‘My Number’ playfully presents the looming certainty of death in a humorous light. Billy Collins’ poetry is often defined by its distinctive wit, and in this poem, he mixes black humor with irony in a poem about wanting to escape the inescapable. Using personification and drawing on allusions to popular cultural imaginations of death as a grim reaper figure, the poem attempts to confront the inevitable relinquishing of our mortal coils with a sly smirk and chuckle.
Explore My Number
‘My Number’ by Billy Collins muses humorously on death’s omnipresence in our lives.
‘My Number’ personifies death in a familiar form: a figure obscured by a black robe carrying a scythe. But this image of the grim reaper is toyed with by the speaker, who uses humor to hide the fact they’re quite unnerved by their inability to pinpoint death’s exact location. The poem offers a variety of scenes that visualize both the victims and the methods with which death goes about his business.
The speaker also emphasizes the hidden nature of their home, another indication that they’re trying to hide out from death. In the end, the speaker understands that one day death will end up at their front door — though that won’t stop them from trying to get out of it all the same.
Structure and Form
‘My Number’ is composed of four stanzas with a wide-ranging number of lines per stanza ending in a couplet. There is no fixed meter or rhyme scheme, as it’s primarily written in free verse. Collins uses both enjambment and end-stopped lines throughout the poem, structuring it around the organic flow of his sentences.
‘My Number’ uses quite a few different literary devices, all of which develop the image of death and the poem’s playful humor. First, there is the use of personification to give death traits that are human in nature: “Is Death…reaching for a widow” (1-2); “breathing down the neck” (3). Collins also uses a metaphor when describing death’s appearance with a “hood raised like the head of a crow” (14) — which calls upon the carrion image of crows and their symbolic relationship with death. Kinesthetic imagery is also employed when death is imagined as “shaking open the familiar cloak” (13). This is also an allusion to the popular image of death as a grim reaper figure. Then there is the visual imagery of the poem: there’s the speaker’s “hidden cottage” (9); and the arrival of death, “stepping from a black car / parked at the dark end of the lane” (11-12).
Collins uses cataloging when the speaker lists all the possible preoccupations of death: “making arrangements, / tampering with air brakes, / scattering cancer cells like seeds” (5-7); the last one is also an example of a simile. The poem also makes use of irony in its ending couplet when — after greatly emphasizing the omniscient and inevitable nature of death — the speaker confesses they will “start talking my way out of this” (17) whenever death does come.
Is Death miles away from this house,
reaching for a widow in Cincinnati
or breathing down the neck of a lost hiker
in British Columbia?
In the first stanza of ‘My Number,‘ the speaker personifies death, wondering what their proximity is to themselves. They imagine them “reaching for a widow in Cincinnati” (2) or “breathing down the neck of a lost hiker / in British Columbia” (3-4). These two scenes illustrate the obvious preoccupation of a personified death as a harbinger of mortality. But the tone of the poem is far from sinister, and as it continues, it’s clear the speaker adopts a darkly humorous perspective of death.
Is he too busy making arrangements,
tampering with air brakes,
scattering cancer cells like seeds,
loosening the wooden beams of roller coasters
to bother with my hidden cottage
that visitors find so hard to find?
The second stanza opens with a slightly sarcastic assumption that death isn’t near the speaker because they’ve simply got better things to do. The speaker catalogs a list of activities on death’s fatal to-do list: from sabotaging cars and roller coasters to spreading cancer. Death is also personified as male — which perhaps addresses the destructive nature associated with men and as a contrast to seeing the feminine as a giver of life rather than a taker of it. The speaker somewhat earnestly surmises that death just doesn’t have enough time to “bother” (9) with helping them kick the bucket.
Another interesting detail is the choice of diction in the last two lines, which describe the speaker’s home as “hidden” (9) and “hard to find” (10), implying they aren’t as sure as they might be letting on that death isn’t coming for them.
Or is he stepping from a black car
parked at the dark end of the lane,
shaking open the familiar cloak,
its hood raised like the head of a crow,
and removing the scythe from the trunk?
In stanza three, the speaker starts to imagine death’s arrival at their home. The imagery invoked accentuates death’s ominous appearance while also alluding to the common personification of death as a figure robed in black wielding a scythe (i.e., the grim reaper). This stanza also underscores the hidden omnipresence of death as an inescapable foundation of our own mortality.
We know its arrival is certain, but not its proximity or moment of occurrence. Yet the poem balances the bleak arrival of death by creating this irreverently humorous image of it as another chum with a job, pulling his work equipment from the trunk of their car.
Did you have any trouble with the directions?
I will ask, as I start talking my way out of this.
The final stanza of ‘My Number’ consists of a couplet that offers a jocular ending to the poem. The speaker, imagining being finally face-to-face with death, will ask them if they had “trouble with the directions?” (16). This is a question that recalls the speaker’s descriptions of their home in stanza two, which implied they’d intentionally made themselves hard to find. Once more, the poem reiterates the inescapable nature of death — the speaker knows it’s coming one day.
But that just makes the last line all the more comical. When the speaker eventually greets death, they plan to immediately try “talking” (17) their way out of it, as if it was a speeding ticket or jury duty. Ultimately the poem reveals that as death is intertwined with life, so too is the hopeless desire to escape it with human consciousness.
The theme of the poem is a combination of two motifs: the perceived omnipresent (and thus unavoidable) nature of death and the mustering of humor to placate the existential fear it inspires. The speaker reveals they understand that once death is at their door, they won’t be able to escape it. Yet they also confess they’ll still try to anyways. It’s a lighthearted way of pointing to the complicated relationship between life and death, that to seek the former is to constantly ward off the latter despite its inevitability. And learning to live in that tension (as the speaker attempts to via humor) is an inherent part of being alive.
The title most likely refers to a popular idiom “to have someone’s number,” — which signifies an ability to control or defeat someone with relative ease, usually owed to having some vital knowledge about them. This fits neatly into the speaker’s personification of death, as their omnipotence means they are everywhere all at once, and nothing (including the speaker) can escape them.
Although the poem deals mainly with the speaker’s desire to avoid death, Collins’ diction and use of irony all prevent the mood from turning too grim. Instead, they invoke no small amount of black humor even when cataloging all the ways death is busily killing people off. The speaker even sounds slightly indignant when wondering if death is “too busy” for them despite it being clear they don’t want to be visited.
- ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ by Emily Dickinson – is a poem that also personifies death as a figure to be greeted.
- ‘I Have a Rendezvous with Death’ by Alan Seeger – is a poem about a soldier awaiting and contemplating an unavoidable death.
- ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe – is a famously haunting poem that envisions death as a symbolic and hallucinatory nocturnal visitation from a vocal bird.