I used to sit in the cafe of existentialism,
lost in a blue cloud of cigarette smoke,
contemplating the suicide a tiny Frenchman
might commit by leaping from the rim of my brandyglass.
I used to hunger to be engaged
as I walked the long shaded boulevards,
eyeing women of all nationalities,
a difficult paperback riding in my raincoat pocket.
But these days I like my ontology in an armchair,
a rope hammock, or better still, a warm bath
in a cork-lined room–disengaged, soaking
in the calm, restful waters of speculation.
Afternoons, when I leave the house
for the woods, I think of Aquinas at his desk,
fingers interlocked upon his stomach,
as he deduces another proof for God’s existence,
intricate as the branches of these bare November trees.
And as I kick through the leaves and snap
the windfallen twigs, I consider Leibniz on his couch
reaching the astonishing conclusion that monads,
those windowless units of matter, must have souls.
But when I finally reach the top of the hill
and sit down on the flat tonnage of this boulder,
I think of Spinoza, most rarefied of them all.
I look beyond the treetops and the distant ridges
and see him sitting in a beam of Dutch sunlight
slowly stirring his milky tea with a spoon.
Since dawn he has been at his bench grinding lenses,
but now he is leaving behind the saucer and table,
the smokey chimneys and tile roofs of Amsterdam,
even the earth itself, pale blue, aqueous,
cloud-enshrined, titled back on the stick of its axis.
He is rising into that high dome of thought
where loose pages of Shelley float on the air,
where all the formulas of calculus unravel,
tumbling in the radiance of a round Platonic sun–
that zone just below the one where angels accelerate
and the ampitheatrical rose of Dante unfolds.
And now I stand up on the ledge to salute you, Spinoza,
and when I whistle to the dog and start down the hill,
I can feel the thick glass of your eyes upon me
as I step from the rock to glacial rock, and on her
as she sniffs her way through the leaves,
her tail straight back, her body low to the ground.
~ Billy Collins
Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942