Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Tortoise Poet

I don't suppose there is anything in the arts more frivolous than poetry. Epic, abstract, couplets, rhyming, no rhyming, whatever form poetry takes it probably has a smaller audience share than opera or silent films. You really don't meet many poets in cafes these days, and if someone does introduce himself as one you would not be that out of line inquiring what the person's day job might be. Even the very best of them would only make a pauper's living with verse (though they might teach at a university of notable name recognition). I suppose that poetry's inability to engage any contemporary zeitgeist, especially in the United States has twofold reasons: 1) its disavowal of puritanical values: poetry is about thrilling in the small moments, introspecting everyday matters so that the banal might be beautiful-- its daintiness antithetical to a strong work ethic. And 2) Lacking kinetics, verve, vigor, muscle or obvious razzle-dazzle poetry struggles to transcend youth culture-- forever a niche for romantics and the old-fashioned. These days poets are never worshipped by the young, so there are few celebrities in today's world.

While not exactly a household name, anyone who dabbles in poetry has heard of Billy Collins. His ninth collection, Horoscopes for the Dead, reaffirms his reputation as poet's poet, that is, a maker of mountains out of molehills. Collins, a genuine savant in the arts of boketto (staring into space while seeming to think of nothing), writes variously about sitting on rocks in the sunshine, smelling the flowers, floating in kayaks, sinking into chairs, bicycling through cemeteries. He imagines his birth in one poem, death in another. He lingers over passing light and see colors where there is none.  In the titular poem, he reflects on the fortune of a dead friend, who sounds as if he were in something of a similar trade to Collins:

"No more goals for you, no more romance,
no more money or children, jobs or important tasks,
but then again, you were never thus encumbered."

My own favorite in the collection was the first one, titled "Grave" in which Collins visits his parents tombstones donning a new pair of shades. He asks them, "What do you think of my new glasses:"

"and what followed was a long silence
that descended on the rows of the dead
and on the fields and the woods beyond,

one of the one hundred kinds of silence
according to the Chinese belief,
each one distinct from the others,

but the differences being so faint
that only a few special monks
were able to tell them apart."

No poet fails to contemplate love and in the poem, "Genesis," over a "second bottle of wine" his loved one speculates maybe Eve came first and "Adam began as a rib." But Collins, clearly neither a biblical literalist nor a misogynist, wonders,

"what life would be like as one of your ribs--
to be with you all the time,
riding under your blouse and skin,
caged under the soft weight of your breasts."

But no poem in the collection suggests Collins' whimsy like the short piece "My Hero" does.

"Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,
the tortoise has stopped once again
by the roadside,
this time to stick out his neck
and nibble a bit of sweet grass,
unlike the previous time
when he was distracted
by a bee humming in the heart of a wildflower."

Here is Collins himself distracted by anything and everything, recognizing with childlike wonder the mystery of life, losing the race to bankers, politicians, and professional athletes no less. For all their riches and accolades, have they ever noticed the bees doing their business among the wildflowers? While the tortoise might be the best zoological metaphor for Collins' dilatory nature, he is anything but a slacker. For a laid-back poet-scribbling slouch he's done well for himself. Among the many publications for the poems in this collection are The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and many other notable rags. Moreover, he was United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, so his was the responsibility to write an elegy for the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. His poem for this tragedy, "The Names" is neither frivolous nor whimsical, but touches gently and melancholically on the tremendous loss:

"Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart."

Not bad for a daydreamer lying recumbent on the grass staring up at the sky, dreaming of the lumbering tortoise.

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