Book Review: Horoscopes for the Dead

Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems
by Billy Collins
Random House, 2011
106 pages (hardcover)

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I think of Billy Collins as the people’s poet, and not just because he was United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003. No, it’s the breadth of his themes and the precision of his vision and the accessibility of his language that gives him that art-for-the-common-man status. Let me explain. Most of Mary Oliver’s poetry is inspired by nature and her quiet attention to it. Emily Dickinson’s poems are interior monologues of philosophy, theology, anthropology. Nikki Finney’s poems come from an urgency to live, to pursue freedom, to resist oppression. I love these poets for their particular concerns and inspirations. But what I love about Collins is his randomness, his way of turning this mundane object or daily task, that snippet of conversation or quiet observation, into a work of art, simply by giving it room and breath. He distills these bits of everydayness into their purest essences and preserves them in poems, like rare perfumes held in cut-glass atomizers. But unlike those rare perfumes, Collins has a poem for every reader, no matter their income, employment, or level of familiarity with poetry in general.

His latest collection, the delightfully-titled Horoscopes for the Dead, demonstrates his optimistic realism. “It doesn’t take much to remind me / what a mayfly I am, / what a soap bubble floating over the children’s party,” he writes in “Memento Mori”; yet in “Delivery,” he hopes that the eventual news of his death will be delivered “not by a dark truck / but by a child’s attempt to draw that truck.” In “Cemetery Ride,” he muses, “My new copper-colored bicycle / is looking pretty fine under a blue sky” but as he rides along, he begins to imagine the lives of these deceased he is passing by, now remembered only by their names and dates. Since he can’t take them all “for a ride / in my wire basket,” he settles on one invitation: “Then how about just you, Enid Parker? / Would you like to gather up your voluminous skirts / and ride sidesaddle on the crossbar / and tell me what happened between 1863 and 1931?”

His subjects are random: a squirrel, a thank-you note, a rubber duck, a globe, a vase of tulips.  In “Thieves,” while out walking, he comes across a car-sized rock and seats himself “on that granite automobile, / which once moved along / in the monstrous glacial traffic of the ice age.”  In “A Question About Birds,” he wonders if all birds understand the songs of other species, “Or is that nervous chittering / I often hear from the upper branches / the sound of some tireless little translator?”

He delights in paradoxes. In “Table Talk,” a dinner companion “asked if anyone had ever considered / applying the paradoxes of Zeno to the maryrdom of St. Sebastian.” All during the meal, pondering Zeno’s theory that no moment ever really arrives but only draws closer by half, Collins “kept thinking of the arrows forever nearing / the pale, quivering flesh of St. Sebastian, / a fleet of them forever halving the tiny distances / to his body, tied to a post with rope, / even after the archers had packed it in and gone home.” But then he wryly observes that “my fork continued to arrive at my mouth / delivering morsels of asparagus and crusted fish.”  In “Lakeside,” he encounters an optical illusion, the stars seeming to speed across the night sky, though he knows it is really the movement of the clouds that he is observing. “It was like the curious figure / of the duck/rabbit— / why, even paradoxical Wittgenstein / could not find his way back to the rabbit / once he had beheld the bill of the duck.”

In Horoscopes for the Dead, as in his other collections, some of the poems are pure humor. In “The Guest,” he offers a fresh reflection on the aphorism that houseguests, like fish, stink after three days. And in “Hell,” he makes a hilarious case that if Dante had been to “this cavernous store with its maze of bedding” and been forced by the stalking salesman to test each mattress by lying down “arms rigid, figures on a tomb / powerless to imagine what it would be like / to sleep or love this way / under the punishing rows of fluorescent lights,” he just might have included mattress shopping in his Inferno.

But what I notice most of all about these and his previous poems is his fine-tuned sense of language. He deftly reduces an experience or state of being into a few perfect words, like in “Poetry Workshop Held in a Former Cigar Factory in Key West,” where on the basis of artistic integrity he fights “until now” the inclination to think that “the cigar might be a model for the poem” since he is “tightly rolling an intuition / into a perfectly shaped, handmade thing.” And in “Memorizing,” he revels that by committing a poem to memory, “it goes with me now, contracted into a little spot within.”

Collins makes me want to keep reading poetry. More than that, he makes me want to be a poet, or at least see and hear like one. His latest work of imagination again calls me to pay attention; it is “a bright reminder, / after many jumbled days and nights, / of my true vocation— / keeping an eye on things / whether they existed or not, / recumbent under the random stars.”

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