Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

Billy Collins has quite a reputation among U.S. readers of poetry as a somewhat folksy, wry sort of poet. He draws large crowds for his readings. He sells large numbers of his books. And all of it, I submit, is well-merited, since he has the knack, like Robert Frost before him, of speaking his poetic truth - however erudite or deep it happens to be - in such a way that most people can catch at least one meaning of the poem - the surface, at least, whether they choose to look into the depths or not.

Horoscopes for the Dead picks up with some of the same themes Collins's readers are used to seeing. There are some especially funny ones, such as "Hangover", which has nothing to do with the movies of the same name, but which finds a somewhat curmudgeonly (yet still funny) Collins suffering from a severe headache:

by Billy Collins

If I were crowned emperor this morning,
every child who is playing Marco Polo
in the swimming pool of this motel,
shouting the name Marco Polo back and forth

Marco &emsp Polo   Marco   Polo

would be required to read a biography
of Marco Polo-a long one with fine print-
as well as a history of China and of Venice,
the birthplace of the venerated explorer

Marco   Polo   Marco   Polo

after which each child would be quizzed
by me then executed by drowning
regardless how much they managed
to retain about the glorious life and times of

Marco   Polo   Marco   Polo

It's kind of crappy audio quality, but you can hear Billy Collins read this poem here if you'd like.

There is another poem criticizing the imprecise use of language so prevalent in today's society - a somewhat popular theme with Billy Collins over the past few collections. (I feel constrained to mention that this poem is attributed to a female speaker, as several such past poems have been as well, and that perhaps a wee bit of sexism is creeping in there since imprecision in language is certainly not a gendered trait. But I digress.) Here, for a laugh, is the start of "What She Said":

What She Said
by Billy Collins

When he told me he expected me to pay for dinner,
I was like give me a break.

I was not the exact equivalent of give me a break.
I was just similar to give me a break.

As I said, I was like give me a break.

I would love to tell you
how I was able to resemble give me a break
without actually being identical to give me a break,

but all I can say is that I sensed
a similarity between me and give me a break.

. . .
You can hear the rest of the poem in this reading, again with apologies for the poor sound quality.

Not all the poems are funny, of course. There is the hauntingly lovely "Genesis", which begins as a poem about the original couple and ends as a poem about a specific modern couple. Or his rumination, "Poem on the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the Trinity School," which begins with him saying he's been asked to write such a poem, but cannot do so - only to find him wandering the land back through time, to that time three hundred years ago when the school was founded.

Highly recommended for fans of poetry, or for those of you wishing you like poetry a bit more. You are almost guaranteed to find something to your liking in this collection. I leave you with "The New Globe" - a poem that is, on its surface, about the obtaining of a globe, but is, underneath all that, about isolation and about feeling lost.

The New Globe
by Billy Collins

It was a birthday gift,
the kind that comes on a stand
and glows from within at night.

It's the size of a basketball
but much more interesting
with all its multicolored countries

and its blue pelagic expanses.
No matter how closely you look,
you will not see a seabird or a fellow sitting on a wall,

yet place a hand on its curvature
and you will feel the raised mountain ranges,
the bumpy Himalayas under your palm.

It shows little desire to join the solar system,
content to remain in this room
showing one side of itself at a time.

And it is a small thrill to gaze upon it
as if gazing through space
from another planet or a balcony of clouds.

You can spin it on its famous axis
and stop it with a thumb
to see where you might belong in the world.

Or you can pretend, as I did,
that your index finger
would go down as the first index finger

in history to circumnavigate the earth.
Just don't get lost like me,
lost as a baby dropped in an ocean.

Oh it's a good thing I was alone,
nobody there to hear me shouting
The Cape of Good Hope must be somewhere, but where?

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