and flora around them, or at the very least know the difference between the two. Osprey inhabit their high perches up north but not in the abundance I encountered when I moved to Florida. The poem admits my ornithological ignorance but also stresses the urgency of my need to fill in the blank, the bird taking priority over my usual routine. As for its form, the poem is one sentence broken into quatrains and addressed to the osprey itself. But what’s that white one with the long neck stepping slowly across the Publix parking lot?

OSPREY

Oh, large, brown, thickly feathered creature
with a distinctive white head,
you, perched on the top branch
of a tree near the lake shore,

as soon as I guide this boat back to the dock
and walk up the grassy path to the house,
before I unzip my windbreaker
and lift the binoculars from around my neck,

before I wash the gasoline from my hands,
before I tell anyone I’m back,
and before I hang the ignition key on its nail,
or pour myself a drink —

I’m thinking a vodka soda with lemon —
I will look you up in my
illustrated guide to North American birds
and I promise I will learn what you are called.


Billy Collins is a former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2002-03) and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “Osprey” originally appeared in Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. ©2013, reprinted by permission of Random House.

Photo by Suzannah Gilman