By Billy Collins
New York: Random House, 2016
ISBN # 9780679644064 – hard cover
108 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2016

This is the third book of Billy Collins poetry which I have read and commented upon. In the earlier two cases, I first heard him read from his latest work, and then I purchased a copy, read the whole of it at home and wrote about it. In this case I heard him reading a few excerpts from this new work on the radio and hurried to get the work for myself.

It is a wonderful book to read, very clever, touching, insightful with very diverse poems on a large range of topics. I would highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys poetry and I would suggest reading the work aloud to yourself, or even better, to some friend or friends who also enjoy good poetry.

The title poem “The Rain in Portugal” is, of course, a takeoff of the title “The Rain in Spain.” However, it is a poem in which Collins emphasizes his very strong desire to NOT write rhyming poetry, thus his title choice.

The volume has a wide range of topics which he considers in poetry. Early on I was very much taken with his poem “Only Child” in which he first celebrates the fact that he was an only child and the center of his parents’ attention and world. However, in their very last years, when a great deal of care was needed for his parents he comes to realize it would have been nice to have a sibling to help him out and thus he creates this imaginary sister, Mary. She would have been a nurse who happened to live very close to the hospital where his parent were, and she would be most willing to drop anything else going on in her life to race to her parents when they needed her – of course, thus absolving him from this responsibility. It is a very warm, touching and human poem. It made me very much appreciate my own two brothers who were close by home when our own parents were in their last days.

There is such a huge diversity of topics in the poems he chose for this volume and as an opera lover I delighted in the poem “The Money Note” in which he sings about the tremendous delight that opera goers tend to have over the moments in many operas where there is a splendid soaring of a tenor aria that highlights the score. He recognizes this is often the key moment of the evening:

“But lingering still for some
is that gooseflesh moment
when the note at the tip of a scale
threatened to overwhelm the plot,
put a match to the corner of the libretto,
plant a rippling flag on a snow-blown summit
somewhere beyond the margins of music and art.”

The topics in this collection are extremely diverse in both themes and location, including a poem about both eating and writing a poem in a restaurant in Moscow, the exoticness of the island of Santorini, and a wonderful musing about goats in Umbria.

In that poem “Goats” the poet writes “to my imaginary brother” who would be a painter and not a poet. Thus he could paint what the poet can only describe with words:

“There’s five of them up on a grassy slope
above this spa in Umbria where a day pass
at 22 euros allows me to swim in the pool,
soak in the thermal baths,
or just lounge in a chaise under an umbrella,
all of which leaves me little time to paint goats.”

I found a delightful and ironic poem near the end, “Meditation” which was a special joy. At his home they had created a meditation room, however, it never really worked for him as a meditation room, so he begins to meditate on what the room would be like were they to turn it into an exercise room. However, while contemplating that change, he ends up writing a lovely poem about exercising in this new “exercising” room.

“Then I pictured the new room
with nothing in it but a folded white towel,
and a pair of numbered hand weights –
an image of such simplicity
that the sustaining of it
as I sat cross-legged under a tall window,
my palms open weightlessly on my bare knees,

made me wonder if I wasn’t actually,
meditating for a moment then and there
in our former meditation room, . . .”

This volume of Billy Collins’ poems is a joy to read and reread. The poems are very clever, often challenging, at other times touching, and at the same time demonstrating powerfully that poetry does not have to rhyme in order to be poetry and even exceptional poetry.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett