Ballistics: Poems Hardcover – Sep 9 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
The latest from former U.S. laureate Collins (The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems) again shows the deft, often self-mocking touch that has made him one of America's bestselling poets: while this volume hardly breaks new ground, it should fly off the shelves. To his jokes about, and against, his own poetizing, Collins now adds two new emphases: on life in France, where (to judge by the poems) he has spent some time and (more pervasively) a preoccupation with the end of life. Collins is never carefree, but he is, as always, accessible and high-spirited, making light even when telling himself that nothing lasts: Vermont, Early November finds the poet in his kitchen, wringing his signature charm from the eternal carpe diem theme, determined to seize firmly/ the second Wednesday of every month. For Collins, such are his stock in trade, humorous and serious at once. His tongue-in-cheek assault on the gloom and doubt in our poetry is his only remedy for the loneliness that (even for him) shadows all poems: this is a poem, not a novel, he laments, and the only characters here are you and I,/ alone in an imaginary room/ which will disappear after a few more lines. (Sept.)
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“Collins reveals the unexpected within the ordinary. He peels back the surface of the humdrum to make the moment new.”
–The Christian Science Monitor
“Billy Collins demonstrates why he is one of our best poets, with his appealing trademark style: a self-deprecating charm, playful wit and unexpected imaginative leaps.”
–San Antonio Express-News
“By careful observation, Collins spins comic gold from the dross of quotidian suburban life. . . . Chipping away at the surface, he surprises you by scraping to the wood underneath, to some deeper truth.”
“A poet of plentitude, irony, and Augustan grace.”
–The New Yorker
“It is difficult not to be charmed by Collins, and that in itself is a remarkable literary accomplishment.”
–The New York Review of Books
“Clever, subtle and engaging.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Mr. Collins writes with charm and humor about the most ordinary of subjects. "This Little Piggy Went to the Market" is all about playing with children. Animals float in bathtubs in "Bathtub Families." And in the poem "Ballistics" for which this volume is named, the poet imagines that in the high-speed photograph of a bullet piercing a book, that the "executed book/was a recent collection of poems written by someone of whom I was not fond."
In addition to these poems that will make you smile, often written with tongue in cheek, many of Mr. Collins' poems would fit his description of poetry as giving form to misery while others fall somewhere in between these two extremes. I would nominate the thoughtful "An Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant" as one of those where Collins is glad that he resisted the temptation as a young poet to write about a lonely old man eating in a restaurant. Now he finds the food delicious, the light "which falls through the big windows this time of day italicizing everything it touches --" and his enjoyment of reading a "book --Jose Saramago's BLINDNESS as it turns out --" and the smiling waitress (the poet says he learned the proper use of the dash from Emily Dickinson).
Mr. Collins can say volumes in few carefully chosen words as in the poem entitled "Divorce."
Once, two spoons in a bed,
now tined forks
across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.
Then there is the darker poem "A Dog on His Master" where the dog hopes that his master understands that he in all probability will outlive his dog.
Finally my favorite poem of so very many is "On the Death of a Next-door Neighbor" which begins with the following lines:
So much younger and with a tall, young son
in the house above ours on a hill,
it seemed that death had blundered once again.
Was it poor directions, the blurring rain,
or the too-small numbers on the mailbox
that sent his dark car up the wrong winding driveway?
Surely, it was me he was looking for --
If these lines do not put chills on your spine, you have to be like the next-door neighbor. A wondrously beautiful poem.
The change came I would say when I began to dare to be clear, because I think clarity is the real risk in poetry because you are exposed. You're out in the open field. You're actually saying things that are comprehensible, and it's easy to criticize something you understand."
OK...I confess: I like his poetry because it is so understandable. A professor of English I once had looked down on poets who were easy to understand and dismissed them as being either lazy or lacking in talent or intellectual light-weights or all three. He'd sometimes say things about a poem written by a poet he didn't particularly care for as being "mellifluous and written with pastels." I'm sure, if he's still teaching, he's saying that to "unsophisticated" undergrads (just like I was back then) about the poetry of Billy Collins. Fortunately, I've grown up and am still unsophisticated enough to enjoy poetry that I can understand and even chuckle at knowing the poet is saying something funny on purpose. Such is the poetry of Billy Collins, for me at least.
I do own most of his poetry books and enjoy many of his poems. The reason I gave BALLISTICS only 4 stars instead of 5 is because I don't think the poems contained within are as good as those in previous books. I do like "Addendum" (p.70), especially the first stanza: "What I forgot to tell you in that last poem/ if you were paying attention at all/ was that I really did love her at the time." It gets my attention right off and then the poem goes on to a remembrance of a love long since over, but still pleasant to recall. On the other side of the poetic coin is a very short poem called "Divorce" (p.98) that is only 18 words (4 lines) total and seems silly to me: "Once, two spoons in bed,/ now tined forks/ across a granite table/ and the knives they have hired." It's got the feeling of something dashed off while sipping coffee at the breakfast table. Here, I think, the poet tries too hard to be cute.
My favorite book of Collins' poems is THE ART OF DROWNING. I like the poem "Philosophy" (pp.69-70) in particular. "I used to sit in the cafe of existentialism,/ lost in a blue cloud of cigarette smoke,/ contemplating the suicide a tiny Frenchman/ might commit by leaping from the rim of my brandy glass." He goes on to write about other philosophers and schools of philosophical thought with tongue firmly imbedded in cheek. There are poems in that volume dealing with such earthbound topics as jazz, food, cigarettes, poetry workshops, reading in a hammock...and every one is comprehensible.
My opinions aside, I do recommend BALLISTICS to Billy Collins fans and to anyone who mistakenly thinks poetry is supposed to be stuffy and just for eggheads or pompous college profs. To those sophisticates out there, I say, open this small 110 page volume of verse and enjoy!
This is charming , of course, and one admires the grace with which Collins writes his lines--a better balanced set of free verse I've never seen, really--but for all the pleasure he provides for the painless duration of his poems and the usually flawless what-the-!@@1 surprises he offers up for the final stanza, a formulaic tedium sets in. Disguised as the essence might is, there are trace elements of journalistic efficiency here ; one notes the style, the arranging of details, how the poems start with an announcement of the poet beginning his day futzing around the house, walking into rooms, staring out the window, and then the intruding thought that distracts and manages to make the banal yet telling details of his home life and his community take on a more somber (or alternately, a giddier ) tone, a final, spare description of an item that eludes the metaphorical devices he's deployed, and then the twist, the coda, the pay off that makes you go ahhhh
as though his poems were nothing more than a fast swig from a cold soda. There is so little range to Collins' work that one thinks of a world stuck in one of those Mobius Strips MC Escher was wont to draw compulsively.
Collins writes poems about poetry, especially about the poet in the act of seeing something of the world as if for the first time, certainly as though a veneer had been stripped away and there was Truth Laid Bare, just the essentials of things and activities in themselves with their invisible ironies and vague meloncholies. So much of this is larded with self mystification that Collins, a wise cracker at heart, cannot help but but mock the poet as as lait priest; he gives you the nod and then the wink, and repeats until you get it.
August In Paris
I have stopped here on the rue des écoles
just off the boulevard St-Germain
to look over the shoulder of a man
in a flannel shirt and a straw hat
who has set up an easel and a canvas chair
on the sidewalk in order to paint from a droll angle
a side-view of the Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
But where are you, reader,
who have not paused in your walk
to look over my shoulder
to see what I am jotting in this notebook?
Alone in this city,
I sometimes wonder what you look like,
if you are wearing a flannel shirt
or a wraparound blue skirt held together by a pin.
But every time I turn around
you have fled through a crease in the air
to a quiet room where the shutters are closed
against the heat of the afternoon,
where there is only the sound of your breathing
and every so often, the turning of a page.
There is an efficiency of scene setting, tone and delivery of punchline that makes this a close cousin to prose, and there at times that one might mistake Collins, poet, for Dave Barry, humorist. He writes about being in Paris, at the cafe, in such an engaging way that it is possible for the untraveled among his readers to think what he does, or at least what he writes about, is the most natural thing in the world. One would nevermind that Collins scarcely writes about jobs he has had, rarely quotes those he has spoken with, or suspends or restrains the sense of his poised (but proclaiming) persona and concentrates on treating a set of ideas without his usual filter. He's mastered his tools and he cannot seem to go beyond the effects he's learned to create so flawlessly. Their dependability, though, is what makes them unmemorable once their page satisfactions have been had. I nod my head, I turn the page, I forget what I've just read.
It's like driving through an old neighborhood a few too many times; the ambivalence and nostalgic rushes no longer come after familiar buildings are viewed a hundred times too often. With the facile use of the names and pet phrases of Chinese poets, mentions of jazz greats, the sustained gazing upon still objects in and of themselves (doing nothing), the revitalization and one-dimensional ironizing of cliche, we arrive at a poet who has the mark of The Professional, "professional" in the same sense that a newspaper columnist is , a writer who is constantly preparing for the next piece, the race against a set deadline, the marshaling of all notes and ideas in the rush toward a finished set of statements. I remember I used to marvel at how elegant and spontaneously brilliant George Will seemed to be when his columns appeared two or three times a week, but after a while of reading him I recognized the formula he used to sustain his writerly flow. Collins, although not as prolific as Will is required to be, still produces an occasionally splendid poetry that does not challenge the mechanics required to write it at the same level of consistency; monotony is the result.
These poems are short, free verse compositions, none longer than about two pages. Each is highly readable, full of wit and brilliant conceits, paradoxes, and images. I would say that idea plays the central role in Collins's poetry, with musical devices and word play lacking. There is no poem in this collection that I would easily memorize. This seems to be a disease of modern poetry in general. Nevertheless, Collins plays to his strengths, with almost every poem conveying something of value to the reader, with some beautiful image or concept lurking among the stanzas.
One particular feature of this poetry that I liked is the amazing diversity of subject matter. Most poetry frankly hinges around a handful of narrow themes, and oftentimes seems written in imitation of earlier poetry. Collins seems to be actively striving to break this mold, as he alludes in poems such as "Other Peoples Poems." Still, the poet shows a reverence for tradition in that many of the poems are modern takes on classical forms, such as Aubade and Carpe Diem, two timeless poetic themes. And Collins seems to commerce with other modern poets, for example, "The Day Lassie Died" must be a humorous play, or parody, on "The Day Lady Died". In general, there is a mild humor present, in the style of a low key Ogden Nash. Overall, a worthy book to carry with you and dip into from time to time.
The word "ballistics" is the study of the dynamics of projectiles, which we might more associate with Miami CSI or Law and Order, but Collins associates it with something else - books. From the title poem:
"When I came across the high-speed photograph
Of a bullet that had just pierced a book -
The pages exploding with the velocity -
I forgot all about the marvels of photography
And began to wonder which book
The photographer had selected for the shot..."
He goes on to speculate which book it might have been - one by Raymond Chandler, "where an extra bullet would hardly be noticed," or a work of medieval literature, or a biography of Joan of Arc. Drifting off to sleep, he realizes that the "executed book" was a collection of poems written by someone he doesn't like.
That's vintage Collins: a slightly off-center curiosity; a playfulness that often ends in seriousness; and a writing style that is immediately accessible.
He considers everyday things, like birds, and everyday feelings and experiences, like tension, despair, separation and aging. Here's "A Dog on His Master:"
As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.
Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.
And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.
Humorous, straightforward, simple - yet with a depth below the simplicity. That's Billy Collins, and that's "Ballistics."