Wednesday, October 1, 2008


This review of Billy Collins, Nine Horses (Random House, 2002) first appeared in The Boston Globe, December 1, 2002, p. D 8.

In “Introduction to Poetry,” a poem included in his first book, The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), current US Poet Laureate Billy Collins provides a key—actually, a ring of keys—to how a reader might engage with any poem. “Hold it up to the light / like a color slide,” he suggests, “or press an ear against its hive,” or “drop a mouse into a poem /and watch him probe his way out.” Perhaps a wink toward the origin of the poetic term “stanza” in the Italian word for “room,” the last key he extends may be the best for unlocking the wonders housed in his own writing: “walk inside the poem’s room / and feel the walls for a light switch.”

Certainly this strategy works with the poems gathered in Nine Horses, his ninth full-length collection. Admitting in a recent essay that his poems tend to be driven far more by “the engines of imagination” than by “the engines of memory” in vogue among contemporary poets, Collins in fact writes on the margin of several poetic conventions. Hardly formalist, his deceptively casual poems are yet composed of carefully measured strophes (most commonly of three or four lines) made up of gracefully balanced and quietly cadenced phrases. Hardly autobiographical (and not in the least confessional), they yet afford in their intrinsic humor and their essential humaneness glimpses of the man behind the mask of words. Hardly thematically heavy, any given poem yet resonates with a profundity appropriate to the degree of levity or gravity that generated it in the first place.

In short, a typical Collins poem has a self-illuminating quality to it, or (to compile metaphors the way Collins characteristically does) a gratifyingly organic feel about it, a sense that like some splendidly blooming plant, it develops naturally from even a most inauspicious instant of germination. “Velocity,” for example, starts out with the poet, traveling cross-country by train, fretting that he has only the tired subject of “life and death” to write about. However, as a doodled sketch in his notebook develops into a motorcyclist “leaning forward, helmetless, / his long thin hair trailing behind him in the wind,” Collins comes to reflect on how his increasingly detailed drawing resembles the locomotive pulling the train. Ultimately, those linked emblems of speed suggest “from the point of view of eternity” the very image of all humanity hurtling through life toward death: “we would all / appear to have speed lines trailing behind us /as we rush along the road of the world, / as we rush down the long tunnel of time.” Obviously, Collins arrives at the very destination of subject matter that he wished to avoid, but the circuitous route he takes proves much more “scenic” than either he or his reader might have anticipated.

Such transformation of the ordinary into the interesting, the familiar into the captivatingly strange, virtually defines Collins’s poetry. Sometimes the poet’s inspiration comes from his recognizing a curious synchronicity: for instance, the appearance of Arthur Godfrey and Man Ray, or Ken Kesey and Dale Evans, on the same obituary page brings to his mind “an ark of death,” random “pairs of men and women / ascending the gangplank two by two,” “all saved at last from the awful flood of life.” Sometimes he will tease out the unlikely implications of a fact acquired serendipitously: hearing on the radio that jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy, “36 years old when he died, / has now been dead for 36 years,” he muses playfully on the “little shift” that occurred “when we all took another / full Dolphy step forward in time, / flipped over the Eric Dolphy yardstick once again.” Equal parts ingenious and ingenuous, poems registering moments of awareness like those can leave a reader feeling the paradoxical sensation that Collins inscribes in “The Literary Life”: “Everything seemed more life-size than usual.”

So can a poem like “The Return of the Key,” in which, imagining opening a birdcage with a key plucked from William Carlos Williams’s famous poem “Nantucket,” Collins takes the reader on a dazzling flight of fancy that concludes with the liberated bird disappearing “into the anthology of American poetry / that lay open on the table— / the key clenched in its beak / the pages lifting like many wings in the breeze.” A verbal equivalent of the visual wit of surrealist painter Rene Magritte, this poem reads as a heightened version of Collins’s unabashed delight in poetic possibilities—his constant readiness, as he declares in a poem cataloging the many pleasures of Paris, “to cheer the boats of the beautiful, / the boats of the strange, / as they float down the river of this momentous day.” Pervious to even the simplest of cues—a song stuck in his head, a change in the weather, the work of art that lends his book its title, a sudden impulse to learn about Coventry Patmore—Collins engages his reader by way of his own engaged reading of both his outer and inner worlds. As he concedes in “Aimless Love,” a poem listing all manner of such cues, “my heart is always propped up / in a field on its tripod, / ready for the next arrow.”

While Collins might refer self-deprecatingly to his craft of poetry as merely “making lines, / making comparisons,” clearly he has found a readership: the enthusiastic reception—both critical and popular—of his Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001) attests to that. Nine Horses should only add to his rightful acclaim. One of the truly indelible images in the book is of a roadkill groundhog remembered as “a small Roman citizen, / with his prosperous belly, / his faint smile, / and his stiff forearm raised / as if he were still alive, still hailing Caesar.” But in poem after poem, Collins achieves a comparable effect—the effect he both describes and achieves at the end of “Night Letter to the Reader,” the book’s prefatory piece, in which “the moon, / looking like the top of Shakespeare’s / famous forehead, / appeared, quite unexpectedly, / illuminating a band of moving clouds.”

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