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Collins' Nine Horses

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Nine Horses. 2002

Collins, Billy. New York: Random House. 120 pgs., $21.95, cloth. ISBN: 0375503811.

One signal that a new volume of American poetry resonates congenially, from the first poem to the stanza just short of the obligatory blank white pages, is that no one poem insists itself as the signature work. Mr. Collins is such a signalman. His work is nothing if not congruous and consistently rewarding. In Nine Horses fifty poems present themselves as nearly equally worthy; the melancholy title poem is as compelling as most of the rest are fun and frivolous. This volume, continuing to bring poetry to those who had lived and read outside the fray, follows by four years his Sailing Alone Around the Room.

For those who have read Billy Collins' poetry over the past number of years, we know there will be devices and gambits. No Collins volume would be complete without his telltale mice. Contemplating "The Country" we find:

… the one unlikely mouse
padding along a cold water pipe…

and soon "the little brown druid" will illuminate "some ancient night" with the match stick he has inadvertently struck. What makes such a poem compelling is the poet's ability to find the amusing or absurd in what could otherwise pass for a serious moment -- the commonplace in the uncommon situation. This volume makes good use of Collins' travels abroad -- often at the social expense of his hosts; in "Paris" birds yell at him soaking in the tub in "French bird talk," as he ponders his next cup of coffee and city art gallery. In "Istanbul," a city he finds "incomprehensible" and somewhat nefarious, as he luxuriates in the 300-year old bathhouse:

old enough to have opened the pores of Florence Nightingale
and soaped the musical head of Franz Liszt.
But in the end it is a poem such as "Obituaries" that makes the reader's voice catch, not for anything clever or instantly engaging, he does that well enough, but for an insight that makes his fellow poets wonder why they have not written of precisely such an epiphany before. We read that section of the newspaper with Mr. Collins as he finds:
There are no pages for the young,
who are better off in one another's arms,

Here is where the final cards are shown,
the age, the cause, the plague of deeds

And all the survivors huddle at the end
under the roof of a paragraph
as if they had sidestepped the flame of death.

But he is not finished with the survivors, huddled for unknown purposes, and who were not "…saved at last from the awful flood of life -- "

As with much of his work, he complicates the common-place notion. Here he challenges the reader to consider the saving ark of Noah in a new light, where those called to board escape "the heavy waters that roll beyond the world." And as temporary survivors, huddled and approaching our own paragraph, we must at least for a moment see this signal, this poetic semaphore, as something of an unexpected challenge.

Arthur McMaster