First here is the poem:
The worst thing about death must be
the first night.
—Juan Ramón Jiménez
Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,
but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set
then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,
a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.
This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.
The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.
Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me
into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,
and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.
Billy Collins takes a line of poetry from nobel prize winning poet Juan Ramon Jimenez* and writes some poetry on it. A lot of Billy's poems seem to come from the readings that he does.
So the setting is that he sitting on a "trellised porch" (latticed with vines**) and reading this poetry and makes observations. He goes into fantasy lands, like he does in his other poem about the four moon planet (from Robert Frost).
Most of the poem then speculates about what happens after death. Are there many days and nights, or just the "first night" -- which cannot be described by words that stop with our horse ride of a life at a "dizzying cliff".
At the end of the poem, the poet is scared by his inability to describe a sun that "will shine after death;" so he pays attention to the beautiful things on earth: moon, sunlight on water or dispersed on forests, and thorns along with rose. But keenly observes that these are "sentinel thorns" that guard the rose.
Here is where different interpretations can be made. I believe what he is saying is that who knows whether the first night is good or bad; even if it is bad, its probably "bad" because it is "protecting" the good.
The purpose of life is to sing; who knows what will happen after we die. Enjoy what you have and believe that the thorns in life are there to protect the beauty that we enjoy.
I also found that Jimenez translated some of Rabindranath Tagore's poems
1. A structure of open latticework, especially one used as a support for vines and other creeping plants.
2. An arbor or arch made of latticework.
tr.v. trel·lised, trel·lis·ing, trel·lis·es
1. To provide with a trellis, especially to train (a vine) on a trellis.
2. To make (something) in the form of a trellis.