Writing in the Afterlife

For some the humor of the poem is inherent, for other’s the idea is a little too depressing.  Irony is well used: would writers love or hate the compulsory writing demanded of newbies to the afterlife?  In my classes, I enjoyed asking and hearing about the varied instructions per “where we’ll go in the end” that we’d received in our varying upbringings.

Writing in the Afterlife                                                                                 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

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