Friday, December 13, 2013
An online daily putting "Hooray!" in your day
Beginning in Kansas, Ending in Oz: Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins (Andrea Grill, reviewer)
The New York Times book critic Bruce Weber has called him “the most popular poet in America.” Poet Alice Fulton has described him as the poet who “puts the `fun’ back in `profundity.’” I call Billy Collins a genie who grants you a magic carpet ride through the sublime and the ridiculous.
With Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, Collins, a two-term U.S. Poet Laureate of the United States (2001 – 2003), has bestowed upon us a masterful and thoroughly entertaining set of new poems, and his first new compilation in 12 years. Aimless Love combines more than 50 new poems with selections from four of his previous books of poems: Nine Horses (2002), The Trouble with Poetry (2005), Ballistics (2008), and Horoscopes for the Dead (2011).
Whether they appear in Aimless Love, or in earlier books, many of Collins’s poems are playful, yet serious. The poems start in places that are particular, interesting and amusing; they end in places that are by turns wondrous, abstract and deep. Once you enter a Collins’ poem, you never quite know where you’re going to go. In Collins’s own words, he wants his poems to “begin in Kansas and end in Oz.”
For example, in Horoscopes for the Dead, which appears in Aimless Love (and originally appeared in the 2011 book by the same name), the poet starts off by reading a dead man his horoscope every morning. Near the end of the poem, Collins is “pushing off on my copper-colored bicycle/and pedaling along the shore road by the bay”. In the final stanza, a bird has flown “straight up from earth/and pierced the enormous circle of the zodiac” directly over the dead man who is (presumably in a coffin) “lying there in your beautiful blue suit,/your hands crossed on your chest.”
In Horoscopes, Collins employs charming images with his wry humor. The images deliver the joke that astrology is plainly meaningless to a dead man, that the language used in horoscopes is stilted, and insinuates that the living over-rely on astrological forecasts to organize their lives . Collins reminds us that, if we are lucky, death can lift us into an “unbearable lightness of being” where the requirements and concerns of the world no longer hold us. We become lightness, air and laughter.
Collins’s new poems in Aimless Love are by turns droll, loving, and well-informed of cultural phenomenon. Collins populates his new poem To My Favorite 17-Year Old High School Girl with historical figures as charmingly disparate as Judy Garland and Blaise Pascal. In To My Favorite 17-Year Old, Collins sings a satirical ode to the stereotypical American teenage “slouch” of the 21st century. He shows how the concept of an American teenager has evolved into an inscrutable, over-indulged human being whom adults sorely wish were more productive and more engaged with the world. He cheekily coaxes the teenager to carry her weight, but to no avail.
To My Favorite 17-Year Old High School Girl
Do you realize if you had started
building the Parthenon on the day you were born
you would be all done in only one more year?
Of course, you couldn’t have done it all alone,
so never mind, you’re fine just as you are.
You are loved simply for being yourself.
But did you know at your age Judy Garland
was pulling down $15,000 a picture,
Joan of Arc was leading the French army to victory,
and Blaise Pascal had cleaned up his room?
No wait, I mean he had invented the calculator.
Of course, there will be time for all that later in your life
after you come out of your room
and begin to blossom, or at least pick up all your socks.
For some reason, I keep remembering that Lady Jane Grey
was Queen of England when she was only fifteen,
but then she was beheaded, so never mind her as a role model.
A few centuries later, when he was your age,
Franz Schubert was doing the dishes for his family
but that did not keep him from composing two symphonies,
four operas, and two complete Masses as a youngster.
But of course that was in Austria at the height
of romantic lyricism, not here in the suburbs of Cleveland.
Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you are special by just being you,
playing with your food and staring into space.
By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.
In American Airlines #371, another new poem in Aimless Love, Collins delivers another example of an entertaining style that carries meaning far more serious than what appears on the surface. Collins justifies the necessity that he consume wine on a cross-country flight to allow him to forgive and grow soft toward the people who were sources of petty annoyance while on commercial air travel across the United States; at the same time, he is cognizant that he does not have many years left to live, and describes Los Angeles, the American city where he is headed to land as a place where “the world might terminate or begin afresh again/which is how I tend to feel almost every day --/life’s end just around another corner or two.”
American Airlines #371
Pardon my benevolence,
but given the illusion that my fellow passengers and I
are now on our way to glory,
rising over this kingdom of clouds
(airy citadels! unnamable goings-on within!)
and at well over 500 miles per hour,
which would get you to work in under one second,
I wish to forgive the man next to me
who so annoyed me before the wine started arriving
by turning each page of his newspaper
with a kind of crisp, military snap,
and the same goes for that howling infant,
and for the child in the row behind me
who persisted in hitting that F above high C
that all of her kind know perfectly how to hit
while rhythmically kicking the back of my seat.
Yes, I have softened and been rendered
even grateful by the ministrations of Eva,
uniformed wine bearer in the sky,
and if we are not exactly being conveyed to Paradise,
at least we are vectoring across the continent
to Los Angeles – orange tree in the backyard,
girl on a motorcycle roaring down Venice Boulevard.
And eventually we will begin our final descent
(final descent! I want to shout to Eva)
into the city of a million angels,
where the world might terminate or begin afresh again,
which is how I tend to feel almost every day –
life’s end just around another corner or two,
yet out the morning window
the thrust of a new blossom from that bush
whose colorful name I can never remember.
Despite his casual style, Collins also produces beautiful, solid poems that are solemn and serious. He was the U.S. Poet Laureate at the time of the September 11, 2011 U.S. terrorist attacks. He wrote a poem called The Names, which he read a year later in September 2002 in New York City before a special joint session of Congress. The Names appears as a new poem (and the final poem) in Aimless Love. The poem carefully and alphabetically places last names of the victims that run from A to Z. With A he says, “I started with Ackerman/as it happened”) to X, Y and Z (“let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound/Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.”)
Following in the vein of The Names, the subject matter of a quite recent poem, appearing in the October 21, 2013 edition of The New Yorker, also departs from the typical Collins poem. Tanager is somber, sorrowful, and without irony. Tanager begins by relating a story that Collins hears over the morning radio, of hopelessness involving asylum inmates. The story reminds Collins of another story about the anguish endured by prisoners, which in turn, disturbs Collins so much that when he takes a nature walk that day and comes upon beautiful, striking creatures – two tanager birds and a solitary coyote – Collins cannot enjoy what he sees. Yet Tanager contains the distinctive Collins style of gorgeous language and a first-person conversational tone. Wonder, charm and beauty seem unable to bypass the plagued state of Collins’ mind. Though there is some spiritual crack of light suggesting that splendor and love may prevail over horror. Along with the hopelessness in the poem, there is the bird “with a bright-orange chest/flitting from branch to branch with its mate,/”. There is also the “solitary coyote that stopped in its tracks /to regard me, then moved on/” and then reappeared “in the distance/before vanishing/in the scrub for good”/. There is also the “cottonwood fluff snowing sideways/”.
If only I had not listened to the piece
on the morning radio about the former asylum
whose inmates were kept busy
at wooden benches in a workshop
making leather collars and wristbands
that would later be used to restrain them.
And if only that had not reminded me,
as I stood facing the bathroom mirror,
of the new state prison whose bricks had been set
by prisoners trucked in from the old prison,
how sweet and free of static my walk
would have been along the upland trail.
Nothing to spoil the purity of the ascent –
the early sun, wafer-white,
breaking over the jagged crest of that ridge,
a bird with a bright-orange chest
flitting from branch to branch with its mate,
and a solitary coyote that stopped in its tracks
to regard me, then moved on.
Plus the cottonwood fluff snowing sideways
and after I stood still for a while,
the coyote appearing again in the distance
before vanishing in the scrub for good.
That’s the kind of walk it might have been.
Collins has spoken publicly about how his poems are “reader conscious.” He begins his poems with great care and trepidation:
I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.
Speaking of canoes, particular objects tend to appear (and reappear) in Collins’s poems. These objects serve as conveyances of the delightful and the unexpected. In Constellations, a poem he recently delivered in April 2013 to a packed Washington, DC audience (this reviewer included!) at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Collins casts Virginia Woolf in her own inflatable canoe under moonlight:
Yes, that’s Orion over there,
the three studs of the belt
clearly lined up just off the horizon.
And if you turn around you can see
Gemini, very visible tonight,
the twins looking off into space as usual.
That cluster a little higher in the sky
is Cassiopeia sitting in her astral chair
if I’m not mistaken.
And directly overhead,
isn’t that Virginia Woolf
slipping along the River Ouse
in her inflatable canoe?
See the wide-brimmed hat and there,
the outline of the paddle, raised and
Aimless Love is a treasure for all time. You will love reading these poems repeatedly in his collection—whether aloud or to yourself. The corpus of poems found in Aimless Love is a brilliant comfort, a cherished reference, an easy friend—in short, a bottle of full-bodied entertainment.
Get ready for 5 minutes of moving your body, feeling the beat and being oh-so-GRATEFUL! Then tell your friends and workmates to "come on over" and watch it again!
Here Are the Books On Our Bedside Table
What are you reading? Check out these wonderful titles. (By the way, some of these "on our bedside table" are actually on our Kindles and Nooks, and other reading devices! What a world we live in, huh? Simply amazing!)
Introduction To Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Billy Collins, The Apple That Astonished Paris
The mind can be trained to relieve itself on paper.
-- Billy Collins
You will always be the bread and the knife, not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.
-- Billy Collins
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