Horoscopes For The Dead
By Billy Collins
Random House, $27
If you haven’t cracked open a book of poems since you were in school, it is time to begin again. Poets observe things the rest of us do not see, and for my money, Billy Collins is an observer we can’t afford to miss.
Horoscopes For the Dead is his latest book, but he has published many others containing poems of subtle humour and philosophical wit. In other words, they are highly readable and often laugh-out-loud enjoyable.
I’ll readily admit that Horoscopes has a lot of poems about death, as he says in Memento Mori: “the realization that no one/ who ever breasted the waters of time/has figured out a way to avoid dying/ always pulls me up by the reins and settles me down by the roadside, grateful for the sweet weeds/ and the mouthfuls of colorful wildflowers.”
Or this one called Genesis: “It was late, of course, just the two of us still at the table working on a second bottle wine, when you speculated that maybe Eve came first and Adam began as a rib. …”
You can readily see that this isn’t the sort of poetry we were subjected to in those far off school days. Those poems required great interpretation (we never guessed correctly). Then there was the moon/ June/ dune/ tune/ problem that made poetry tiresome. Who needed it?
Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and between you and me, I think he knew his onions.
In the book entitled Sailing Alone Around the Room, there is a poem called Dancing Toward Bethlehem: If there is only enough time in the final minutes of the twentieth century for one last dance/ I would like to be dancing it slowly with you.”
Who can resist the thought?
Or what about The History Teacher: “Trying to protect his students’ innocence he told them the Ice Age was really just the Chilly Age, a period of a million years when everyone had to wear sweaters. …”
From the book Nine Horses comes Surprise, in which Collins throws a surprise birthday party for Vivaldi: “He would be 325 years old today, quite bent over, I would imagine, and not able to see much through his watery eyes/ But we would throw a surprise party for him anyway/ a surprise party where everyone would hide behind the furniture to listen for the tap of his cane on the pavement, and his dry persistent cough.”
In Collins’s poetry, we see the things he sees and we say, in our minds, “Oh yes, I’ve seen that, but I’d forgotten.”
He writes about dogs and mice (lots of mice). Most of the dogs are nice, but in Another Reason I don’t keep A Gun In The House he says: “The neighbours’ dog will not stop barking/ he barks every time they leave the house/ They must switch him on/ on their way out.”
Collins has at least nine books published. Great!
Peggy Freeman is a local freelance books reviewer.