Billy Collins’ poem, “My Number” combines the use of personification and imagery to illustrate the uneasy feeling of uncertainty in regard to Death and its imminence. The persona is waiting in constant fear for Death’s arrival, as he is clearly not ready for Death to find him.
Collins uses personification in the first stanza when he writes the following: Is Death…
reaching for a widow in Cincinnati
or breathing down the neck of a lost hiker
in British Columbia? (1-4)
Death is able to move about from place to place, and the persona wonders how far Death is from his own house. Death is given the ability to “reach” (2) and “breathe” (3), which are human actions. This gives the first allusion to the Grim Reaper, as that is the best known image of Death, personified.
The second stanza also personifies Death as he “tampers” (6), “scatters” (7), and “loosens” (8). Death is wreaking havoc wherever he goes. He messes with brakes, gives people cancer, and terrorizes roller coasters (5-8). The persona ponders the ways Death could use to do his dirty work.
The third stanza is where one senses the true fear of the persona. His main concern is if Death is “too busy...../ to bother with [his] hidden cottage/ that visitors find so hard to find.” (5, 9-10) He is hoping Death has too much to do to bother with searching for this well-hidden house in the middle of nowhere.
In the fourth stanza, the poem takes a turn when the poet combines the personification of Death with the imagery of Death. The persona imagines Death at the end of his driveway, stepping out of a hearse with his black cloak on, hood up, and scythe in hand (11-15). This is a second, more obvious allusion to the Grim Reaper; however, this time Death is at his own door.
The final stanza begins with a question of uncomfortable humor that the persona would regularly need to ask his visitors, since his house is so hard to find. Collins writes, “Did you...