Billy Collins (March 22, 1941 -)
Not long after we had sat down to dinner
at a long table in a restaurant in Chicago
and were deeply engrossed in the heavy menus,
one of us—a bearded man with a colorful tie—
asked if any one of us had ever considered
applying the paradoxes of Zeno to the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
The differences between these two figures
were much more striking than the differences
between the Cornish hen and the trout amandine
I was wavering between, so I looked up and closed my menu.
If, the man with the tie continued,
an object moving through space
will never reach its destination because it is always
limited to cutting the distance to its goal in half,
then it turns out that St. Sebastian did not die
from the wounds inflicted by the arrows.
No, the cause of death was fright at the spectacle of their endless approach.
St. Sebastian, according to Zeno, would have died of a heart attack.
I think I’ll have the trout, I told the waiter,
for it was now my turn to order,
but all through the elegant dinner
I kept thinking of the arrows forever nearing
the pale, quivering flesh of St. Sebastian
a fleet of them perpetually halving the tiny distances
to his body, tied to a post with rope,
even after the archers had packed it in and gone home.
And I thought of the bullet never reaching
the wife of William Burroughs, an apple trembling on her head,
the tossed acid never getting to the face of that girl,
and the Oldsmobile never knocking my dog into a ditch.
The theories of Zeno floated above the table
like thought balloons from the fifth century before Christ,
yet my fork continued to arrive at my mouth
delivering morsels of asparagus and crusted fish,
and after we all talked and ate and lifted our glasses,
we left the restaurant and said goodbye on the street
then walked our separate ways in the world where things do arrive,
where people get where they are going—
where the train pulls into the station in a cloud of vapor,
where geese land with a splash on the surface of the lake,
and the one you love crosses the room and arrives in your arms—
and, yes, where sharp arrows will pierce a torso,
splattering the groin and the bare feet of the saint,
that popular subject of European religious painting.
One hagiographer compared him to a hedgehog bristling with quills.