- Taking Life
Billy Collins’s Aimless Love sat astride the New York Times Fiction Hardback Bestseller list in November 2013, and his Charlie Chaplinesque verses make these 150 poems easy to like. Or so I thought. Now I think there are two Billy Collins—the professor honing his craft and the trickster whose laugh-out-loud poems seem false and artificial. When I began to read the poems in the order presented in the book—which I realize probably differs from the order in which they were written—their sharps and flats became clear. The first 100 are selected from Nine Horses (2002), The Trouble with Poetry (2005), Ballistics (2008), and Horoscopes for the Dead (2011), and the last 50 are, reportedly, new. Since Collins and I share a healthy respect for Howard Nemerov, W. S. Merwin, Wallace Stevens, W. B. Yeats, and Paul Valéry, I have been trying to figure out why this former Laureate’s work sometimes makes me cringe.
The 2002 volume seems bitter or unsettled under its calm, bright surface. The poem “Velocity” is about drawing lines showing speed (Collins is a NASCAR enthusiast), “More Than a Woman,” is thirteen stanzas about being distracted by a “vapid” pop song, and the title poem “Nine Horses” is about his wife’s birthday gift of nine white horses with “suffering eyes” whose faces chill the narrator, reminding him of Saint Bartholomew or Saint Agnes. “Christmas Sparrow” compellingly narrates the saving of a sparrow the cat has snared; the title suggests it’s a secularized resurrection metaphor. Running throughout Nine Horses are passing images of a less than happy marriage where the children are coldly viewed on the way to the library. The poem “Aimless Love” contrasts marital disharmony with the narrator’s embrace of things that cross his path, from a dead mouse the cat “dropped under the dining room table,” to a bowl of broth:
This is the best kind of love, I thought,without recompense, without gifts,or unkind words, without suspicion,or silence on the telephone.
The love of the chestnut,the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.
No lust, no slam of the door—the love of the miniature orange tree,the clean white shirt…
As the narrator carries the dead mouse by its tail to a pile of leaves in the woods, he muses:
But my heart is always propped upin a field on its tripod,ready for the next arrow.
Even as “Aimless Love” opens and closes with the narrator’s joyous acceptance of life’s daily gifts, the poem is equally about a marriage that has led to rancor and accusatory silence. Readers don’t witness the other party’s grievances, only the result. Despite my resistance to the poem, the title fits the collection. In “Drawing You from Memory,” the narrator foresees scenes between himself and his spouse after “being so far away from you for so long.” The second stanza envisages that she will find he’s been unfaithful:
But all of this will come togetherthe minute I see you again at the station, [End Page 22] my notebook and pens packed away,your face smiling as I cup it in my hands,or frowning later when we are homeand you are berating me in the kitchenwaving the pages in my facedemanding to know the name of this latestlittle whore.
Even though some or many poems appear to be autobiographical, the narrator’s voice changes enough throughout the book so that it becomes unreliable. Collins tosses in a few happy, loving poems and even poems on serious subjects. The title poem in The Trouble with Poetry pictures the narrator alone on a beach meditating on various aspects of writing poetry and using a line about a lighthouse which, he brags, he stole from a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem. “Flock” stops me with its opening quote from “an article on printing”: “It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenburg Bible… required the skins of 300 sheep.” Most sources state that...