Tuesday, April 14, 2015

AIMLESS LOVE: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins

April being National Poetry Month, it seemed fitting to feature a poetry collection, so here goes:

Aimless Love is the most recent poetry collection by Billy Collins, a marvel of understatement and wit. And if you can't tell whether I'm speaking of the poet or the collection, that's intentional, as the phrase applies equally to both.

The book includes selections from four prior collections, Nine Horses, The Trouble With Poetry, Ballistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead (previously reviewed here at Guys Lit Wire, plus another 51 new poems. Fifty-two, if you count "Reader", which forms a sort of preface. Note how it's all one sentence and how, too, some of the synonyms for "reader" sound like insults as much as descriptors (I'm thinking "thumb-licking page turner" isn't neutral, for instance.)

Reader
by Billy Collins

Looker, gazer, skimmer, skipper,
thumb-licking page turner, peruser,
you getting your print-fix for the day,
pencil chewer, note taker, marginalianist
with your checks and X's
first-time or revisited,
browser, speedster, English major,
flight-ready girl, melancholy boy,
invisible companion, thief, blind date, perfect stranger--

that is me rushing to the window
to see if it's you passing under the shade trees
with a baby carriage or a dog on a leash,
me picking up the phone
to imagine your unimaginable number,
me standing by a map of the world
wondering where you are--
alone on a bench in a train station
or falling asleep, the book sliding to the floor.
Since Billy Collins is aging, it's not surprising, I suppose that a bunch of the newer poems are about aging and death, though that's not true of all of them. There is a mixture, too, of the silly and the sublime, the serious and the quirked eyebrow. For instance, there is "The Suggestion Box", a poem about how everyone wants to tell him what to write poems about (usually them), which mixes what is likely a legitimate poet's complaint with dry humor, or "The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska", which is actually about how he got to Nebraska too late in the season to the see the birds that are the subject of the poem, and ends with him "in another state, stuck in a motel lobby/ with the local paper and a styrofoam cup of coffee,/ busily missing God knows what."

And then there's "Last Meal", about the grim reaper arriving as a waiter, or a poem about aging entitled "Cheerios".


Cheerios
by Billy Collins

One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago
as I waited for my eggs and toast,
I opened the Tribune only to discover
that I was the same age as Cheerios.

Indeed, I was a few months older than Cheerios
for today, the newspaper announced,
was the seventieth birthday of Cheerios
whereas mine had occurred earlier in the year.

Already I could hear them whispering
behind my stooped and threadbare back,
Why that dude's older than Cheerios
the way they used to say

Why that's as old as the hills,
only the hills are much older than Cheerios
or any American breakfast cereal,
and more noble and enduring are the hills,

I surmised as a bar of sunlight illuminated my orange juice.
The final poem in the book is "Names", a poem written "for the victims of September 11th and their survivors". You can see and hear him read the poem on PBS here.


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