When asked to list my favorite poets, Billy Collins inevitably makes the cut. So when I received a review copy of his new book, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, from the publisher Random House, I was delighted to see the selections covered most of the gaps in my Collins’ collection. Any poetic repeats were fun to read again anyway, especially with the jacket-flap assurance of over 50 new poems to enjoy.
“Enjoy” is the very verb needed to describe what you might expect to do upon reading Collins for the first or the fiftieth time. It’s amazing actually because we’re most likely talking about a highly cerebral man who consistently finds a down-to-earth connection with almost all of us. Sometimes this occurs as he puts a new twist on familiar sayings or as he speaks to us directly, obviously giving us thought.
Take, for instance, the opening poem “Reader,” whom Collins envisions as he's "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.” Shortly thereafter, the title poem, “Aimless Love,” gives thoughtful attention to almost everything, including “the dead mouse,/ still dressed in its light brown suit.”
Mostly, though, Collins shows his love for poetry – a tumultuous affair. As “The Trouble with Poetry” tells us, “Poetry fills me with joy/ and I rise like a feather in the wind./ Poetry fills me with sorrow/ and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge. / But mostly poetry fills me/ with the urge to write poetry,/ to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame/ to appear at the tip of my pencil.”
A true lover of poetry, Billy Collins nods his acquaintance with other poets such as Dante in “Scenes of Hell” where “We did not have the benefit of a guide,” as Dante did, “But what truly caught our attention/ was the scene in the long mirror of ice:// you lighting the wick on your head,/ me blowing on the final spark, / and our children trying to crawl away from their eggshells.” Or in “Lost,” we catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Bishop’s appearance in the opening line “There was no art in losing that coin” and later in “paint-speckled” lines going “past storefronts, gas stations….”
Known for his wit and wry humor, Collins also gives us such poems as “Hippos on Holiday” which, he says, “is not really the title of a movie/ but if it were I would be sure to see it.” Eating popcorn, drinking his “enormous Coke,” he'd “be both in my seat/ and in the water playing with the hippos,/ which is the way it is/ with a truly great movie./ Only a mean-spirited reviewer/ would ask on holiday from what?”
So, while I think of Billy Collins as a highly observant, highly intelligent, highly skilled poet of clear insight and good humor, I’m wondering if he thinks of himself as the “mean-spirited reviewer” with questions few of us think to ask? I hope not! In an era of shams, shame, and deception, I appreciate his honest voice and fresh perspective.
I also appreciate his clear voice over the mumbling of the crowd. For example, if you’ve ever wondered what a person meant by saying or writing this or that and just wished for clarity in thought and speech, you’re probably in Billy’s shoes as he addresses “Baby Listening.” Upon learning of that “service offered by this seaside hotel,” the poet assures us that “Baby-listening – not a baby who happens to be listening,/ as I thought when I first checked in…./ But the phrase did suggest a baby who is listening,/ lying there in the room next to mine/ listening to my pen scratching against the page,/ or a more advanced baby who has crawled/ down the hallway of the hotel/ and is pressing its tiny, curious ear against my door.” And then comes the unexpected insight of this ever-vigilant poet: “Lucky for some of us,/ poetry is a place where both are true at once,/ where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.”
With levity of line and depth of meaning, Billy Collins keeps us reading and en-joying the joy he finds by paying attention to life and everything around, including death. In the closing poem “The Names” written “for the victims of September 11th and their survivors,” he pays attention and tribute to the “Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers, The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son./ Alphabet of names in green rows in a field./ Names in the small tracks of birds./ Names lifted from a hat/ Or balanced on the tip of the tongue./ Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory./ So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart” – especially such an empathetic heart that might break often without the love of poetry.
© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books.
Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, hardcover