Billy Collins is widely acknowledged as a prominent player at the table of modern American poetry. And in this new collection, Horoscopes for the Dead, the verbal gifts that earned him the title America's most popular poe; are on full display. The poems here cover the usual but everlasting themes of love and loss, life and death, youth and aging, solitude and union. With simple diction and effortless turns of phrase, Collins is at once ironic and elegiac, as in the opening lines of the title poem:
Every morning since you disappeared for good,
I read about you in the newspaper
along with the box scores, the weather, and all the bad news.
Some days I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you . . .
And in this reflection on his own transience:
It doesn't take much to remind me
what a mayfly I am,
what a soap bubble floating over the children's party.
The 1990s belonged to Billy Collins in the same way that the 1980s belonged to Robert Fulghum (All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten). Collins's gently ironic, gently elegiac work-the mirror image of, say, Jonathan Franzen's suburban delvings-has slowly constructed a pitch-perfect purgatory, and this death-themed ninth collection seems to want to make it as literal as possible: it opens as the speaker stands "before the joined grave of my parents" and asks, "What do you think of my new glasses?" In a poem titled "Hell," the speaker has "a feeling that is much worse/ than shopping for a mattress in a mall,// of greater duration without question,/ and there is no random pitchforking here,/ no licking flames to fear,/ only this cavernous store with its maze of bedding." That this feeling is never quite articulated over the course of 50-odd poems is not to its detriment: despite the prosaic settings and everyday language, Collins is after the big questions: of life, death, and how to live. But the world is not of his making, and his is a temperament oddly suited to a world where "the correct answer" to questions like why the stars appear as they do, strike "not like a bolt of lightning/ but more like a heavy bolt of cloth." (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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April 04, 2011
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