I love the poems of Billy Collins. Quiet and intimate, they are like sharing your thoughts with your spouse or lover when both of you are feeling happy and have nothing to do. You make small talk, exchange jokes, comment on little details. Collins’s poems are similar in nature.
The cover of his collection of poems, Aimless Love, says it all: a dog standing on a tricycle under an open sky. It is lovely, understated, whimsical. The dog is in the foreground but occupies only the lower part of the picture; the top shows fleecy clouds superimposed by the author’s name and the title of the book. But then you see the dog and it makes you smile like an amusing picture postcard from olden days. A dog on a tricycle! It’s so droll. Who would have thought of it?
Aimless Love is like that. The title poem expresses love for a dead mouse and a bar of soap among other things. It sounds funny, but when you read the poem, you want to feel the same way, too, share the author’s tranquillity and happiness.
You can read the poem here and see the poet, too, reading the poem. Scroll down if you want to see him right now.
The poet writes not just about himself. The book ends with The Names, the poem Collins wrote about those who died – nearly 3,000 in all — when the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed, hit by two planes hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists, on September 11, 2001. You will find The Names in my earlier post, 9/11 in poems and stories.
This poem is very different – the first poem in Aimless Love. Appropriately, the collection begins with a poem addressed to the reader.
By Billy Collins
Looker, gazer, skimmer, skipper,
thumb-licking page turner, peruser,
you getting your print-fix for the day,
pencil chewer, note taker, marginalist
with your checks and X’s
first-timer or revisiter,
browser, speedster, English major,
flight-ready girl, melancholy boy,
invisible companion, thief, blind date, perfect stranger –
That is me rushing to the window
to see if it’s you passing under the shade trees
with a baby carriage or a dog on a leash,
me picking up the phone
to imagine your unimaginable number,
me standing by a map of the world
wondering where you are –
alone on a bench in a train station
or falling asleep, the book sliding to the floor.
The next poem is an amusing take on poets and poetry.
By Billy Collins
Call it a field where the animals
who were forgotten by the Ark
come to graze under the evening clouds.
Or a cistern where the rain that fell
before history trickles over a concrete lip.
However you see it,
this is no place to set up
the three-legged easel of realism
Or make a reader climb
over the many fences of a plot.
Let the portly novelist
with his noisy typewriter
describe the city where Francine was born,
how Albert read the paper on the train,
how curtains were blowing in the bedroom.
Let the playwright with her torn cardigan
and a dog curled on the rug
move the characters
from the wings to the stage
to face the many-eyed darkness of the house.
Poetry is no place for that.
We have enough to do
complaining about the price of tobacco,
Passing the dripping ladle,
and singing songs to a bird in a cage.
We are busy doing nothing —
and all we need for that is an afternoon,
a rowboat under a blue sky,
and maybe a man fishing from a stone bridge,
or, better still, nobody on that bridge at all.
You should also read another poem by Collins, The Trouble with Poetry.
Finally, here is Aimless Love, the author reading the poem followed by the poem itself.
This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.
In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.
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, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.
No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then
for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.
But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.
After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,
so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.
(See also Selected Poems)