Thursday, May 08, 2008

Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

Wallace Stevens once wrote, when discussing the subject matter of poetry, that it is not a “collection of solid, static objects extended in space” but rather the life that is lived in the scene that it composes. He continues, “so reality is not that external scene but the life that is lived in it. Reality is things as they are.” I believe Stevens has touched on an important aspect of poetry for me, and that Billy Collins exemplifies this dictum as well as any poet writing today.

We do not have to look far in Sailing Alone Around the Room, a selection of Collins’ work from several of his books, which also includes some “new poems.” My favorite Collins’ poem is a good place to start. “Shoveling Snow with the Buddha” takes the mundane chore of clearing a driveway of new fallen snow. The narrator is joined in the task by the Buddha. “…here we are working our way down the driveway / one shovelful at a time” (LL 13-14). There is nothing fancy here, no deep meaning, but the gentle language is infused with the reality of two people shoveling. The reader takes up the image and adds the cold, the strenuous nature of the task, as well as the sense of satisfaction that comes as they approach the end of the drive. Hardly anything could be more realistic. Having shoveled many sidewalks for quarters as a young boy, these lines instantly carry me back to my early years.

Another example that strikes me as particularly realistic, is “On Turning Ten,” Collins counts the years with mileposts in a child’s dreams of the future:

…I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince. (LL 12-16)

Those years easily come back to me with Collins’ lyrical and flowing style. I need only substitute other dreams -- an archaeologist, a pilot, a sailboat captain – for transportation to those innocent days.

If you are unfamiliar with Billy Collins, this volume is a great place to start. When I first bought this book, I quickly read through it, but then I started over and read them one at a time. Occasionally, I would linger on a favorite poem for a second, third, or even a fourth read before moving on. You will be as enchanted as I was, and you will go out and buy the rest of Collins’ books for full servings only hinted at in this fine collection. Five stars.

--Chiron, 5/7/08

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