Friday, May 25, 2012

Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

* * * 1/2

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 poet” 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.
Standing under the bones of a dinosaur
in a museum does the trick every time
or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon.

Smart, lyrical, and not afraid to be funny, these new poems extend Collins’s reputation as a poet who occupies a special place in the consciousness of readers of poetry, including the many he has converted to the genre.

I was a big poetry reader as a teenager but, as it often happens, my likes/dislikes changed over time and I lost my taste for it.  Not that I ever disliked poetry.  I just let other types of reading take priority.  I couldn’t tell you what made me decide to tackle this collection of poems but I am so glad that I did. 

Within this collection you will find the narrator reminding himself that life is short, time does not stand still, and we must always remember the things that give us the reason and hope we need to go on living.   

I experienced a whole gamut of emotions while reading this book.  The romance found in the poem Genesis made me smile softly.  The sadness in the title poem, Horoscopes of the Dead, brought tears to my eyes.  But what I appreciated most of all was the sarcasm and humor which is rampant through out. 

Although reflective, Billy Collins seems to have this wonderful desire to lighten the mood by poking fun at the world.  A perfect example of this is in the poem, Memento Mori. 

It doesn’t take much to remind me

What a mayfly I am,

What a soap bubble floating over the children’s party.

Standing under the bones of a dinosaur

In a museum does the trick every time

Or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon.

Even the Church of St. Anne, will do,

A structure I just noticed in a magazine-

Built in 1722 of sandstone and limestone in the city of Cork.

And 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 a roadside, grateful for the sweet weeds

And the mouthfuls of colorful wildflowers.

So many reminders of my mortality

Here, there, and elsewhere, visible at every hour,

Pretty much everything I can think of except you,

Sign over the door of this bar in Cocoa Beach

Proclaiming that it was established-

Though established does not sound right – in 1996

The way I read this is that he is reflecting about being on the outside looking in until he realizes that life is short and he should become a participant rather than an onlooker.  A sentimental thought that I think most would agree with.  And had he left it at that, the reader probably would have said, “Hey, this is a nice reflective poem”.  Instead he ends the reflection with some sarcastic humor which left this reader thinking “this is fu-rickin’-tastic!”   

Memento Mori is just a small example of the greatness found in this collection.  If this is any indication of what I might find in other modern poetry collections, then consider me a born again poetry fan.


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